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Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue
By David Sax
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Kale. Spicy sriracha sauce. Honeycrisp apples. Cupcakes. These days, it seems we are constantly discovering a new food that will make us healthier, happier, or even somehow cooler. Chia seeds, after a brief life as a novelty houseplant and I Love the ’80s punchline, are suddenly a superfood. Not long ago, that same distinction was held by pomegranate seeds, aÃ§ berries, and the fermented drink known as kombucha. So what happened? Did these foods suddenly cease to be healthy a few years ago? And by the way, what exactly is a “superfood” again?
In this eye-opening, witty work of reportage, David Sax uncovers the world of food trends: Where they come from, how they grow, and where they end up. Traveling from the South Carolina rice plot of America’s premier grain guru to Chicago’s gluttonous Baconfest, Sax reveals a world of influence, money, and activism that helps decide what goes on your plate. On his journey, he meets entrepreneurs, chefs, and even data analysts who have made food trends a mission and a business. The Tastemakers is full of entertaining stories and surprising truths about what we eat, how we eat it, and why.
The On Location Tours bus parked in the shadow of New York’s Plaza hotel, idling in the damp January chill as its passengers trickled in from nearby sights. They ranged in age from their early twenties to late fifties, coming from as close as Long Island and as far away as Sweden. With the exception of two of their husbands and myself, the thirty-odd passengers were exclusively women. Some came with friends, others in large groups. All were here for the same reasons as everyone else on this bus: Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha, the four leads from the HBO television series Sex and the City, which aired from 1998 to 2004 along with two subsequent films. To the ladies seated around me, these were not only TV characters but also the hallowed names of prophets: icons of feminine identity, sexual liberators, and symbols of everything the Big Apple had to offer.
“All right, ladies!” said Staci Jacobs, practically singing into the microphone as the doors closed and the bus started to roll down Fifth Avenue. “Welcome to the Sex and the City Hotspots Tour!” Jacobs, who wouldn’t divulge her age but is “old enough to have watched the show” (she was likely in her early thirties, like me), had been leading the tour twice a day, every day, since 2005. A stylish redhead in tight jeans and knee-high boots (think Charlotte with Miranda’s coloring), Jacobs had passed the same sights thousands of times, unleashing practiced anecdotes at each location.
“Remember Ed?” Jacobs asked outside the Plaza hotel, where Samantha once met her elderly fling for a drink in season two. “He had a saggy ass, am I right, ladies?” The bus exploded in knowing laughter.
“If you thought this was a PG-rated tour, you’re on the wrong fucking bus!” Jacobs said. “Can I get a ‘Fuck yeah’?”
“Fuck yeah!” the bus shouted back as Jacobs tossed her strawberry mane to the side with a devilish smile that’s oh-so-Samantha. On we went downtown, past the library where Carrie—spoiler alert!—fled her lavish wedding and the church where the good-looking monk known as Friar Fuck worked. Two stops and a dozen video clips of the show later, the tour bus parked at the corner of Bleecker and West Eleventh Street, in the heart of the West Village, the picturesque, boutique-laden sun at the center of Sex and the City’s glittering solar system. The show had turned the leafy, bohemian neighborhood into a paradise of quaint cafés, high-end clothing shops, and giant handbags, drawing hundreds of thousands of fans a year to wander the narrow streets in awed disbelief, like medieval pilgrims in Jerusalem.
As we stepped off the bus, Jacobs instructed everyone that we had the better part of an hour to take in the neighborhood. “And when you come back to me I’ll have cupcakes,” Jacobs said, singing the last word with a cooing sort of siren call, her voice rising to a crescendo on “cakes.” Oohs, ahhs, and giggles of anticipation greeted this news, but the show’s seasoned fans already expected this.
“Are they Magnolia cupcakes?” one woman, from Alabama, asked hopefully, looking out her window at Magnolia Bakery, kitty corner from where the bus parked.
“No,” Jacobs said, with a tense smile, “but they’re just as good.”
Alix Galey and Emily Pavlin, a pair of friends in their early twenties from Melbourne, Australia, exited the bus, and like most of the people on the tour, they made a beeline for Magnolia, where they purchased a pair of the bakery’s signature red velvet cupcakes. “I’m obsessed with the show,” said Pavlin between bites. “I’ve seen each episode five times.” It was a gray, cold day, and the heat and moisture inside the bakery had fogged up all the windows so all you could see from the street were hazy round shapes, muted pastel colors, and the outlines of different magazine and newspaper articles taped to the glass.
Just by the door, barely visible through the condensation, was a small framed photograph of two women sitting on a bench in front of Magnolia. To the left sat Cynthia Nixon, the actress who played Miranda, and to the right was Sarah Jessica Parker, who starred as Carrie Bradshaw. Their legs were crossed, shopping bags at their feet, and they were looking directly at the camera. Each of them was holding a cupcake. At the bottom of the frame was a narrow piece of paper, which read, “Magnolia Bakery is featured on Sex and the City Season 3.”
Thousands of years in the future, when archaeologists are combing through the artifacts of our age, what will happen when they excavate this photograph and the site around it? Will they have any idea what Sex and the City was or how it captivated the hopes and dreams of millions of women globally? Will they know that these two females in the photo were not just revered actresses but actually symbols of modern woman’s sexual and social empowerment?
Will the archaeologists recognize cupcakes?
Will they know that in the first decade of the twenty-first century there were cakes baked in cups, cakes of every imaginable flavor and combination; that these cakes were covered in sweet frosting, in everything from simple vanilla creams to elaborate artistic 3-D creations; that for more than ten years these little cakes were a subject of great power and fascination all over the world; and that all of that, from the global tribes of devoted bakers to the chroniclers of the phenomenon to the multibillion-dollar cupcake economy, all began here, on this sacred corner of Manhattan, at this small bakery, with these two women and a twenty-second scene of a television show that, once upon a time, changed the way we ate dessert?
When I tell people I am writing a book about food trends, they usually just scratch their heads. Then I say the word cupcakes, and instantly their eyes open wide, their heads nod, and a torrent of passionate opinion pours forth from the depths of their soul. They love cupcakes. They hate cupcakes. They eat cupcakes every day. They avoid cupcakes like the plague. Cupcakes are everything they love about life. Cupcakes are everything wrong with the modern world.
Cupcakes, cupcakes, cupcakes. Glorious, cursed, beautiful, wretched, god-help-us, god-love-us . . . cupcakes!
As a child of North America, I am no stranger to the charm of cupcakes. In one of my earliest memories, right before my third birthday, I am standing in the kitchen with my mother, first tossing eggs on the floor and then hysterically crying at the results as she desperately tried to bake chocolate cupcakes for my party that afternoon. In later years my mother brought cupcakes to my school from Health Bread, a long-departed bakery near our house in Toronto. The whole class sat in hushed silence as they were carried from the doorway to our teacher’s desk, twenty-five sets of little eyes locked like heat-seeking missiles on that pale blue box.
When our teacher untied the butcher’s string and opened the box, it revealed the happiest sight on earth: row upon row of chocolate cupcakes nestled tightly in their accordion paper wrappers, frosted with a thin veneer of mocha-colored icing, and covered with a tasteful shower of rainbow sprinkles. We’d patiently wait in line, receive our ration, then head back to our desks, cradling the cupcake like a small bird in our hands. The girls would peel the paper off carefully, examining the best angle to approach the first bite, but not us boys. We’d tear into them with the senseless chomps of competitors in an apple-bobbing contest. Within seconds our faces and mouths would be painted in chocolate, our white shirts and sweat pants smeared with streaks of brown. What we didn’t ingest, we figured, we’d simply absorb through the skin by osmosis. Within thirty seconds the classroom was a mess of crumbs, wrappers, and bubbling hyperactivity. Cupcakes were childhood at its peak.
But something happened to cupcakes over the past decade and a half. They became trendy. In fact, they became so trendy that the cupcake became the defining food trend of the age of food trends that we now find ourselves living in. When people talk about cupcakes today they don’t talk about their sweetness, the colors and flavors they’re made in, or any aspect that’s inherent to how a cupcake tastes (you know how a cupcake tastes—it tastes like a small cake); instead, cupcakes are a lightning rod, drawing in the energy and emotion surrounding the complicated and rapidly expanding world of food trends, a world that has come to shape nearly everything we eat.
In truth, food trends are nothing new. They’re a natural by-product of civilization’s evolution from hunter-gatherers, who ate whatever they could track down, to farmers, merchants, and traders, who had some choice in the matter. No one chased a woolly mammoth with a spear because the head of their tribe declared mammoth to be the hot protein in the Paleolithic era (back then the Paleo diet was the only option), but once we developed the economic means to select from a variety of foods, certain ones inevitably became more popular than others. Food became a fashion item, a status symbol, and a means of exerting power. It was a growing taste for exotic spices that drove explorers from Europe out into the unknown Atlantic, the prize of coriander, turmeric, and other edible Indian treasures as enticing as the gold and silk waiting across the void. Coffee spread from an obscure crop in Ethiopia to a global food trend that now anchors the morning of nearly half the planet and is grown wherever it can be cultivated.
In my three-plus decades on this earth I have witnessed the cyclical nature of food trends, including the chicken finger boom of my youth, the dismal Atkins diet years, and a bull market for fajitas during high school. I was born as sushi made its way to American shores as a rare delicacy alongside Japan’s rising business culture, and I witnessed its transformation into a cheap takeout dinner for the masses, available at convenience stores and gas stations. I have read about trends that exist only in history books (the Roman royal habit of stuffing as many animals into each other for roasting as possible, like deboned matryoshka dolls or a turducken) and personally witnessed once-strong trends fade as they were usurped by competitors (those same fajitas and sushi platters giving way first to burritos and ramen soups and then to fish tacos and izakayas), while trends like espresso coffee have assumed a permanent role in my diet.
I’ve also seen heavily hyped trends vanish as suddenly as they have appeared, like thin snow hitting the ground. Watching Superbowl XXVII in 1993, I, like millions of others, was spellbound by the halftime commercial for Crystal Pepsi, with its new-age messages saying, “Right now, the future is ahead of you,” set to the tune of Van Halen’s “Right Now.” Suddenly all the soda companies were rushing out with clear drinks of their own, eager to catch the transparent momentum. I remember going on a lunch break from high school with a group of friends to the nearest convenience store, literally lining up ten deep to buy our first bottle of Crystal Pepsi. We hustled to a nearby park, sat in a circle, and cracked open the bottle, passing it from one to another like hoboes around a campfire. Instead of ushering in a new era of transparent refreshment, however, my first eagerly awaited sip of Crystal Pepsi was a disappointing dram of uninspired sugar water.
Everywhere I look these days I see food trends, and what I see are trends springing up quicker and growing faster than they ever did before. Once the province of a few rich gourmands, they are now a mainstay of popular culture. Food trend news, reviews, and top-ten lists are splashed across the pages and screens of the media in an endless, incessant loop. We are living in a gold rush of food trends, mined with ladles and saucepans instead of pickaxes and dynamite. Each new trend I have witnessed in recent years left me to wonder how this whole ecosystem functioned. Why were certain items colonizing restaurant menus suddenly (fried chicken, pork belly, bourbon), while others, like paninis, seemingly disappeared after setting the trend just years before?
One day I craved a fish taco and could only find it in a single restaurant in Toronto. A year later my city was crawling with them, from a dozen dedicated fish taquerias that sprang up overnight to really bad fish tacos served in faux British pubs. How did this happen? I wondered why my father was suddenly eating pomegranate seeds with every meal and why my wife’s best friend spent thirty dollars to attend a food truck event, lining up for an hour to get in, only to line up for another hour to buy a lobster roll, which sold out right before she finally reached it. Meanwhile the Sri Lankan samosa vendor twelve feet away sat and wondered why no one wanted what he was selling. Why was one food more popular than another? Both the lobster roll and samosa were delicious, and both cost around the same amount of money—so why the discrepancy in demand?
What made a diet healthy one week, then unhealthy the next? How did everyone crave hamburgers all of a sudden, simply because some blogger proclaimed it Burger Week? And do we really think, as eaters, that it is a good idea to infuse bacon into everything?
At its worst, when you’ve eaten your fifth mediocre fish taco in a week, you realize that this onslaught of food trends can be relentless, vapid, and exhausting. Why does food have to be trendy? Why can’t it just taste good on its own merits? I often find myself just wanting to be given a grilled cheese and then left alone. Not “artisanal” aged cheese, mind you, or ancient grain bread. Just cheese. And bread.
Of course, I realize that my complaints are futile. Unless we all move to the woods and forage for our meals, it is inevitable that food trends will shape what we eat on a day-to-day basis (in fact, foraging is a big trend with chefs these days). Besides, I’m as guilty as any one of them. For all the times I may gripe about the invasion of ramen bars or the Greeks’ colonization of the yogurt section, I am also the first to line up for a proper bowl of springy ramen noodles in a rich broth, and I haven’t bought non-Hellenic yogurt since I first bought a tub of Fage in 2008. Not once.
If food trends are overtaking our thinking about the what, where, when, how, and even why of eating, then surely there must be something to them. I wanted to find out what drove these trends and made them such a potent force in our daily lives. First, how did they start, and who were the tastemakers behind them who took an idea, cultivated it, and changed the way we ate? (A tastemaker, in this book, is anyone with the economic or cultural power to create and influence food trends.) What did different types of trends have in common? How was a trend that a farmer started different from one credited with a chef or a diet guru, and where did they intersect? Second, who were the people and forces in the food business who took a food and grew it into a widespread trend? Who tracked and predicted trends? Who had the ability to market a food into a popular cultural moment? And where did a different set of tastemakers encounter these foods and bring them to a wider stage? Third, I wanted to understand just why food trends mattered. What impact did they have economically, culturally, politically, and socially? Were food trends a force for anything besides an excuse to eat more of one thing and not another? What happened to trends once they were no longer trendy? Did they leave a legacy or simply vanish into history, like the fondue set gathering dust in my parent’s basement?
Finally, I wanted to come to terms with my own complex relationship with food trends. Were they indeed nothing more than a series of passing fads, a product of hype and bandwagon jumping that had corrupted our dinnertime? Or were they a force for good, opening minds and cultural opportunities, broadening our understanding of what we eat, cook, and grow?
Could I put aside my prejudices, tamp down my emotions, and once again stuff my face with cupcakes?
THE FOUR TYPES OF TRENDS
THE CULTURAL TREND
The earliest cookbook references to cupcakes (or, rather, “cup cakes”) reportedly date back to the late eighteenth century, though it’s likely that miniature cakes, in some form or another, arose at the same time as, well, big cakes. On the Food Timeline, an online resource of food history, they are referred to as cupcakes, Vienna cakes, Queen cakes, fairy cakes, and Charlotte Russe, which was a simple sponge cake in cardboard, covered in whipped cream. The twentieth century saw cupcakes rise to their current form thanks to innovations in food processing technology, which allowed for packaged cake mixes and a rainbow of colored icing options. Months after World War I ended, Hostess launched its plastic-wrapped chocolate cupcake, with its iconic loopy spine of white decorative icing, and the corporate cupcake era officially began, bringing them to grocery stores across the country. Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines mixes followed, along with the Easy-Bake Oven, making the process so simple that cupcakes were often the first foods children made themselves.
For most of the latter half of the twentieth century cupcakes were a North American bakery fixture along with cookies, brownies, and other sweets occupying space in the display case. They came in vanilla and chocolate and were iced in the same two flavors, though the icing, which could be buttercream, ganache, or some processed variation, rarely amounted to more than 20 percent of the whole cake. Often they were topped with sprinkles, either chocolate or rainbow, or sometimes those silver-coated sugar ball bearings, called dragée, that rip through your molars like a diamond drill and are legally considered inedible by the Food and Drug Administration.
During the 1970s and 1980s muffins, not cupcakes, were the star of the bakery business, spurned by the high-fiber diet trend, which was believed to combat heart disease and other ailments. Bran muffins were a fixture atop diner counters and coffee shops everywhere, along with their cohorts, blueberry, banana, carrot, and chocolate chip. There were sugar-free muffins and frozen muffins, miniature muffins and giant muffins, muffin mixes and muffin franchises, including my personal favorite, mmmuffins, a Toronto bakery chain where the crisp top of the muffin was the size of a portobello mmmushroom. Every bakery worth their oven was into muffins, and Ann Warren, in New York City, was no exception.
“We actually opened up doing homemade-style donuts,” recalled Warren, “but it was really part of the muffin thing when we opened in 1987. Muffins were very, very big. I mean literally. People were into very large muffins.” She made these muffins to sell to other cafés and restaurants, but when a retail space opened up in their Chelsea neighborhood a year later, Warren and her husband figured that selling directly to the public might be an easier way to approach baking. They sold coffee and donuts, muffins, pies, and cakes, and because there was so much cake batter and an abundance of empty muffin pans in the afternoon, they made cupcakes as well. They called the bakery Cupcake Café.
“We weren’t even trying to be a cupcake café,” said Warren by phone, speaking between baking shifts at the Cupcake Café. “We just came up with the name, really, because we liked the association between cake and a cup of coffee,” not, she insists, because they were bullish on cupcakes. As the realization emerged among customers that most muffins, even if they were made with bran and raisins, were in fact no healthier than the stick of butter they were made from, the muffin trend quickly faded. In response, Warren increasingly filled those vacant muffin tins with batter for cupcakes, which, she calculated, were less of a caloric indulgence than even a bagel and cream cheese.
Warren’s cupcakes were comforting, pretty affairs—a moist cake base with a thin ganache frosting and a small buttercream flower on top—but they never kicked off any significant uptick in cupcake buying. Sure, she had a steady stream of clients, some of whom bought cupcakes, but people mostly came to the Cupcake Café for coffee and other baked goods. Cupcakes were popular there, but like most other bakeries, Cupcake Café largely sold them to children or for birthday parties. One customer who frequented Cupcake Café in the early nineties was the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who was starring in a Broadway play nearby. “She used to come in, sit at the back table with my daughter, and have her coffee,” recalls Warren, though she can’t specifically remember Parker eating a cupcake. It’s easy to imagine Parker, sipping her coffee and reading the newspaper as Warren walked by her with a freshly iced tray of cupcakes, neither of them realizing the significance of the moment as a future trend and its tastemaker passed unknown.
Like Cupcake Café, the Magnolia Bakery was not initially conceived as a business dedicated to cupcakes. In July 1996, when Jennifer Appel, a clinical psychologist, and her high school friend Alyssa Torey, who was working in her family’s restaurant business, first opened up their seven hundred–square-foot retro-themed bakery in the West Village, less than two miles from the Cupcake Café, the only cakes they sold were Eastern European–style bundt cakes. “We were doing more bars, squares, sticky buns, muffins, and coffee cakes,” recalls Appel. By September that year, neighborhood customers who liked Magnolia’s products were requesting birthday cakes and other special occasion cakes from the two owners, even though they weren’t on the menu. “People asked, ‘Do you have birthday cakes?’ and we realized, oh yeah, we kinda missed that,” said Appel. Torey had a passion for southern food and baked goods, and she sought to re-create the fluffy, daintily iced, brightly colored layer cakes commonly found in the Deep South at church lunches, society teas, and country diners. However, the first two cakes someone ordered were different sizes—one in a nine-inch pan and one in a seven-inch pan—and Torey, like Warren, was left with excess batter.
She went to the deli next door, bought paper cupcake holders, and history was made. “We poured the batter into the leftover muffin tins from breakfast,” recalled Torey. “We made a dozen extra cupcakes from the batter.” Each time they baked cakes more cupcakes were the consequence. These cupcakes were in traditional flavors like chocolate, vanilla, and red velvet (basically chocolate with red dye), topped with a whirlpool swirl of buttercream icing in pink, lavender, and baby blue pastels that straddled the line between deliberate precision and homespun imperfection. They sold each for a dollar and a quarter. “People really liked them,” Torey said. “So we started making cupcakes intentionally.” By the end of the year word started to spread. Because the cupcakes were still a by-product of full-sized cakes and the tiny bakery had a limited staff and hours, their supply was small, so Magnolia’s cupcakes frequently sold out before the end of the day. “Customers said, ‘Where are the cupcakes?’” recalled Appel, “and it became obvious pretty quickly that cupcakes were becoming the number-one priority.”
Magnolia’s cupcakes steadily grew in popularity, first in the neighborhood and then around the rest of New York City. “It became a destination,” said Appel. “You’d walk down from the Upper East Side to the West Village for a cupcake, like you’d do with your favorite slice of pizza.” By 1997 Magnolia Bakery witnessed its first cupcake lineups forming outside the shop, and these soon snaked around the block. The shop instituted a hard limit of a dozen cupcakes per customer, which infuriated some but helped manage the incessant demand. These customers weren’t exclusively children and their parents; in fact, they were largely adults—single and married, older and professional—who wouldn’t come for a box of cupcakes but rather a singular, handheld indulgence that they had specifically traveled there to acquire. Each time the cupcakes ran out (eliciting groans from the people in the lineup, who watched them disappear from the window, one at a time), their currency rose in value. The harder they were to obtain, the more people wanted those cupcakes.
Magnolia Bakery was increasingly generating small local press clippings, though the first articles about the bakery didn’t even mention the cupcakes. A few in-flight magazines flagged them as a destination for visitors to New York, but the first mention of their cupcakes in the New York Times only happened in early 1999, and it was very brief, just a few lines in a short story on the cupcake’s potential revival, and also included mention of the Cupcake Café and several others. Still, the bakery was popular enough with the right people (cultural tastemakers in the media, fashion, and arts) that Torey and Appel were offered a book deal in 1998 with Simon and Schuster. By the time The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook was published in the fall of 1999, with a sun-drenched photograph of two full-sized cakes on the cover (one chocolate, the other coconut), much had changed at the bakery.
Appel and Torey’s relationship had strained under the pressure of the business and the rapid success that the nascent cupcake mania brought with it. They jostled in the hot, cramped kitchen and argued over expansion plans with the passion that only old friends who go into business together can do. Finally, it reached a point at which Appel could take no more, and in 1999 she sold her share of Magnolia Bakery to Torey. Soon after, Appel opened the Buttercup Bake Shop uptown, specializing in the colorful, comforting baked goods that she sold at Magnolia, with a strong portfolio of cupcakes. Their rivalry only fueled New York’s growing cupcake obsession, which was about to tip into a full-fledged national cultural food trend with a bite heard round the world.
Sex and the City, Season III, Episode V “No Ifs, Ands, or Butts.” Air Date: July 9, 2000.
- On Sale
- May 20, 2014
- Page Count
- 336 pages