For years, the death of the cupcake has been greatly exaggerated. Those persistent dollops of cake and icing have survived a decade of frantic popularity, through the peaks of Atkins and Paleo and gluten-free diets, through ill-fated Cupcake ATMs and dedicated Food Network spin-off shows. “The new cupcake” is now a treasured food-writing cliché to announce any new pastry concoction, any snack that attempts to unseat the cupcake from its sugary throne. A brief survey of foods declared “the new cupcake” includes toast, pie, doughnuts, cronuts, popcorn, meatballs, popsicles, ice cream sandwiches, macarons, and meringues.
But lately, the iron grip of the cupcake empire has indeed been weakening. On Monday, cupcake chain Crumbs Bake Shop, known for their mammoth-sized treats in flavors that cannibalized other desserts (Cookie Dough, Thin Mint, Caramel Macchiato), announced that it was shuttering all its remaining stores and filing for bankruptcy. Reaction on the Internet was gleeful. “Let them eat cake,” one friend tweeted. “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” another quipped.
The Cupcake Craze, as historians will presumably call it, could be written off as just another one of New York’s culinary micro-trends, one of the few that escape the five boroughs and go on to conquer the rest of the country. But cupcakes were, for New Yorkers, deeply rooted in the Bloomberg era.
You can place the blame for the cupcake boom squarely on the shoulders of HBO. Sex and the City, itself a frothy confection of a program, had inherited the mantle of the going pop culture depiction of New York, the one that visiting friends from far-flung states expected to recreate in some small measure and local New Yorkers grumbled about. In 2000, a couple seasons into its cosmopolitan-soaked reign on premium cable, Sex and the City had an episode that featured Carrie and Miranda sitting outside of Magnolia Bakery in the West Village, gossiping about their love lives. Magnolia Bakery opened in 1996. The cupcakes, a way to monetize excess cake batter, became a local favorite. After the episode aired, they were a national phenomenon. Would-be Carrie Bradshaws in teetering heels crowded the tiny storefront. Lines began to wrap around the block. Tour buses started dumping batches of fans off on the Bleecker Street corner in the West Village. Marc Jacobs opened a store in a neighboring building to catch the excess disposable income fledgling fashionistas were flinging around.
Magnolia may have been the epicenter of the cupcake-quake, but the forces that helped it spread were both political and cultural. The old, 1970s idea of New York—those visions of the Bronx burning and Warriors-like gangs in the subways—was subsiding from popular consciousness. “New York City as playground” was slowly replacing “New York as scary place” until that fateful day in September 2001, when New York became, again, a land of nightmares.
Once Bloomberg took office in 2002, he doubled down on efforts to promote New York as a safe, fun, tourist destination, where the lurking dangers were trans fats and oversized sodas, not crime or death or terror. The appeal of cupcakes has elements of nostalgia, the comforts of sugar packaged in a hand-sized reminder of the simplicity of youth. The rise of the cupcake empire—Crumbs was founded in 2003—was part of the push for New York’s image as a fun fair, a place of high-end indulgences and saccharine sweets. Cupcakes became shorthand for a certain brand of New York urbanism, one that privileged high-rise glass towers and glossy retail stores over mom-and-pops. They were symbols of a kind of impossibly glamorous New York lifestyle, filled with enormous apartments and $400 shoes. It’s no mistake that the Girls pilot includes a scene of naked, calculatedly un-glamorous Hannah Horvath eating a cupcake naked in the bath, a neat thumb in the eye of the polished urbanism of the mid-2000s Sex and the City thing.
The Crumbs era has disintegrated. Bloomberg has been ushered out of office. But it remains to be seen what “the new cupcake” will really be.
Follow Margaret Eby on twitter @margareteby.