--By Kelly Senyei, Gourmet Live
One by one the cameras start flashing. I haven't been in New York City's Magnolia Bakery for more than a minute before I can sense the madness. "Red velvet!" The squeals echo off the walls, which appear to be closing in on me as throngs of tourists and locals alike fill the small space. I'm in line for a cupcake, and I'm in Hell.
The two girls standing ahead of me take turns snapping photos of each other in front of the bakery case. The wait is less than ten minutes. Not bad for a Thursday at 1:30 p.m. They reach the front of the line and make their selections. "One pink," the girl says. Two words and a gesture toward the glass cupcake case is all it takes. I have now arrived at what is arguably the Mecca of couture cupcake hysteria.
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Magnolia Bakery, Sprinkles Cupcake, Crumbs Bake Shop and Georgetown Cupcake are just a few of the haute bakeries fueling a trend that has turned from something that was sweet in 2007, to something that is sour in 2010. Aside from long lines, consumers are shilling out anywhere from $2.75 to $4.50 for what food critic Toby Young says is "a vastly over-rated food product and almost always overpriced."
But how did we get to a point when standing in line for a high-priced, dried out individual serving of baked flour, sugar and eggs has not only become acceptable, but has become the norm? The answer is due in part to a now infamous television scene with two fashion icons.
It seemed so harmless. Carrie and Miranda sitting on a bench, gushing over their latest flings while noshing on buttercream-topped cupcakes outside Magnolia's Bleecker Street shop. "I just don't get it," says Tom Colicchio, chef, restaurateur and judge on BRAVO's Top Chef. "I don't understand why people wait in line just because it was on Sex and the City." That moment was the celebrity-saturated catalyst for what was to come.
Magnolia has become a culinary landmark so ingrained in pop culture that the city's popular Sex and the City bus tour began making stops at the bakery to give customers a taste of the treat. The demand eventually became overwhelming, so the stop was pulled from the tour in May 2010 and another bakery's cupcakes were swapped in. This was arguably the oversaturation inflection point.
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It is possible that the craze is a result of something deeper than a desire to mimic Hollywood's trendsetters. Perhaps it's a manifestation of some latent national juvenility. "Everyone wants to avoid the big, heavy issues and just pretend that life is a toddler's tea party," says Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys New York.
It's understandable that something sugar-loaded and high in fat may ease a person's economic (or other) woes. But when you're looking to do a little emotional eating, it's hard to justify paying $3.25 for a cliché that has the flavor of uncooked flour, the texture of an overused sponge and the grittiness of your dentist's fluoride-packed toothpaste.
But we can find comfort in the fact that there are plenty of other options when it comes to satisfying our collective sweet tooth. Colicchio says he's been selling doughnuts, a personal favorite, by the thousand atop New York City's High Line park. Skeptics may say that doughnuts, too, have already seen their glory days. But at least when I go to Doughnut Plant I know my $2.75 Crème Brûlée doughnut isn't going to leave me wanting more, or feeling like I need to floss the grit of a failed frosting out of my teeth.
Ultimately, we could just take Doonan's suggestion and head for the cake aisle. "Bundt cakes are going to be huge next season," he says. "And by huge, I mean about 36 inches in diameter." Perhaps bigger will in fact be better.
Click here to download the free Gourmet Live app, and tell us what you think! Is the cupcake trend over, or here to stay?
Photo Credit: Conde Nast Digital Studio
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--By Kelly Senyei, Gourmet Live