I ain't sorry
Bagels, the scriptwriter and real person Marilyn Bagel once said, are the “teddy bears of food.” They’re “a smiling food product, a happy product,” she said, “a food with personality.” If that’s the case, the New York bagel is undoubtedly a grizzly—the baddest, boldest, and, yes, biggest of the bunch. Indeed, for decades that very quality, its bigness—along with its superior taste and consistency—has made the New York bagel king. The city’s earliest bagels were much more modest. In the early 1900s, Bagel Bakers Local 338, a union of bagel craftsmen formed in Manhattan, made bagels that weighed three ounces. But with the introduction of industrial bagel-making machines in the early 1960s, the union lost its grip on the market and its baking standards.
Times have changed. In 1994, the New York Times enlisted Certified Analytical Group Inc. to weigh bagels across the city, and many were at least double the size of the union bagels of yesteryear. Those at Bagel on the Square were 7 ounces. At Pick a Bagel, they were 6.7 ounces. At Dean & Deluca, they were 6.4 ounces. Today, the bagels at Ess-a-Bagel are 6.5 ounces, approximately the same weight they were when the shop opened in 1976, COO Melanie Frost told me. The shop’s mini bagels weigh 2.5 ounces, nearly as much as some full-sized bagels elsewhere. New York bagels have, of course, always been rather zaftig compared to other bagels. But today, they are in an entirely different league.
What happened? According to the New York Times' Ed Levine, bagels at national chains like Bagel Nosh, Einstein Brothers, and Bruegger’s became bigger as part of the super-sizing trend of the 1980s. They also grew, Levine wrote, to accommodate more fillings as the businesses evolved from breakfast and coffee spots to “full-fledged sandwich-making restaurants.” In New York, independent bagel bakers followed their lead.
There has been no end to the handwringing over bagel dimensions ever since.
Levine, for one, claimed a bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make “a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh.” All else, he claimed, is not a bagel. NYU professor of performance studies and bagel historian Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, meanwhile, told me big bagels inherently mess up the golden ratio of dough to crust.
“You end up with bread,” she said.
Even Jonathan Lethem, one of the city’s best authors, jumped on the dogpile in an interview with Extra Crispy last month, calling New York bagels “fatally enormous” and suggesting that he had actually started taking an interest in the relatively anemic Montreal bagel.
To all this I say… enough! It’s time for this kind of talk to end. New York bagels are getting bigger, and we need to accept that. In fact, we need to celebrate it.
Now, I want to be clear here. By no means am I suggesting that New York bagel bakers should get away with making some kind of pillowy, airy monstrosity. When bagels get bigger they must retain their chewiness and their crunchiness. The New York Post’s Chris Erikson is one of many who has drawn what I consider to be an unfair dichotomy between smaller bagels, which he calls “chewy and toothsome, with a burnished, blistered crust and the flavor of high-quality, high-gluten flour” and bigger bagels, which he calls “an oversized mass of sweetened dough, with a pale exterior soft as a feather pillow.”
Just as a small bagel is not automatically “chewy and toothsome”—there are, unfortunately, all too many horrifying examples of soft, terrible bagels—a big bagel is not inherently an airy one. There are, of course, exceptional specimens of both models. Ess-a-Bagel bagels are, even by Levine’s own admission, “excellent.”
So, if the gripe is simply a matter of size and not taste, saying your bagel is too big is like saying your diamond is too shiny. It’s like saying your mansion has too many rooms. It’s like saying your Rolex is too heavy. If you can’t finish an entire big bagel in one sitting, I have no sympathy for you. Pack that bad boy up and eat it later. Or share it with a loved one. New York is the city that dares to dream big. So why should we suddenly stop doing so when it comes to our culinary pride and joy? Our bagels should be as large as our ambitions. They should be as large as our hearts.
A bagel is a cheap meal but, really, it’s a luxurious food. You don’t eat a bagel to satisfy any essential nutritional requirement. You don’t eat a bagel to keep off the pounds, which is why, for the love of all things holy, you shouldn’t scoop it out. You don’t eat a bagel because you need to; you it because you want to. You eat a bagel, in other words, to feel good. So why not embrace the decadence and get a robust, full-figured plumper?
There is truly nothing worse than a too-small bagel. Bagels are not supposed to be modest, or petite, or adorable. Mini bagels can go to hell. We are not trick or treating here. I don’t want the equivalent of a bite-size candy bar. I want a tax-paying, grown-ass adult bagel that has responsibilities, kids, and a mortgage. At the end of my bagel, I don’t want to have the feeling of craving more bagel. I want only to crave a nap, or possibly a salad to balance out all the carbs.
What would a New York bagel be if it weren’t so big? It would be lost. It would be sad. It would be—and I really don’t know how else to put this—Québécois. While, indeed, I love and respect our neighbors to the north—especially now that their leader is a benevolent Lands’ End model—the fact is, when it comes to bagels, New Yorkers are not Canadians. In this sense, we are truly American. That means that our bagels must be big, loud, and annoying. And they shouldn't be sorry about it.