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The Hole Truth 

The demise of the bona fide bagel

Consider the bagel. At one time, a bagel was a delightful treat consisting of hand-rolled dough that had been boiled, then baked until the crust had a glossy sheen. These bygone bagels were modestly apportioned, not the monster trucks -- the Winnebagels -- you see plying America's culinary roadways today. They were not offered in the same flavor configurations as muffins (oat bran, blueberry, apple-honey, even chocolate chip, for crying out loud). The noble, pristine bagel had a humble, monk-like approach that aspired to little, yet achieved so much.

And they were made in a bagel store by trained bagel professionals. But today, of course, you can get a "fresh" bagel almost anywhere: the global donut chain, the multi-national pizzeria, the corner gas station. If you've got the space for one of these new-fangled "steam" ovens between the undulating hot dog machine and the cans of Mobil 1, you're a bagel store.

These are trying times for lovers of real bagels. And it's not going to get better anytime soon. The two primary forces that are driving America to culinary ruin -- homogenized corporate control and the Atkins diet -- are about to rain yet another undeserved indignity down on the poor, beleaguered bagel: the low-carb bagel.

Take the New World Restaurant Group, for example. This company, which owns the Einstein Bros. and Noah's New York Bagel chains, has rolled out a new "9 Grain Bagel" with a mere 18 grams of carbohydrates compared to the 75 grams in the chain's regular bagel. It's all part of New World's effort to remain, according to a company statement, a leader "in the quick casual sandwich industry" (and you thought all those jobs had been outsourced to India).

Now, on the face of this, of course, there's nothing wrong with making a bagel healthier (although one could argue that if bagels merely returned to their original, pre-steroid size, the carbs could be cut without having to invent a bogus bagel).

We all know how quickly the Atkins low-carb diet has infiltrated our consciousness. According to a survey by Opinion Dynamics, 24 million Americans are on a low-carb diet and nearly 45 million more are about to go on it. With numbers like that, the implications are enormous, especially for restaurants.

"The popularity of the low-carb diet has led to substantial shifts in the consumption of a wide variety of foods," said Lawrence Shiman of Opinion Dynamics. "Our research shows this is truly a revolution, not a passing fad, and will dramatically impact not only eating habits but also how the food service industry approaches the nation's 220 million adult consumers. It's clear that those who ignore or downplay the low-carb revolution do so at their own peril." (Cue thunder-and-lightning effect.)

I'm quoting Shiman not merely to bore you to death, but because I like to quote "experts" who make absurd, broad-sweeping generalizations that will sound absolutely ridiculous in 50 years. At least Shiman did accurately explain the motivation behind New World's de-carbification of its regular bagel. But I was still dubious. How dare New World tinker with a bagel of such stunning mediocrity, a bland mound of mushy baked dough that resembles a bagel as much as I resemble John Malkovich. Clearly, it was time for a fact-finding mission.

Before I could even be offended by the New World bagel, I was offended by the lackluster service. As so often happens at chain stores, the staff acted as if my request for a few bagels was tantamount to asking them to run a marathon with leg weights. They begrudgingly suspended their conversations and eventually got around to putting six bagels in a bag. I had to get my own tub of cream cheese.

Once back in the friendly confines of a New York City street, I took the still-fresh bagels to the office of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a true connoisseur of the great New York bagel. You know this is a man who appreciates the finer things in life: not only does he have a passion for food (and the gut to prove it), but the cross-trainer exercise machine in his office serves as a coat rack.

First, he tried the regular Einstein Bros. bagel. "It's basically fresh bread with a hole in it," he said. "The crust is non-existent. It's airy. If you're hungry, it will work. But it's the ultimate McDonald's-style bagel for the McDonald's culture."

Then, he took a bite of the Low-Carb Bagel: "If you're starving this will work," he said. "It's absolutely disgusting. The first bite isn't half bad, but the more you chew, the more it tastes like soggy paper. Taste it. Soggy paper."

Just then, Markowitz's secretary -- a native of Kansas -- walked in, took a bite of both bagels, and pronounced them "delicious." Such heresy is grounds for immediate firing in an office like Markowitz's, but she must be a good secretary.

"There's a culture war going on in this country and the forces of mass homogenization and white bread modernity are winning," he concluded. "If diet is your concern, you'd be better off finding a really good New York bagel and eating half of it."

Eating half of something? What is he, un-American?

This article originally appeared in Newsweek.

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