Cupcakes on the Decline – Juice on the Rise

Just like other trends, food trends have natural peaks and then quickly fade away as the new fad comes into focus. The cupcake trend is no exception. It slowly grew from 1997 when Carrie Bradshaw introduced Magnolia Bakery and then exploded about ten years later. Now, after it has lasted a number of years, will it decline?

The Wall Street Journal has everyone thinking so. In April, the journal reported that Crumbs, a major New York based cupcakery, is in decline with sales dropping 22 percent.  The journal’s report is on every food and news blog, and OC Weekly takes a look at the stats given by The Wall Street Journal, questioning whether or not the trend is in decline or this is just the effect of poor business management.

OC Weekly and other blogs consider it to be an effect of poor business on Crumbs part. On the Forbes website a journalist questioned Nick Setyan, a restaurant analyst. He told Forbes, “with Crumbs, their expansion strategy was too quick, disorganized and franchise-heavy.” It is a plausible theory, as Crumbs grew from one location to 67 locations within a a matter of ten years. Another problem noted is price. At $3.50 – $4.00, the justification for buying a cupcake that expensive is declining. It’s just not worth it anymore, and as Setyan told Forbes, “a cupcake can cost $4. You can still get a donut for 40 cents, and a cup of coffee.”

Another theory provided for the decline of the cupcake trend is that cupcakes can be baked at home. Why buy $4.00 cupcakes when you can buy them at home? On Eater.com, they asked a spokesperson for industry number crunchers Technomic why cupcakes are declining. The spokesperson was blunt, stating that “demand is flat. And quite frankly, people can bake cupcakes.” But some don’t agree with that argument since Faith Popcorn, a marketer who spoke to Forbes, “doesn’t see price as part of Crumbs’ problem, nor the ease of baking cupcakes (‘Eighty per cent of women work,’ she said. ‘Do you know any women who have time to bake?’). She cited market over-saturation, but also the contents of the average gourmet cupcake.”

Popcorn’s theory is that the average gourmet cupcake is extrememly unhealthy and in this health crazed time, society has realized it’s time to move on. She even notes that Carrie Bradshaw, the character that sparked the cupcake trend, would be gluten free and watching her weight today instead of eating cupcakes. According to Popcorn’s theory, health concerns (like diabetes) is more important.

So if fatty cupcakes are declining, what is going to take their place? Many people have guess that other sweets, like cake-pops or donuts will take the cupcake’s place. But if society is concerned with health issues, those other calorie packed sweets won’t be on the rise. Popcorn’s guess is juice bars.

In the Forbes article about the cupcake decline, it brings up that The Wall Street Journal also released a trend piece on the rise of the juice bar. “There’s this aura of health in juice,” Popcorn told Forbes. And it’s true, the acai berry has grown in the public’s eye as a super healthy, anti-oxidant rich berry that should be included in every healthy diet. It’s commonly found in juices and smoothies at Jamba Juice and other small juice bars, but it’s becoming a thing of it’s own. Acai bowls, which are smoothies packed with acai and other fruit and topped with fruit and granola, are becoming a trend of it’s own. In Orange County, there is the famous Bonzai Bowls, which has three locations in Southern California.  There is another store (Acai Republic) in Tustin, CA that is similar to Bonzai Bowls with only one location but just as good acai bowls. Having been to both Bonzai Bowls and Acai Republic, I fully understand the juice craze. The acai bowls are packed with fruit but taste sweet. It doesn’t feel like I’m eating healthy food, but I don’t have the guilt that comes along with eating a donut or cupcake.

Unfortunately, acai bowls are expensive. While people may think $4.00 cupcakes are expensive, acai bowls top that. For a medium sized bowl, I pay anywhere from $8.00 – $9.00, and these bowls aren’t that big. I don’t know about you, but if I had to choose between an acai bowl and a cupcake completely based on price, I would choose a cupcake.

But whether or not cupcakes and acai bowls are fatty, healthy or expensive, both trends will still get business from me even if they are on the decline or the rise.

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What Makes a Good Food Writer

In the beginning, it may be difficult for you to know what to write. Maybe it’s difficult to express your thoughts, or you don’t know how to organize your words. Then a professor tells you “use this technique”, but you don’t know how to integrate it into your writing without sounding mechanical. Then you’re stuck. You probably haven’t considered that you can find techniques in writing that isn’t purely academic. You can. Reading is one of the best ways to understand use of writing techniques and can often be an inspiration for your own writing. There are a few essays that I’ve recently read that are helpful, especially when it comes to food. The essays are “How to Fix Everything” by Heather A. McDonald,   “Food” by Tony Judt,  Paper and Salt by Nicole Villanueve entries “Henry James: Vanilla Ice Cream with Brandied Peaches,”  “Raymond Chandler: Swordfish Siciliani,” and “Ernest Hemingway: Bacon-Wrapped Trout with Corncakes,” and they exhibit organization techniques and relevance to the audience.

“How to Fix Everything” was my favorite to read because of the flow and relevance. A story about a young woman who cooks lasagna for her boyfriend with cancer immediately caught my interest. Everyone has known someone who has had cancer, which makes the story relatable. It becomes a story no longer about this couple, but every person and family member who has had to deal with cancer. On top of that, McDonald throws in a recipe for lasagna that transitions the piece. McDonald is specific with the recipe; she never says it’s lasagna but is descriptive enough for the reader to catch on. The instructions “Place noodles in one layer. Do not overlap. Spread sauce with vegetables over noodles. Sprinkle mozzarella evenly over the layer. Repeat three times,” are simple, but specific. The image of layering is clear in my mind, and out of context anyone could know that these instructions are for lasagna.

The Villanueve entries in Paper and Salt had a different organization than McDonald’s piece. All of the Villanueve entries are organized the same. First, a story is told about someone well known and his encounters with specific food. Second, once the short story is told a recipe for the food in discussion is placed at the end. This organization technique works because the recipe doesn’t disrupt the story and if you aren’t interested in the recipe you don’t have to read it. But there is another reason for this style of organization. If you aren’t interested in the food to begin with, the story at the beginning may change your mind. The recipes are also for food that are loved today, as Villanueve reminds us “In 1874, preparing to return home from a trip to Germany, he implored his mother, ‘Be sure about Sept. 4 to have on hand a goodly store of tomatoes, ice-cream, corn, melons, cranberries and other indigenous victuals.’ Whenever I visit my family in California, I make practically the same request,” (“Henry James: Vanilla Ice Cream with Brandied Peaches”).

Now, we must use these readings to help us write. For my Family Story and Recipe Project, I plan to tell the story of my great grandmother’s gnocchi. She lived in Rome during the 1920s, where she learned to make gnocchi. When she came back, she taught my mother how to cook gnocchi and while they cooked they would make plans to go to Rome. To tell this story, I plan to use the recipe as  a transition like McDonald did. Also, from reading these stories I know to be specific. I’m not sure how to make the story relevant to an outside audience yet, but I learned the importance of relevance while reading these stories.

It’s your turn. Read something, anything, and see if you understand techniques taught in classes or become inspired. These essays may not do it for you, but something will. So go on, read.

Saturday Nights – A Family Story

It was Saturday night in St. Louis and a young girl and her grandmother were cooking. The sound of bubbling water around 2 lbs of boiling potatoes was present while the girl played with flour. She felt the odd texture of the flour on her hands, and it got stuck underneath her nails. She patted her hands and watched the air in front of her turn white. It was a messy project; the counter top and floor were covered with white.  Her grandmother didn’t scold the girl, she was too focused on the boiling potatoes. They couldn’t be overcooked. It was important the potatoes didn’t absorb too much water and break apart. Soon, these potatoes would be combined with the messy flour and create something heavenly; gnocchi (nyo-key). These Italian potato dumplings comfort the soul with warm, buttery goodness and with just a little bit of Parmesan cheese, the gnocchi are perfected. They were a family favorite, and the young girl spent many Saturday nights cooking them with her grandmother.

My great-grandmother loved making gnocchi with my mother, but she was particular about the ingredients. My mother said that most of the time spent cooking gnocchi was actually preparation. My great-grandmother needed the best ingredients, especially the Parmesan. They had to go to a certain store to get real Parmigiano-Reggiano – commonly known as Parmesan – cheese, which they would grate themselves. My great-grandmother went out of her way to get the cheese; she didn’t own a car and had to take a bus. She did this for her love of cooking, but she also did it because she lived in Rome for a period of her life and knew what real Parmigiano-Reggiano did to gnocchi. She wanted it to be authentic.

In America, we have our food. We have our burgers, pancakes and pies. But America is a mix of ethnicity and cultures and we have a large variety of food from other countries. We can find food from almost every country. Italy, Lebanon, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Greece, Germany, Thailand, France, England, China and anything else our hearts desire. But how authentic is this food? Is Chinese food actual Chinese food, or is it an Americanized version? Today, so many Americans consider themselves to be cultured because of the food they eat, but usually that sticky orange chicken with fried rice isn’t real Chinese, or that pasta with the name no one can pronounce isn’t authentic Italian. The foreign food that is made and consumed in the United States is becoming Americanized to please the American palate, which means Americans aren’t getting the chance to try delicious dishes from around the world. My great-grandmother understood this, even during the late 60s, and went to great lengths to make her gnocchi authentic.

After the potatoes finished boiling,  but were still slightly hot, the girl and her grandmother grated them. This was a long process. There were many potatoes and only one grater. The grandmother showed the girl how to grate the potatoes, how to hold the grater and press the potatoes firmly onto it. It wasn’t the first time the girl had been taught how to grate potatoes but her grandmother was forgetful. Besides, this was the girl’s favorite part. As she and her grandmother took turns grating the potatoes, her grandmother told her stories of Rome. The grandmother had lived in Rome for a short while, and told the girl of fantastical stories of the Spanish Steps and the delicious food she tried. She spoke of creamy cheeses and the overwhelming flavors of pasta sauces. Then, after the grandmother reminisced they planned their trip to Rome. They would visit the Spanish Steps and the small apartment the grandmother lived in on Via Condotti. They would sail on the Mediterranean sea over clear blue water while soaking up the sunshine.  And then they would eat authentic pasta and gnocchi and they would be in heaven. The girl could only imagine that Rome was the most fascinating place on earth.

My great-grandmother and my mother never went to Rome together. My mother doesn’t remember the exact reason why they didn’t go, but she thinks my grandmother didn’t want her going. But my mother wanted to be cultured; she wanted to experience new places and explore the world. Unfortunately, my grandmother didn’t think traveling was important, which is a view shared by many Americans today.

Perhaps Americans don’t travel because we think we become cultured when we eat food from other countries and therefore don’t have to leave the United States. But again, most of our “foreign” food has been modified to American tastes and is completely different from the food it’s imitating. So we aren’t as cultured as we think. The only way to be cultured is to go abroad and eat the food there. We need to get out of America and eat real Italian, Greek and German food. We need to know what spices Indians use in curry and bring that knowledge back so we can make curry that will do India justice. This is why my great-grandmother only used real Parmigiano-Reggiano because she needed to cook gnocchi that could be found in a small cafe in Rome.

Once they had grated all of the potatoes they slowly mixed them with 6 1/2 oz of flour and kneaded. The girl stuck her hands deep into the mix and felt the sticky, gooey wonderfulness of potatoes and flour. But they finished kneading quickly and created a dough that was damp but not sticky. The dough was perfected. The grandmother covered the rolling pin in flour and lightly rolled out sections of the dough. She rolled the dough into thick, long ropes. Once the dough was even, the grandmother cut the ropes into 2 cm long pieces. The girl watched intently, resting her arms on the counter top with her chin pressed into her hands. The grandmother pressed each dumpling with a fork and her thumb into a concave shape, flipping them as she went. She did this so the dumplings would cook evenly and hold the sauce. Then, the gnocchi were put into a large pan of boiling salt water and sank to the bottom. The girl waited patiently for the gnocchi to rise, which was a signal that they were finished cooking. This took about two to three minutes. Once the gnocchi had risen, the grandmother removed them. The only sauce she added was a generous amount of butter and some Parmigiano-Reggiano. The gnocchi were finished, and they were warm and delicious.

When my mother was twenty-two, she finally visited Rome. She went with my grandmother, who had to be talked into going, and they visited the Spanish Steps and Via Condotti, the small street my great-grandmother  lived on. My mother ate real Italian food, including gnocchi, and even though she thought some of it was odd she enjoyed the experience. She still makes gnocchi for our family sometimes and tries to use real Parmigiano-Reggiano, though it is difficult to find. My mother tries to cook authentic gnocchi because my great-grandmother taught her the importance of traveling abroad to becoming cultured, but my great-grandmother never would have understood the importance of traveling if she hadn’t lived in Rome for a short while. So maybe we should follow suit. We should travel outside of America and experience new flavors, and maybe then we’ll understand why my great-grandmother needed to use Parmigiano-Reggiano.

View of Via Condotti

View of Via Condotti from the Spanish Steps. Photograph taken by Barbara Neubert.

So Here I Am

Fifteen minutes ago, I was preparing for a class I knew little about. I grabbed my laptop, book and notebooks thinking that was all I needed for a class about writing and food. I walked to class, found a seat and as I waited for class to start I wondered what could be so different from one writing class to the next. Now that class is beginning, I’m quickly realizing that this writing class is much different from others I’ve taken in the past.

This class is a symbol for my food journey down here in Southern California. As a Portlander, I’m used to good and unique food being everywhere and I’m used to knowing where it is. But things are different here. There’s more Mexican food than I could ever imagine and I have to filter my tap water before drinking it. These differences are things I’m not used to, and like this new writing about food class I’m starting to realize how different they can really be.

But here goes nothing. I have to take this class and I have to get used to living in Southern California, so I might as well have a little fun while doing it. The process of learning and discovery is going to be what drives me, because I do enjoy experiencing new things even if they are extremely different from what I know. There’s some spark, some excitement in the discovery. And that is what I will focus on for this semester. Discovery in writing, discovery in food and discovery in the combination of both.

It’s going to be tough, I already know. I’ll have to make choices I’m not comfortable making so I can experience new things and I need to be willing to accept those experiences. I’m going to try new restaurants, eat a lot  of Mexican food and hopefully not go broke. And at the same time I’m going to go with the flow of this writing class and try the method provided by the professor, even if it’s not the norm. And hopefully I’ll succeed. I’ll like more food and I’ll be a better writer. And maybe I’ll know more about food, or gain some sort of knowledge about food that I wouldn’t normally have without this class. The possibilities are endless.

So let’s begin! Now that I’m here, sitting in class, in Southern California, I’m ready. I’m ready for discoveries and all the new food I’m going to eat. I’m ready for food adventures and I’m ready to blog about them. It’s time. And by the end of the semester hopefully I’ll be able to take something from this. But the discoveries will never be completely over. My food journey will continue for the rest of my life, and though the class ends in May I’ll still be able to apply the writing skills I’m going to learn in this class.

The road goes ever on and on, and it is paved with chocolate bars and hazelnuts.