The Comfort Food Diaries: Cupcakes, Reclaimed

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[Illustration: Zac Overman]

Editor's Note: Welcome to The Comfort Food Diaries, a month-long series that will run each weekday throughout the month of January. Here, the Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite writers from the food world, will reflect on the dishes, delicacies, and, yes, guilty pleasures that have sustained us through good times and bad.

On February 22, 2004, Sex and the City aired its final episode, and, four months later, I moved to New York. These two events were unrelated. I came here because I'd just graduated college, and this was where my job and my boyfriend were. I wasn't really a committed fan of the series—just a few episodes here and there. But when I showed up in New York to begin what I hoped would be a glamorous and successful try at adulthood, I was entirely unprepared for how much the reality of the city intersected with what I'd thought was the fiction of the show.

It's impossible to pinpoint the exact extent to which Sex and the City reflected a real New York, and how much the New York I arrived in had already been indelibly colored by Sex and the City. Its influence wasn't limited to its location, of course—even when I was a crunchy undergrad at a small school in western Massachusetts, the way I dressed and moved and spoke were tinged by its authority. It affected everyone, really, especially if you were white, and straight, and a woman, and wore clothes. It gave women rich new reference vocabularies with which to talk about friendship, dating, and sex. It elevated shoes and handbags to secular religion. And the scope of the cultural phenomenon of the show meant that everyone knew what you meant when you said you were a Carrie, or announced that you really felt like a Samantha tonight.

But in New York, even after it went off the air, the show was a presence. Lower Manhattan pulsed with it. Sarah Jessica Parker may as well have been the mayor. It was everywhere, in every bar and restaurant and store and park, but it all reached white-hot intensity around the places and things that the show had particularly championed. If Sex and the City had said something was cool, then by god, it was cool. I was 22, broke, and not very pretty, so my avenues of entry into that glittering world were limited. I didn't go clubbing in the Meatpacking District, I didn't drive around in private cars, I didn't meet mysterious billionaires at elegant cocktail parties. But there's one thing I did do: I ate cupcakes.

Plenty has been written chronicling the rise of the cupcake as the superstar of the mid-aughts New York pastry display, in all cases tracing it back to Magnolia Bakery, a buttery darling of a business on the corner of Bleecker and 11th. And Magnolia Bakery can trace its ascendance as the epicenter from which the cupcake craze radiated to Sex and the City. Of course, the cupcakes didn't have to be from Magnolia. The conventional wisdom, even then, was that Magnolia's cakes were just tourist bait, not as good as they used to be, and I'd lose hours in impassioned arguments over the relative merits of Billy's Bakery or Sugar Sweet Sunshine or Buttercup Bake Shop. Every girls' night, out or in, involved cupcakes. Bringing cupcakes into the office was the most powerful expression of coworker love. The ideal first date, my friends and I agreed, was whatever, it didn't matter, as long as it involved getting cupcakes together at the end of it.

I may have lived in a world Sex and the City made, but I never really developed a canonical knowledge of the show itself. I'd always assumed that cupcakes were a recurring motif on the show, that little frosting-coiffed frustums were as constant in the lives of its four protagonists as they had been in my own, that one ubiquity had been fueled by another. It wasn't until last month that I learned that the whole thing—all of it, the entire edifice of the cupcake surge—was brought about by one 30-second scene in the fifth episode of the third season, in which Carrie tells Miranda about her crush on Aidan while sitting on a bench outside of Magnolia, eating a vanilla cupcake topped with a magenta swirl of buttercream.

For anyone skeptical of the breadth and depth of the show's influence, that's all you really need to know. Half a minute onscreen in the hands and mouth of Carrie Bradshaw, and suddenly an unremarkable dessert that had anchored my childhood—served at birthday parties not because they were cute or trendy but because they baked faster than regular cakes, and because their inherently equal portioning cut off the possibility of jealous tantrums—was an object of acquisitive obsession on par with a Fendi baguette or a Blahnik Mary Jane.

But New York is a city of bubbles—real estate, stock market—and cupcakes were no exception. And New Yorkers are snobs, all of us, quick to detach ourselves from a localized pleasure as soon as it becomes evident that it's catching on anywhere else. Sex and the City's influence grew in tandem with the rise of the internet and with fan culture (it's rarely credited as one, but the millions of women swept up in the fantasia of Carrie's life comprised, undoubtedly, a fandom), and, for the vast majority of fans eager to perform their allegiance in the course of pilgrimages to New York, it was so much easier to acquire and consume a cupcake than it was to drop a thousand dollars on a pair of shoes. Magnolia Bakery had always been full mostly of out-of-towners, but by 2008, the majority of the other cupcake shops were, too. Cupcake chains were springing up, Crumbs and Sprinkles and other pluralized synecdoches that bypassed the intimacy and nostalgia of a flour-dusted bakery for focus-grouped interiors and a metastasized product with an explosive frosting-to-cake ratio and rococo decoration, object more than food, performance more than indulgence, craft project more than baked good. Cupcakes became, in short, deeply uncool.

And so did Sex and the City, at just about the same rate. Almost immediately after the last episode had aired, its legacy flattened out into a purely aesthetic one—people forgot the honesty, the weirdness, the subversion, and instead all most people remembered was its outsize influence on fashion and its laissez-faire attitude toward sex. The backlash, when it came, was a tsunami. For years, what women in New York wore, what we drank, how we dated—all of it had been measured in units of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda, or had been a conscious rejection thereof. Bars in the mid-aughts were split evenly between women ordering Cosmopolitans and women making a point of not ordering them. I never liked that cocktail very much myself, but when the backlash hit, I went from not drinking them to very pointedly not drinking them.

When something is as blisteringly zeitgeisty as cupcakes or Sex and the City and the end of its influence comes, it doesn't gently float down from its pinnacle to become quietly unremarkable. It plummets, and it burns. The show and the dessert have spent years inhabiting that bleak purgatory where our former cultural touchstones suffer for their sins of success. But time softens all griefs, as they say. It's only now, 12 years after Sex and the City went off the air, that New York seems to have shaken the last wisps of its influence, its gaudy boom-time materialism, its kaleidoscopic visuals, its cynical-sensual model of the elaborately accessorized, meticulously constructed feminine.

To that end, the show has had a reconsideration of late, one to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. It's been deservedly reevaluated as not just a fluffy sitcom that launched a thousand shoe closets and a million ladies-only brunches, but instead as a hugely important television milestone, not to mention as a feminist text. We're now long enough out of the stiletto gulag that we can cautiously love it again—no longer expected to wear large flowers on our heads (as I might have done to a party or two), no longer compelled to smile when our friends shriek their consensus that we are the Miranda of the group. (I don't think I'm the only one who learned that it is awfully hard to smile when you're told you're the Miranda of the group.) Sex and the City has got its good name back. The cupcake, however, has not.

I have a hypothesis: A cupcake is a woman. To be precise, a cupcake is a Sex and the City woman. Her attire gets more attention than her internal quality. She was cool for a while, but then snobs like me decided to dismiss her because she got too mass, she was too unselective about her company. Snobs like me rolled our eyes at her because she wasn't trend-aware enough to realize how deeply uncool she was. But also: I was wrong about the Sex and the City women. I was wrong to scoff at the foursomes who shell out 50 bucks apiece to ride a pink bus around what remains of Carrie's New York (including a stop to "Indulge in cupcakes like when Carrie confides in Miranda about Aidan"), because you know that banner I'm picking up again now? The one that says the show is actually pretty great, and we were foolish and maybe a little sexist to treat it like it was flimsy folderol, and aren't we lucky to live in the landscape of personal independence and sexual empowerment those four characters shaped for us? Well, those women on the pink bus never put that banner down.

I've been thinking about cupcakes again. About how happy they used to make me, all soft crumb and creamy top, how much joy I would get from being young and in New York and walking around a city that was familiar from television but utterly new to me, full of all the touchstones of what I thought a New York life ought to contain: zooming yellow cabs and smoky basement bars and riding the subway to work and being a real, live, actual grown-up, someone who paid rent and did her taxes and ordered drinks with confidence and would, on a particularly sunny afternoon, or after too many well drinks at some jukebox nightclub, grab a friend and go buy a cupcake to punctuate our happiness.

So I went back to it. A group of my friends came out to celebrate my birthday a few weeks ago, and we ended up, at the end of the night, at a Lower East Side bar where I used to spend a lot of time back when cupcakes and Sex and the City were both cool. Back then, I'd adopted the bar because the drinks were cheap, the crowd was relaxed, and hey, it didn't hurt that my very favorite cupcake shop was half a block away. A decade on, I picked it because it was near where we'd had dinner, and because, on your birthday, the two things you deserve are nostalgia and cake.

The bar provided one; the cupcake shop, still open at this late hour and after all these years, provided the other. I grabbed a friend, and we slipped out into the night and returned after 10 minutes with winter-chapped cheeks and a dozen cupcakes, assorted. When we put the white baker's box of treats down on the table, a cheer rose up, and I watched the people I love all reach in to peel the cakes from their paper wrappers and bury their faces in them. I had a chocolate one, topped with yellow buttercream. It was sweet and airy and buttery and rich all at once, the perfect size, the perfect shape. The cupcake was great—it was beyond great. And in that moment, as Carrie Bradshaw might say, I realized it always had been.