Don’t freak out, bagel lovers. 2016 has given rise to the rainbow bagel, but it is not, I repeat, not the year the bagel died. People have been lamenting the decline of the bagel long before the tie-dyed hemorrhoid pillow was even a glimmer in your iPhone. True, there are 5x more posts on Instagram for #rainbowbagel than #bagelsandlox, and that ain't right. (Neither is funfetti shmear.) But before you start writing a eulogy, allow me to make the case that these hybrid food–era gimmicks indicate a strong pulse for the boiled-and-baked good. This is just a natural part of its life cycle. Have a little perspective.
You don’t have to dig deep to unearth a rich history of New Yorkers complaining about the state of the bagel. It’s a recurring cultural meme. In New York Magazine’s 1985 Best of New York issue, a participant in a bagel taste-test remarked that one contender was “not like bagels used to taste.” In a 2003 survey of bagels for The New York Times, Ed Levine called blueberry bagels an epithet I had to look up in the dictionary to understand (“Midwestern depredations”). When you’re tinkering with a beloved food, backlash is inevitable.
But what does a “classic” bagel even mean? It’s quite possible that Ashkenazi Jewish purists were crying bagel heresy back in the 1930s, when, according to the food historian Gil Marks, New Yorkers first started to top their bagels with cream cheese and lox. “Neither lox nor cream cheese had ever touched a bagel in Europe,” Marks wrote in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. In fact, this innovation was a form of assimilation—what we now think of as the quintessential bagel sandwich, wrote Marks, was the Jews’ answer to the very unkosher eggs benedict, which was the "it" Sunday brunch dish at the time.
“The rainbow thing? It’s all part of a continuum. The bagel isn’t in decline. It’s just finding new ways to be relevant.”
It is in this spirit of adaptation that I see even the most vile viral bagel trends. They’re simply a response to the priorities of eaters today, who line up to buy outrageous foods so they can snap photos of them to share with their virtual friends. The rainbow bagel with funfetti shmear, the “oreo overload” bagel, which looks like a bagel binging cookies—do I want to eat them? No. Do they herald the downfall of the bagel itself? Emphatically, no.
If anyone should be blamed for the decline of the bagel, it would be Daniel Thompson, an innovator who created the first automated bagel machine in 1961 and who passed away last year at the age of 94. In his New York Times obituary, the writer Margalit Fox reported that his creation, which could churn out 400 bagels an hour, outpaced a skilled baker nearly four-fold. New York was once home to a powerful bagel union (the International Beigel Bakers Union—look it up), which all but evaporated when the bagel machine came to town.
Something important was lost, but something else was gained. The bagel machine was key in transforming an immigrant food into an American one. Lenders was among the first to lease a machine from Thompson, and they still produce hundreds of millions of bagels each year. They may not be the bagels we want to eat, but there’s something to be said for the role that food plays in the acceptance and integration of immigrant culture into a new home.
The rainbow thing? It’s all part of a continuum. The bagel isn’t in decline. It’s just finding new ways to be relevant. This is a food that had been in Europe for centuries, crossed the pond, became a mainstream American staple, and is now adapting to the Instagram age. You don’t survive by staying the same while the world around you is changing. So it goes for the bagel. And we’ll survive this phase of bagel expression. Our people have been through worse.