Over the weekend, the New York Times offered a harrowing report: What appears to be a nationwide shortage of cream cheese has started to take its toll on the city’s bagel-shop operators, who are now scrambling — and in at least one case, “begging” — to find both supplies and help. It has been labeled, correctly, a supply-chain nightmare.
The reasons for this particular supply-chain gap are, like many shortages, frustratingly nonspecific. Kraft Heinz, the corporate behemoth that produces the cream-cheese base used by many shops, cites a spike in demand for its products. There are labor shortages at various points. There is not enough packaging. None of this explains why the supply of cream cheese, specifically, is effected, but the consequences are obvious: Without cream cheese, there is little reason to eat a bagel.
Sure, there is butter. And tofu cream cheese. And plenty of acceptable bagel sandwiches require no cream cheese at all. But for the people who want cream cheese — most people, of course — this is an accept-no-substitutions-type situation. There is no reasonable stand-in for cream cheese because cream cheese is uniquely itself. Despite its name, no actual “cheese” comes close; it is a product of American industrial might, and if that industry is disrupted, one cannot simply decide to make more cream cheese on one’s own. Here is a recipe that yields one lonely cup of cream cheese. That is not enough cream cheese.
What about neufchâtel?, you ask, and I say that if there is a shortage of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, good luck tracking down enough neufchâtel to make it through even a single Sunday morning at Tompkins Square Bagels.
The distributors with whom the Times spoke “did not anticipate the problem resolving itself anytime soon,” and so we are left to wonder: What comes next? Higher prices? Limits on how much cream cheese customers can order? Everything bagels topped with lox and — what? — ricotta?
It was one thing when we lost our bucatini. We could make do with spaghetti. Even a looming dearth of chicken tenders sounds manageable. But this particular shortage feels different because there is no other option. Cream cheese, we’re learning the hard way, is truly irreplaceable.
In the broader context of … everything, is this important? Maybe not. But some weekend in the not-too-distant future, when you’re wondering if you could get a little plain yogurt on two toasted halves of a sesame bagel, it just might feel like the end of the world.