Years ago, when I first moved to New York, a friend called her local bodega—one with good bagels, she averred—and ordered us a couple of them with cream cheese.
“Do you want yours toasted?” she asked, turning the cell’s receiver away from her face.
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.” (This, I’d come to find out, was a mistake I’d been making for too long.)
She followed: “Do you want it scooped or not?”
“What?” I asked. “What the heck is that?”
At the time, it turns out, bagel scooping—or the process of scratching at and picking out a bagel’s flesh so as to create a hollow piece of bread—was a thing. People were gutting the insides of their bagels to save calories, presumably to tamp down those muffin tops that tend to pack on during the winter months. Apparently, at least according to the New York Post, bagel scooping is here to stay. But it pisses people off, most likely just New Yorkers, who enjoy getting angry about these sorts of things.
“[B]agel scoopers are lumped in with people who eat their pizza with a fork or wear flip flops on the subway,” writes Tim Donnelly. “Part of the anger is aimed at the literal gutting of a food New Yorkers regard with beatific pride; part of it is the waste involved—all scoopings go directly in the trash.”
I understand this sentiment. The bagel is sacred, especially to New Yorkers, and one shouldn’t fuck with it yada yada yada fuggedaboutit go Yankees. But I disagree.
Let’s assume that said scooped bagels are being ordered with a hefty shmear of cream cheese, which, to be fair, is the basic compliment to a New York bagel. It’s a baseline pairing, like gin and juice. By this logic—and what’s being lost in this feeling of utter vexation over what not to do to a New York Frickin’ Bagel—is the notion that cream cheese is the most memorable part of a bagel with cream cheese. Cream cheese is the unsung hero of a bagel with cream cheese. In fact, cream cheese is such a strong player in the grocery landscape that it renders the bagel, whether scooped or full, somewhat inconsequential: Cream cheese is better than bagel. Ever eaten a tablespoon full of cream cheese? If not, then you’re a liar. A heaping gulch of Temp-Tee or whatever is in the fridge is delicious.
But this isn’t about cream cheese versus bagels; the analogy is being made simply to make clear the importance of cream cheese to a bagel. So, knowing this, consider the scooped bagel—filled with cream cheese. It’s that dream you’ve been searching to have again. It’s the cronut of New York/Jewish eating, the unheralded treat that can cure a hangover or provide for an indulgent breakfast. The scooped bagel with cream cheese transcends everything we have ever known about everything.
Think about how amazing the scooped bagel with cream cheese is. Though hollow-ish, the bagel’s texture and gooey-chewy love remains. In fact, the scooped out bagel is basically a bagel that has gone to a therapist and done the hard work on the couch so that it can become more emotionally available for you. It has the space to hold more love. It’s a vessel that’s now able to be filled, rather than do the filling. It’s mature and less needy. The scooped out bagel is a vessel for your love. Fill me with cream cheese, it says.
And fill it with cream cheese you do. You fill that carbo-vessel to the brim with cream cheese. And when you order it, you say, “I’d like a bagel with that cream cheese.” And the cream cheese chef looks at you and says, “I got you.” And you feel confident about life, and your life decisions. Because every time you order a cream cheese with bagel you know you’ve reached the apex of human existence.
And when you take a bite, as your teeth smash through that scooped-out bagel and into that inch-thick ring of plain cream cheese, you taste success. And the success is so great, so superfluous, so fucking steady, that it gets on the corner of your mouth and even onto your shirt and into your orthodontia. So you scrape up that success with your finger and put that cream cheese back into your mouth and say “Mmm hmm that’s right” and lick your fingers, even under the nails, until the last bit of that cream cheese is gone. Maybe you even cry a white dairy tear. It’s an experience only made possibly by the scooped-out bagel.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.