Is everything bagel ice cream bad for the Jews?
It was already dark when I laced up my boots and trudged over to Union Square. I trod carefully, and not just because of the icy sidewalks. Hanging from my shoulder in a reusable shopping bag was precious cargo: Four pints of ice cream more artisanal than any I’d ever tasted, each of which cost more than an hour of minimum wage labor in many states.
On a damp bench illuminated by the neon glow of a Whole Foods sign, I met fellow Forward staffer Mira Fox, who had gallantly biked across the city to assist in a seemingly unenviable task: Evaluating the quality of the newly-released “Everything Bagel” flavor from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. I handed her a sanitized bowl and spoon. She doled out scoops of cream cheese ice cream studded with what we knew, from enthusiastic marketing copy, to be genuine onion and garlic swirls. Several rats scuffled in a nearby snowdrift, venturing near our feet with increasing temerity. (Could they sense the proximity of Jeni’s?) Our fingers slowly losing feeling, we took our first bites.
It wasn’t exactly picturesque, but we weren’t there to enjoy a temperate or ratless evening. We were there to deliver a verdict on an unexpected novelty flavor that may represent the cultural apotheosis of everything bagel seasoning, an upstart Jewish garnish with an ever-tightening grip on American spice cabinets. Could it be that this seemingly disgusting dessert was actually good? And more importantly, was it Good For The Jews?
When you get down to it, everything bagels are just hunks of boiled bread topped with a simple and by-no-means-exhaustive blend of spices. Still, they deserve their grandiose name. Among the most recognizable and popular Jewish foods in existence, they’ve come to reflect the ways that assimilated American Jews define and situate themselves within a broader, non-Jewish society.
I may have officially become an adult in the Jewish community while standing at the bima for my bat mitzvah, making specious analogies between the animal sacrifices demanded by Leviticus and my experience at Hebrew school. But I was truly inducted into the joys, prides, sorrows and anxieties of my people when I started to enjoy everything bagels. Sometime in middle school, an ancestral switch flipped: I was bored by the humble sesame seeds of my youth, disgusted by the cinnamon cream cheese my friends favored. Only the most pungent flavor combinations on offer would satisfy me. Watching me stack a bagel, as if by instinct, with as many raw vegetables and slices of smoked fish as possible, my grandfather compared me to his own mother, who was apparently partial to onions on plain rye. Everything bagels, it seemed, weren’t just a decadent breakfast option; their Ashkenazi umami was a link to my immigrant heritage, proof that my forebears passed down some essential part of their Yiddishkeit to me.
It sounds crazy to cite bagel enjoyment as a core marker of Jewish identity, but this is actually a well-documented phenomenon, and not just in my childhood home. A 2008 study by Devorah Romanek, the curator of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in New Mexico, found that for many Jews, especially secular ones, bagels are “directly related” to cultural and religious identity. It may be that bagels are a communal food, evocative of family and festivity. It could have to do with the fact that they have no religious significance, so you don’t have to be particularly observant to feel a proprietary fondness for them. “To enjoy a bagel and relate it to one’s cultural identity,” Shira Feder wrote in these pages, is to “embrace cultural Judaism.”
In the 20th century, the bagel’s journey from ethnic curiosity to breakfast staple mirrored the American Jewish trajectory towards assimilation and acceptance. These hearty rolls first popped up on the Lower East Side to serve the Jewish immigrant population concentrated there. Illustrating their obscurity outside those circles, cookbook author Joan Nathan wrote that when her family moved to a suburban development in 1946, they ascertained which of their neighbors were Jewish by seeing who could correctly identify a bagel. But in the 1950s, as more Jews migrated out of the city, women’s magazines began to advertise bagels as novelty hors d’oeuvres. Late in the decade, Murray Lender changed the game by perfecting a method of freezing and shipping bagels. The “Jewish English muffin,” as Lender called it, landed in far-flung supermarkets as its progenitors spread across the country and climbed into the middle class.
Something similar is happening in our own era: Stripped down and mined for its distinctive medley of seeds, salt, garlic and onions, the everything bagel has emerged as a seasoning blend capable of punching up even the most passé weekday dishes. Trendy food magazines like Bon Appetit ground elaborate recipes in this flavor profile. Bloggers publish exhaustive articles comparing the original seasoning blend popularized by Trader Joe’s with usurping offerings from Aldi. Innumerable listicles advise home cooks to sprinkle it on avocado toast, mix it into mac and cheese, and even repurpose it as a Bloody Mary garnish.
Who was the first to sell Everything Bagel seasoning in its own jar and have we, as a society, done enough to thank them?
— Kevin Stankiewicz (@kevin_stank) February 10, 2021
Everything bagel hegemony is no guarantee against intolerance. It’s perfectly possible to infuse your casseroles with this spice blend while wondering where all the space lasers are hidden. Still, like the success of bagels themselves, bagel seasoning seems like a pretty obvious diaspora success story. If you’re a Jew who wants to participate in a pluralistic society while maintaining your own identity, the popularity of everything bagel seasoning is more than a good sign; it’s grounds for socio-cultural kvelling.
But if everyone is into everything bagels, does liking them have anything to do with being Jewish? Even as we want to share our favorite foods with the huddled masses yearning to breathe free (of Wonder Bread), we want our consumption of them to represent our membership in a distinct cultural group. I suspect this tension informs our tendency to police the bagel discourse: Finding a favorite bagel place and aggressively defending it, bemoaning the specter of Lender’s, refusing to touch all but the toughest crusts and chewiest interiors. Everyone is allowed to like bagels, these mechanisms suggest, but only we initiated few can appreciate their truest, Jewish essence.
I succumbed to this line of thinking while waiting for my Jeni’s to arrive in its dry ice cocoon. Not only did I assume the ice cream would blow, I saw it as an affront to the very concept of the everything bagel. I wondered how a brand whose flavor titles belong in a breathless review of an expensive farm-to-table restaurant (Brandied Banana Brûlée, Goat Cheese with Red Cherries, Wildberry Lavender) could capture the Saturday morning experience of stuffing yourself with smoked fish while your elders discuss their ailments in excruciating detail. I sympathized, for the only time in my life, with commentator William Safire, who harrumphed in 1999 that within “the bagel’s adaptive triumph lies the poppyseed of its self-destruction.” Without having tasted a bite, I concluded that the everything bagel had traveled too far from its origins. It was one thing to repackage its flavor for avocado toast. Deconstructing it entirely seemed to signify the erosion of the Jewish traditions it evokes.
In Union Square, a tangy glob of frozen onion collided with my taste buds.
Mira and I had settled on a meticulously scientific testing operation: We would compare small spoonfuls of Everything Bagel ice cream to large helpings of three other Jeni’s flavors — Skillet Cinnamon Roll, Blackout Chocolate Cake, and Brambleberry Crisp — in order to make the most accurate comparisons possible. Everything Bagel wasn’t good, per se, and it was unequivocally worse than its peers. Still, it would have been unfair to describe it as bad. It tasted like melted cream cheese, I thought.
“It tastes like melted cream cheese,” Mira said, before an encroaching rat forced her to crouch on the bench and sent us scurrying home.
“Melted cream cheese,” said my boyfriend, surveying the Jeni’s paraphernalia, including a yard sign and a box of slowly sublimating dry ice, that had overtaken our apartment. It tasted just as surprisingly-not-that-bad, he confirmed, in a heated room as on a freezing park bench. Far from negating Jewish experience, the ice cream called up a very specific one: The last overstuffed hours of a Yom Kippur break-fast, when everyone is guiltily picking at the mix of crumbs and condiments left on their plates.
It was pretty much impossible to imagine voluntarily eating an entire bowl of this ice cream, but we had to hand it to Jeni’s. They’d accepted a difficult mission and made a surprisingly successful overture to the Jewish culinary world.
Still, my skepticism hadn’t totally abated. The next morning, I Googled the origins of the everything bagel, wondering if Jeni’s had profaned the legacy of some medieval Polish baking lineage.
What I found astounded me. And it completely transformed my stance on Jeni’s.
While no one really knows who invented the everything bagel, it hasn’t exactly been handed down through generations. In fact, this staple food, this pastry at the core of the secular Jewish psyche, seems to be an unglamorous mid-Atlantic accident of the 1970s. David Gussin, the owner of a Long Island marketing company, claims that he invented the everything bagel as a teenager in the 1980s. While working in a Queens bakery, he developed a yen for the combination of toasted seasonings — dried onion, salt, garlic and poppy and sesame seeds — that collected in the oven after a day’s work. Eventually, he convinced his boss to mix them all together.
After the New Yorker gave its imprimatur to Gussin’s story, others quickly popped up to contest it. In 2019, the food website Taste rounded up and interviewed the “handful of middle-aged men” who wanted credit for the invention, without reaching any conclusions.
But one thing was clear: The everything bagel itself was as much a riff on the classics as the ice cream it inspired.
I could see that my hidebound approach to Jeni’s would have put me on the wrong side of everything bagel history. In 1980, I would have insisted to Gussin (or whoever, we’re not taking sides here), that new bagel flavors were frivolous and unnecessary. I would have advised him to sweep his funky little spice combo right into the trash.
Gussin himself is gratified by the many variations on his theme, no matter how far-fetched they seem. “I love the innovation. It makes me smile,” he said, contacted by phone. He enjoys sprinkling the ubiquitous seasoning on eggs and even steaks. And he’s unfazed by the advent of everything bagel ice cream, although he’s not rushing to try it. “I wouldn’t go buy it,” he said.
In other aspects of Jewish life, I tend to distrust the instinct to protect tradition “just because.” Many of the customs central to my Jewish experience — reading from the Torah as a woman, or lighting the menorah next to my Christmas tree — are fairly recent alterations of ancient ritual. I’m perfectly aware that many people believe that this brand of Judaism is a less “authentic” one, but it’s hard for me to muster more than passing annoyance at those insinuations, so real and immutable does my own existence as a not-totally-classic Jew seem. Here was a humbling reminder, delivered in a semisweet frozen schmear, that I could lapse into the kind of thinking I normally deplore. I’d thought I was protecting the everything bagel from vulgar bowdlerization. Instead, I was actually discouraging the kind of experimentation that produced it in the first place.
Jeni’s has sold out its supply of the Everything Bagel flavor, and there has been no word on future replenishment. I suspect the flavor will recede into the annals of Jewish food history once people realize how much money they’ve spent on calcified garlic. Still, the rise and (probable) fall of this odd ice cream can tell us something important. Like most aspects of our culture, the integrity of the Jewish food landscape doesn’t depend on our suspicious interrogation of every new innovation. The everything bagel is a tradition because we made it one. The same will be true for the next modern classic that worms its way from an outer borough bakery into our stomachs.
In the meantime, I’d suggest skipping the Jeni’s and stepping out for a tried-and-tested bagel at your local appetizing store — although I have to point out, it’s probably not quite as authentic as the one I patronize.