It was the New York Democratic primary’s equivalent of an October surprise: With three days to go until the election, gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon revealed that she likes to put lox, capers and red onion on cinnamon raisin bagels.
The news was broken by the recently revived digital outlet Gothamist, which captured Nixon’s order on camera during a Sunday appearance at Zabar’s, the legendary deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The five-minute video shows Nixon contemplating an array of possible bagel options before settling on cinnamon raisin. Meanwhile, the packed store bustles with raincoat-clad shoppers, unaware of the unfolding scandal in their midst.
Behind the smoked seafood counter, a man in a white chef’s jacket peers at Nixon through his glasses. "Now, I have tomato and I have onion and I have capers," he says, with some uncertainty.
"That’s what I want," Nixon assures him.
"A full load?" he asks.
"A full load," she confirms. "And cream cheese."
Less than three hours after Gothamist published the damning footage on Monday afternoon, Nixon found herself swarmed by reporters in Grand Central Terminal. Shoving microphones in her face, they demanded to know: Why was she putting smoked fish on a cereal-flavored bagel?
Nixon doubled down.
"That’s my go-to brunch, breakfast, whether I’m out or I’m home," she said. "I mean, it’s not uncooked oatmeal. But it’s pretty delicious. And I say, don’t yuck my yum. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it."
Reasonable minds can disagree. The rapidly unfolding controversy resulted in a slew of enterprising young reporters heading to their neighborhood delis and requesting a cinnamon raisin bagel with lox, capers, red onions, tomato, and cream cheese. Gothamist’s staff deemed the combination "disgusting" and "pungent." At Jezebel, writers found it "bizarre" and "unpleasant."
Soon, condemnation was pouring in from even the distant provinces of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., where the bagels are subpar and Nixon’s critics couldn’t vote for her even if they wanted to. In a stern edict that reached across the Hudson River, NJ.com’s Jeremy Schneider declared that Nixon had "committed an unforgivable crime against the bagel gods."
Meanwhile, George Conway, the respected conservative lawyer who is also the husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, offered a tentative "Lox her up?"
As references to #Bagelgate\ began appearing on Twitter, Nixon’s campaign adviser, Rebecca Katz, jumped to the candidate’s defense.
"As we’ve said from the beginning of this campaign, Cynthia Nixon is running to represent those forgotten New Yorkers who need someone to stand up for their views, even if those opinions are out of the mainstream or even unpopular," she wrote.
The online cycle of reactions, and reactions to the reactions, followed a predictable pattern. First was the semi-ironic performative outrage from people appalled by Nixon’s unconventional taste in bagel toppings.
Next came the contrarian takes from people arguing that Nixon’s bagel order was fine, actually.
Then, came the inevitable backlash that critiqued the fact that the debate was even happening, and questioned whether the scrutiny on Nixon’s eating habits was rooted in sexism.
Finally, as all things inevitably do, it ended with a fundraising appeal. Please take a moment to think of the plight of the staffer tasked with photoshopping a cinnamon-raisin-and-lox sandwich, as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo continues to outraise and outspend the upstart challenger’s campaign.
By late Monday night, it felt like the only person who hadn’t weighed in was Cuomo, whose bagel preferences are unknown.
In the conservative media, Nixon’s breakfast was widely reviled. "Cynthia Nixon’s bagel order is horrifying," read a headline in the New York Post, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The Daily Caller went a step further, declaring, "Cynthia Nixon has the most repulsive bagel order of all time." Conservative commentator Evan Siegfried, perhaps alluding to Nixon’s celebrity status and significant personal wealth, wrote on Twitter, "Another way in which Nixon is out of touch."
Left-leaning outlets were more charitable. Slate jokingly offered six possible explanations, ranging from "This was a stress order" to "Nixon is subtly positioning herself as a maverick who supports women’s choices." New York Magazine, which has consistently given favorablecoverage to Nixon’s campaign, acknowledged that her bagel order was "troubling," but called for a ban on politicians eating food in public, rather than individual sanctions aimed at the candidate.
As writer Chris Crowley pointed out, Nixon now belongs to a long line of politicians whose attempts to eat eminently normal foods somehow end up making them look even less like a relatable human being. In previous election cycles, Ohio Gov. John Kasich was mocked for eating pizza with a fork and knife, as was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who claimed to have picked up the habit in his "ancestral homeland" of Italy.
Are these micro-controversies a distraction from the real issues of a campaign? Probably. But there’s an argument to be made that any candidate who shows they really "get" an area’s regional foods has demonstrated that they understand the community’s distinct cultural identity.
"Knowing your base is important," wrote NJ.com’s Schneider. "And in New York, that means knowing your bagels."