I used to snag a bagel every morning on my way to my first Manhattan employment when I was a college graduate. It was the early 2000s, shortly before the “carbs are bad” Atkins era destroyed the nation. Like Michael Cera in the film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I may have exclaimed “Bread makes you fat?!” upon discovering the truth. Despite the fact that all those bagels made me obese, they also made me an expert. I’m aware that every New Yorker, and certainly every New York Jew, professes to be an expert on bagels, and I assume that’s true.
This was not always the case for me, however. My parents relocated our family from New York City to the Midwest when I was a toddler. The need for an onion bagel with schmear may have been ingrained in my Semitic DNA, but in the 1980s and 1990s, bagel shops were severely deficient in my Oklahoma City neighborhood. My Long Island-raised father would frequently stock the freezer with Lender’s, perhaps lamenting the scarcity himself. When we returned to his birthplace, I realized what I had been missing. Children have abominable taste buds. There, in the bagel capital of Great Neck, my grandparents would set out exquisite platters of local bagels and lox on Saturday mornings. The lender was eternally a derogatory word for me.
1. White Rose
Surely, I couldn’t purchase cold bagels at my local supermarket. If an acquaintance had discovered me with a new Fleshlight, it would have been more humiliating than being caught leaving a pornographic store with one. Fortunately, the cashier at Key Foods was a true professional, although I thought I saw a regretful glimpse of the bag boy as she scanned the barcode on this pitiful item. They measure only three inches in diameter. And despite the packaging’s claim that they are pre-sliced, it was like attempting to separate two hockey pucks that had been superglued together. It tasted like bulk-purchased Wonder Bread toast from a diner, that doughy, floury mush that adheres to your teeth. After a single nibble, I rolled it up like Silly Putty and threw it away.
2. Joan’s GF Great Bakes
My wife mistakenly believed this to be a bag of ice cream sandwiches. As they were flat and cylindrical like a Chipwich and laden with black seasonings that could easily be misconstrued for chocolate chips, I completely understood. On the extremely expensive container is a caricature of “Joan” with the inscription “Handmade with love and care for my grandchildren” in a speech bubble. Wheat-, gluten-, preservative-, cholesterol-, and trans-fat-free, Joan uses white rice flour, tapioca starch, and xanthan gum instead. She also recommends baking these bagels for 20 to 22 minutes, followed by ten minutes of cooling time. However, the bagels emerged from the oven with an uncooked appearance on the bottom.
3. Lender’s New York Style
According to the packaging, Lender’s New York Style is 50 percent larger than Lender’s Original Recipe and promises “BIGGER bagel satisfaction!” It measures approximately four inches in diameter. The word chutzpah is used on the packaging, but lenders assume you’re a middle-class American huckleberry who doesn’t know what it means and provides a definition in parentheses. Regardless, it required a great deal of audacity to introduce these mediocre bagels to the market and become the only ubiquitous name in the frozen bagel industry.
4. Pepperidge Farm (tie)
The bagel industry is, for some reason, infatuated with cinnamon raisins. Meanwhile, the majority of New Yorkers disregard the flavor entirely. (However, New Yorkers are not opposed to saccharine bagels, particularly the instagramable Rainbow Bagel with powdered cream cheese.) Pepperidge Farm is best known for its faux-European cookies, so it was predicted that the dessert-like cinnamon raisin would be the flavor it would promote the most.
5. Sara Lee (tie)
Sara Lee, a company more well-known for delicacies such as pound cakes and pies, would likely also target grocery shoppers who enjoy cinnamon raisin bagels. (They also offer a carrot cake bagel, if you can believe it.) According to their own slogan, “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee,” they did not conduct a survey with me. The packaging claims “freshly baked,” and this bagel was indeed very bready, similar to a Kaiser roll. It also had a chemical flavor, as if it had been cooked in an oven that had been doused with cleanser and then left uncleaned. In 2013, Sara Lee bagels containing metal fragments were recalled due to manufacturing defects.
6. Just Bagels
According to the packaging, this was a “real New York water bagel” that was “made in ‘Da Bronx.” However, Just was a significant letdown. The bagels were not pre-sliced, which is nearly required for frozen bagels and were therefore difficult to divide in half. I don’t know what’s going on at the Boogie Down, but these were not much better than White Rose or Lender’s, with an inexpensive white breadiness on the inside. The exterior was only marginally improved with a faint chew, like the pizza crust you salvage from the delivery box when you order too little pizza and are still ravenous.
The only non-frozen bagel in my sampling, it was also the largest, measuring approximately five inches in diameter and resembling the snout of an inebriated. The bagel, fresh from the container, tasted like a hamburger bun with a hole in it. An acceptable, store-bought bun for a hamburger, but still. Toasted, those signature Thomas’ English muffin-like crevices and cavities appeared, and the bagel reduced by approximately 20% in total area. Along with foil-squared butter pats and plastic receptacles of grape jelly, it is the type of food you would expect to find at the complimentary continental breakfast buffet of a budget hotel.
8. Alvarado St. Bakery
At least this solar-powered patisserie is attempting to provide a product that your neighborhood bagel shop could never produce. The cereals in these bagels are “sprouted” by marinating for several days in filtered water. Supposedly, this makes these hand-rolled products more nutritious. Regardless of its nutritional value, the bagel was hideous, with an unearthly white hue and a gelatinous texture. The bread remained translucent white even after being removed from the toaster, the interior of the bagel having browned more than the exterior. It tasted like the counterfeit wheat bread that Subway serves, the aroma of which can be detected from several city blocks away. And just as I was about to exclaim that perhaps Alvarado St. was a mirage, I was informed otherwise.
9. Udi’s Gluten Free
This bagel resembled a cinnamon cruller; it was wrinkly and spirally as if made from French choux pastry. If only… Instead, sunflower seeds, cranberries, flax seeds, millet seeds, quinoa flour, and pumpkin seeds were utilized. It was an absolute joy slicing this bagel; not a single particle fell. It emerged from the toaster with an astonishing paucity of flavor considering the number of ingredients. Each nibble was a hunt for trail mix concealed within the bagel. (Oh, there’s a cranberry! A nut! Hey, was that avian food?) I was about to place Udi’s gluten-free bullsh*t near the bottom of this list, but adding cream cheese to the bagel significantly enhanced its flavor.
10. Utopia Bagels of New York
This was the most attractive baguette I tried. It appeared to be an authentic New York dish that you inadvertently froze overnight. Obviously, this is due to the fact that it originates from a brick-and-mortar bagel shop in Queens (its refrigerated variant is only available through Fresh Direct). Whether frozen or not, this was the heaviest cargo I’ve ever encountered. Which was fortunate, as I had to hold, manipulate, rotate, and cajole the bagel for so long in order to divide it that, by the time I had halved it, I had everything left hand and my bagel lacked approximately fifty percent of its original seasonings.
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