Center City, Philadelphia — There are probably few things the world needed less than for Panera to produce a double bread bowl, but since it has done so, and since it is offering the monstrous abomination exclusively in Philadelphia, where I live, I was compelled, as anyone would be, to order one and eat the entire thing. This ended about the way you’d think it would.
Before going into detail here, I should note that I’ve never previously had, or been interested in, a bread bowl; I was raised in the belief that bread is for dipping into soup, not for pouring soup into. What sold me on this one was the idea of getting something people elsewhere, especially in New York, just can’t have, as well as the prospect of achieving something through force of will. I’m not a large man, and most of what I eat is this sort of thing; I decided ahead of time that I would enhance the suffering, and thus the feeling of accomplishment, by having my double bread bowl filled with mac and cheese and baked potato soup. When it comes to consuming actual pounds of starch at a sitting, there is no point in half measures.
The Center City Panera is a mystery to me, because it sits directly across the street from the Reading Terminal Market, one of the culinary wonders of the East Coast and a place where you can get more or less anything you’d want to eat. Why anyone would ever go in, I’m not sure. Late on a Monday morning, though, many people had gone in; few, apparently, had gone in for the double bread bowl, as the woman from whom I ordered was not entirely able to hide her sense of vicarious embarrassment when I asked if it was on offer. Panera, institutionally, seemed to feel some embarrassment; there was no propaganda on offer touting the carbohydrate-rich novelty item, nor could I figure out how to order it on a touchscreen kiosk, which is why I had to admit to another person that I wanted a loaf of sourdough bread with mac and cheese and potato soup in it. “Miss Misery” was playing over the sound system, which seemed a bit on the nose. The double bread bowl and a large iced tea came to $16.60.
My order was ready before I’d really prepared myself for what was coming. It looked like this:
The Red Delicious apple—which went uneaten, as Red Delicious apples are not food—will give you an idea of scale here; I was delighted by the presence of the plugs, carrying as they did an implicit promise that anyone for whom a loaf of bread filled with pasta and soup wasn’t enough would not leave the table hungry.
Immediately I was confronted with a failure of my strategic approach. My plan had been to eat the mac and cheese, then cut the bread into strips which I would dunk in the baked potato soup. The first part went off as I’d planned—the mac and cheese was perfectly okay, and benefitted a lot from being doused in Tabasco—but I struggled with the cutting, due partly to Panera only offering flimsy plastic knives (presumably to keep customers from stabbing each other) and partly to the bread’s tough, leathery texture. I also struggled with the sheer volume of what I was eating. Panera emphasizes bread over soup, to the point where the bread by and large remains fairly dry despite being filled with soup. By the time I was done with that soup, I felt like a fighter in the sixth round of a title fight. The mass was moving internal organs around and I was getting meat sweats. The gravest obscenity, though, was yet to come. While ripping apart the half of the bread bowl that had contained the soup, I found that a river of bland, starchy liquid had insinuated itself into the cracks and crevices of the loaf; it flowed when squeezed, although the bread somehow remained dry. (A bad video I took is too horrifying to embed, but if you dare you can view it here.)
At this point I was ready to give up, but then inspiration struck. With the room swimming, I noted that two small children sitting across from me were eating basically the same thing I was. They had bowls of soup with croutons, demi baguettes, and grilled cheese, and they were destroying them. The two of them combined were nowhere near my size. I had to finish. This is what faced me; I powered through it, though I did not eat the plugs. It had taken 24 minutes.
On my way out of Panera, I saw prepackaged sourdough bread bowls for sale; a sign next to them said they contained 660 calories each. To my eye, the bread bowl I ate was actually larger than two individual bread bowls, and I’d estimate that the uneaten plugs accounted for perhaps 15% of the total volume of the loaf. I’d therefore guess that I ate about 1300 calories worth of bread, on top of 470 calories worth of mac and cheese and 220 worth of soup—two-thirds what an online caloric-needs calculator says someone of my size, age, and activity level needs in a day, though it easily felt like twice as much. Powering through, I had indeed achieved something.
I felt woozy in the heat while staggering down Market Street back to my office, and actually had to duck into a clothes store just to let the air conditioning cool me down. I spent the rest of the afternoon mainly being grateful that my desk is near a hammock. It was a miserable experience, one that confirms the world does not need double bread bowls as a thing in themselves, or at least that they do not need to be consumed in their entirety by one person. Given the popularity of ever more extreme paleo diets, though—Mikhaila Peterson, daughter of MRA guru Jordan Peterson, is making what seems to be a good amount of money by shilling the idea that eating nothing but meat, salt, and water can cure various diseases—there’s some level on which I’m glad they exist. Scientists could come up with something marginally worse, and probably will.