When Crumbs Bake Shop announced that it was closing all its stores last week, it looked like the end of the cupcake. Slate’s headline was “Death Comes to Crumbs Bake Shop.” As it turns out, reports of Crumbs’ death were greatly exaggerated—last Friday, Fischer Enterprises, which owns Dippin’ Dots, announced that it was rescuing Crumbs from bankruptcy with the plan to reopen select stores.
The cupcake owes its resilience in part to its fame: Since New York’s Magnolia Bakery rose to stardom after a cameo on Sex and the City in 2000, the cupcake has become the world’s most enduring symbol of food fads. Since the mid-2000s, food journalists and publicists have announced new trends by calling various foods “the new cupcake” literally hundreds of times.
What is “the new cupcake” according to all these trend stories? We searched news database Nexis for the phrase “the new cupcake” and tallied every instance of its use in English language publications, whether it was a writer declaring doughnuts “the new cupcakes,” wondering whether frozen yogurt was the “new cupcake,” or quoting someone else asserting that pie was “the new cupcake.” We graphed the results below.
The chart shows just how often this food writing trope is abused and overextended, but where did it come from? The cliché seems to have originated, unsurprisingly, with a publicist. “Brownies are the new cupcake; the it dessert for 2006,” began a June 2006 press release for Fairytale Brownies. The metaphor struck a chord, and journalists soon began applying it to other foods: cookies, empanadas, bundt cakes. The first big “new cupcake” arrived in March and April 2010, when nine different publications declared macarons the new trendy food par excellence. Macaron fever had cooled down by December 2010 and January 2011, when 14 magazines, newspapers, and websites predicted that pies were the new cupcake. There was a surprising canelé blip in early 2012, and a definite trend toward declaring doughnuts “the new cupcake” in early 2013.
As time went on, writers and publicists began to use the phrase more ironically, or at least with a heavy dose of self-awareness. Cannibalism, libraries, and adult sandboxes have all been labeled “the new cupcake” in the last few years. At the end of December 2011, restaurant critic Jonathan Kauffman made a wry prediction for the coming year: “Seven new desserts will be proclaimed the new cupcake. All will be wrong.” By July 2012, the cliché had become so hackneyed that Philadelphia Daily News writer Jason Wilson proposed that it was time to retire it altogether, though he soon added, “Actually, let’s retire it next week. Because this week it’s really hot and I want to write about popsicles and really—trust me—popsicles are, like, the new cupcake.”
Wilson was neither the first nor last to make the “popsicles are the new cupcakes” claim, and his dilemma exemplified the bind in which food writers find themselves: Calling something “the new cupcake” is trite, but it’s also so useful. As the Tennessean’s Ellen Marguiles put it recently, “Declaring that fill-in-your-favorite-food-trend-here is the new cupcake is the new cupcake of writing about food and trends.” It’s convenient, it’s popular, and, like the cupcake trend itself, it refuses to die.
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