Looking Deep Into Cupcakes
January 2, 2009 § 15 Comments
I try not to be negative, I really do, but when I see something like I did on today’s Daily Candy, for Melissa’s Cupcakes, I can’t help myself. I’m not blaming Melissa—in fact good for her for accomplishing what she set out to do—and I’m not blaming anyone who likes her cupcakes. But really. When it comes to cupcakes, when will it end?
The whole cupcake craze fascinates me. When Magnolia Bakery, which started the cupcake rolling when it opened about ten years ago in my West Village neighborhood, I liked the idea: an old-fashioned Americana bakery to appeal to New Yorkers who are so typically far from home. The fact that nothing Magnolia offered was very good—baked goods baked at too low of a temperature so they were blond and soggy instead of browned and crusty, cookies that looked so appealing displayed as they were in old-fashioned tin-topped cookie jars in which you could feel the sugar granule when you bit into them—seemed to be beside the point. There was something heartwarming about seeing the neighborhood gather around enjoying Nilla Wafer pudding and, yes, a then little known icon of another, arguably sweeter era of American life: cupcakes.
A lot of people think that Magnolia started the whole crazy but in fact, the original New York cupcakery (that I know of) is The Cupcake Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen. Long before Hell’s Kitchen, a gritty neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan where much of The Godfather was set became the name of a television show, fans of this little gem of a bakery would walk through the screened door and into the dingy space for the insider favorite, apple cider doughnuts or the cupcakes and cakes gorgeously decorated in flowers dyed in saturated colors.
In our current post-Magnolia reality, pretty much anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl has begun baking cupcakes. When Sprinkles opened in Los Angeles several years ago, promising a stylish cupcake made with premium ingredients (Valrhona chocolate, organic Nielson-Massey vanilla) I thought: Aren’t they a little late to catch the cupcake wave? I really and truly thought that cupcakes had had their 15 minutes. What did I know? Now Oprah has her sanctioned cupcake source. Crumbs, whose cupcakes are even grosser than Magnolia for reasons having to do with More is Not More: (think Magnolia meets Cold Stone Creamery) is spreading across the country like a bad rash. And now this: Melissa’s cupcakes the size of a quarter, giving them an extremely high cake-to-icing ratio already—but let’s not stop there: they are then filled.
Not long ago, a friend emailed me saying that all the women in her Los Angeles “mommy group” insisted that Magnolia cupcakes were the best and, she added: “I can’t help but think they must be wrong.” She was asking me what I thought were the best cupcakes. My first thought is that cupcakes by definition are not good. As far as sweets go, I I would rather have a good cookie, ice cream, fruit desserts, dark chocolate, milk chocolate: basically anything else but a cupcake. But truly, without exaggeration or irony, I’d say that though Magnolia has the cache for reasons having to do with consumer stupidity and the power of television (e.g. Sex and the City) their cupcakes are probably the worst in town. A fact that I imagine is just fine by them. I don’t believe Magnolia set out to do anything special like Sprinkles did. It would seem that their goal was to create a cupcake that imitated those our suburban parents made for our birthday parties. The fact that housewives from Middle America now form a line that wraps around the block waiting for a cupcake whose very existence is to imitate those that we New Yorkers imagine these women made for their children, a cupcake so cloying your teeth ache when you bite into it, a cupcake whose iconic status, really, is based on its mediocrity—that’s where I think that we as a people may be in trouble, or that we might at least want to look at what it is we are looking for in these cupcakes. A taste of New York it is not. A taste of stardom? Or a bite of nostalgia from a childhood we only wished we had?