There was a small stir last week in New York City when Consumer Reports came out with their bagel rankings. Among frozen and chain bagels, several brands were rated as “very good,” including Costco and Dunkin’ Donuts. New Yorkers found this simply hilarious, and the New York Post, always up for some scorn-stirring, went to some beloved bagel shops and invited customers to give them sardonic sound bites.
It got me thinking about Dave Chappelle.
Wait, who? What does Dave Chapelle have to do with bagels? Nothing. But I always think of Chappelle’s “white people and cops” routine from his Killing ‘Em Softly HBO special. The comedian explains to his audience why blacks are scared of the police. But he doesn’t blame whites for not understanding: “How could you know, though?” he asks. “How could anyone else know?” His point was that once you’ve had an experience, your standards are different. Racial profiling is a far more serious issue that general food snobbery. But it’s the same dynamic, and worth exploring for that reason. This experience gap creates major taste differentials, which in turn create big cultural rifts.
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I’ve been very lucky – I’ve gotten the chance to have great mozzarella, great fried chicken, and, yes, great bagels. With those foods, I know the difference between great and just okay. I’ve never had a really great cognac, though, or driven a first-rate sports car. Therefore, my idea of these things is necessarily calibrated by Rémy Martin and late-model Nissan Altimas. Likewise, the tasters at Consumer Reports noted, “Although a bagel from a shop near our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., set the bar high, a few big brands came close.”
That’s hard to believe, but I’m happy that Consumer Reports is willing to say so, the same way that I’m happy when food writers wrongly (in my opinion) praise filet mignon or Five Guys hamburgers. This is not a commendable trait of mine, but I still perceive criticism as a zero sum game, in which praise for one thing is impotent without a corresponding put-down of its rivals. In this, I’m like too many foodies, investing myself emotionally in what I eat and attempting — idiotically — to define myself by what I know and what you don’t. New Yorkers have their bagels, and Southerners have their barbecue. Californians love to lord the quality of their produce over the rest of us, because apparently what we get in a greenmarket wouldn’t make the cut at one of their Safeways.
I’m willing to admit that Dunkin Donuts’ bagels aren’t terrible. They aren’t stale or stiff or as insipid as, say, the ones found at Indiana convenience stores. But that doesn’t make them good. That’s why the Consumer Reports piece was such a godsend; it makes New Yorkers, who as a whole really don’t know that much about bagels any more, feel superior. I’m reminded of the snobbish character in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections who was appalled that so many of his tastes had become mainstream. “Gary wished that all further migration [could] be banned and all Midwesterners encouraged to revert to eating pasty foods and wearing dowdy clothes and playing board games, in order that a strategic national reserve of cluelessness might be maintained, a wilderness of taste which would enable people of privilege, like himself, to feel extremely civilized in perpetuity.” I like knowing that Midwesterners can wear what I wear and use the same apps on their iPhones, but they can’t get a bagel in their hometown as good as the ones in mine.
This is an ugly attitude, but to say that it doesn’t exist in our foodways, especially in that weird public space that has been created around them, thanks to the Food Network and the Internet, would be dishonest. A Dunkin’ Donuts bagel isn’t good or bad, strictly speaking: its absolute value, apart from how we perceive it, is as vacant as the hole in its middle. We experience it based on what we know, and we know only what we are lucky enough to know. And that’s true whether you are Consumer Reports or Mr. Bagel Maven the Upper West Side. The bagel is in the eye of the beholder.
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