The line was only a half-dozen customers long, but it was still taking forever to get to the counter. It shouldn’t have. This was Saturday morning, and we weren’t anywhere special. Unfortunately, the customers ahead of me needed to try many samples before placing their orders. A tiny spoonful of maple bourbon for the dad pushing a stroller. A teeny taste of red velvet for the woman coming from yoga class. We weren’t at Cold Stone Creamery, though. We were at a bagel shop that offers more varieties of flavored cream cheese than should be allowed by law.
We have hit peak cream cheese absurdity in America.
I should have known better before I even entered this Brooklyn bagelry. Their sidewalk markerboard proudly touted their “Cream Cheese of the Week." It was Snickers bar. Underneath, an even sadder addition: “For the kids—Oreo,” as if Snickers cream cheese might be too mature for their youthful palates. Inside, under the glass display case, lined up like tubs of gelato, sat these cream cheeses, tar-black with crumbles of cookie and chunks of gooey nougat swimming inside them.
I’m not going to defame the bagel shop by naming it. These days even the classiest bagelries and appetizing shops participate in this good taste run-amok endeavor. The acclaimed Russ & Daughters has caviar c.c., for Chrissakes. Forget an era when the only cream cheeses available were regular and light and maybe veggie or scallion, perhaps a lox spread for cheapskates who couldn’t afford sliced lox. Now cream cheeses are just an excuse for man-children to have dessert for breakfast, as if waffles/pancakes/pastries/cinnamon rolls weren’t enough. Why not go for a slice of cheesecake like you really want to and just get it all over with?
I’m no grouch. I like innovation in food. I dig novelty. I Instagram my food. But why are we trying to turn our bagels into doughnuts? Isn’t cream cheese already delicious? Isn’t it already the perfect topping for a savory, seasoned, warm bagel? Does cream cheese really need to be Dorito-fied? You think nacho cheese ain’t enough? How about if we give you one “jacked” on buffalo wing sauce too?
OK, I’ve admittedly yet to see a nacho cheese-flavored cream cheese, or a Buffalo wing one. I have, though, seen these cream cheese flavors this month alone:
Spinach and artichoke
Hawaiian (pineapple and ham)
Chocolate chip cookie dough
Reese’s peanut butter cup
(Many were also available in tofu-based low-fat versions, all the better to schmear on your gluten-free rainbow bagel.)
Even the once-venerable Philadelphia (the company, not the city) has joined in. Until the mid-aughts, Philadelphia only had a few flavors: garden vegetable and the like. Nowadays they offer over two dozen cream cheese variants ranging from sugar and cinnamon to black cherry, chipotle and peach, and even Cadbury, for those bagel lovers who wanted a surreptitious way to eat an Easter creme egg while walking the dog.
In a 2014 Wall Street Journal article on Kraft’s revamp of the Philadelphia brand, Drew Tilton, senior group leader of research and development for the company, explained that customers want a flavored product that “still tastes like cream cheese,” even while admitting his cream cheesery has added 30 percent more blueberries and 44 percent more chives and onions to those respective flavors. I guess ultimately that’s my problem with it—once you’ve added Butterfingers or Thin Mints or, yes, 30 percent more blueberries to cream cheese, it has become frosting. Eating straight frosting is fine, but at least own up to it.
Mainly, I wish bagelries today were focused more on what makes bagelries great in the first place. I wish they’d spend more time perfecting their bagels instead of figuring out what people want on their scooped bagels this season. (The candy cane and chocolate gelt cream cheeses are surely looming.) I wish they’d utilize their cooler space for more smoked fish salads as opposed to some ridiculous Swedish fish cream cheese. I wish they cared more about quality than potential Instagrammability. My wishes are futile.
Eventually, the stroller dad opted for asiago jalapeño and yoga lady went for birthday cake and then my wife, after trying a few samples herself, ordered a French toast bagel with harvest pumpkin cream cheese. Walking back home, planning this rant before I’d ever written it, she shut me up by sticking her bagel in my face like I was a crying baby and it was my pacifier.
I begrudgingly took a bite.
It was, of course, delicious.
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of the novels How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman. He has written for Esquire, The Daily Beast, Playboy, PUNCH, and First We Feast, among others.