Friday, December 14, 2007

1999: bagel becomes mainstream. You can even get it with (GASP) ham or sausage

On April 23, 1999, after months of testing, McDonald's officially unveiled three new bagel breakfast sandwiches in 6,000 stores across the Midwest and Northeast.

Ana Madan-Russo, president of McDonald's New York Tri-State Owners and Operators association, said franchise owners are excited about selling bagel sandwiches in New York City, ''the bagel capital of the world.''

Bagel maven Eli Zabar dismissed the McDonalds bagel as “Wonder bread in a circle. A New York bagel fights with you. It's tough on the outside, and chewy on the inside, and you struggle with it." He noted the telltale signs, "the wimpy crust and the soft inside that pulls apart without a fight," while dissecting a McDonald's steak, egg and cheese bagel in Eli's, his market on the Upper East Side. A true bagel, he asserted, must be boiled, then baked to achieve authenticity. "This one," he said, "has been steamed, not boiled."

Elena Ramos, marketing director for McDonald's in New York, dismissed as irrelevant whether McDonald's bagels are steamed or boiled, or treated with any special preservatives. "I'm not sure if the customers buying them up get into all that," she said. In addition to the steak bagel, McDonald's has offered a Spanish omelet bagel, one with ham, egg and cheese, and one with sausage, egg and cheese. You can even get them in England.

Ed Levine, author of New York Eats (More), bemoaned the McDonald's bagel invasion as "a scary proposition."

"It seems to be that this is the logical extension of the commoditization of bagels," he said. "A bagel used to have character. Now anything that's vaguely round, that's puffed up with a hole in it, can be called a bagel. I knew this was coming."

He worries that in the age of fast food chains and relentless mass marketing, McDonald's $2.49 bagel sandwiches will ever so gradually diminish a durable New York icon. "I'm nostalgic, but many people will taste McDonald bagels and think they're fine," he says. "They've made the bagel into a neutral food. They used to be made with malt and have a crust. Now even many New Yorkers don't want their bagels with a crust."

A skeptic might ask whether the Big Apple has any proprietary rights to the bagel. New York, after all, didn't invent the bagel. According to one popular legend, that honor dates to 1683, when some Viennese bakers cooked up a few in tribute to Jan Sobieski, the King of Poland. Bagels made their way to New York in the early part of this century with Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

Now the bagel is everywhere. In Canada, Toronto holds a weekly Bagel Bash. Mattoon, IL., sponsors Bagelfest! In Boston, there's a New Year's Eve Bagel-Off.

Some of New York's most established bagel makers have done their share to spread bagels to the masses. H & H Bagels on Broadway at 80th Street supplied bagels to Dunkin' Donuts before they started baking their own McDonalds-style mushy bagels. (info from The New York Times)

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