Three articles I read this week closely represent each an end of the tripole of my preferred brand of food writing: literary in tone, obsessive about material details, concerned with packaging and its relationship to social experience and individual perception, and occasionally referencing dead Brits in a way that portends doom for humanity.
The Art of Our Necessities: A Cronut Story in The Paris Review glimpses the phenomenon of the cronut through a kind of literary anthropology, using a framework of observations from an early morning in SoHo to write about food fads and what compels people to participate in them, replete with sensual details like the noise of “cardboard hitting the ground,” with references to King Lear, Sex and the City, and contemporary art.
How 500 Years Of Weird Condiment History Designed The Heinz Ketchup Bottle in Fast Company is (despite its awful linkbait-y headline) a thoughtful if digressive digest on the history of tomato ketchup and how contemporary (and western) expectations of this condiment evolved, particularly through the intervention of the Heinz company. Ketchup’s background as a kind of Chinese fish sauce makes the banana ketchup that so many non-Filipinos have found exotic (and so many people with functional retinal cones have found unnaturally red) seem somewhat apropos in a longer chronological context. Also: it’s a non-Newtonian fluid! Ketchup parties!
Take this quote on the cronut (emphasis mine):
There’s a thrill to such a futile enterprise, especially something so famously futile and so crassly specific to this day, age, and city. Other food fads will emerge—as the summer wanes, the ramen burger and doughnut ice cream sandwiches already sport long queues. And then, the moment passes. Other food hybrids, like bagel bites and pigs in a blanket, were probably once wondrous, too. Cronuts may too find their place in the freezer aisle in a few years, but for now, those who wait for hours or pay a laughable amount of money to eat them do it in a state of utter giddiness.
And compare it with this quote on ketchup:
A bottle of Heinz isn’t just a container of ketchup. It’s a design classic because of everything besides the ketchup it manages to bottle up: not just the history of a condiment or an object lesson in non-Newtonian physics but the guiding principles of a great man who believed, more than anything else, that good design was transparent.
I re-read Arcadia a couple weeks ago (for perhaps the dozenth time) and these two articles brought this quote to mind rather quickly:
Heat goes to cold. It’s a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature. What’s happening to your tea is happening to everything everywhere. The sun and the stars. It’ll take a while but we’re all going to end up at room temperature.
And while Nikkitha Bakshani’s text on cronuts spells out a fate for them not dissimilar from pigs in a blanket* – packaged beveled-text and cartoon characters suburban shoppers can recognize from TV commercials – this outcome is hardly certain.
In the Washington Post’s profile of Goya foods, a Goya executive told a “cautionary tale” about General Mills’ Progresso soup brand that seems salient in the context of the fate of cronuts and other spectacular limited-edition things on the verge of either going supernova or earning a GIF in a Buzzfeed memorial on the other side of the shark:
Progresso in its day, the 1950s and 1960s, was the Goya of Italian food. And now what is Progresso? It’s a soup company. … They were lulled into believing “yes, go through the major chains, don’t have a single focus, we’ll take these items only.” For two or three years, sales were booming, and after that, they started to decline. Then it became a question of the chain saying, “We don’t need all these items, let’s get rid of them.” You lose your authenticity. It becomes, “Well, we don’t really need you anymore, there’s all these other lines. You’re not that special. You’ve lost your reason for being.”
While the cronut may yet ascend to commonplace novelty or be a footnote to the cupcake swell of the mid-to-late ’00s, the story of Progresso/Goya offers a third way: growth through a market niche, especially those niches in new multitudes of hybrid spaces. Goya (and Huy Fong, for another) exploits burgeoning pockets of American hybridity expertly (even if in the latter case, inadvertently), and while its niche springs from ethnic hybridity, the appeal of Ansel’s cronut is arguably rooted in the economic hybridity inherent in high-low aesthetics, dosed with a borderline-fetishistic scarcity (200 per day, 2 per person, 1 flavor per month) relative to demand.
Further, while Bakshani posits “the pulsing question behind Dominique Ansel’s invention is not How did he think of that? It’s Why didn’t anybody else?,” I’d argue that there was probably an economic or technological barrier that Ansel recently felled, perhaps a way of treating the viennoiserie or tweaking known techniques of frying doughnuts.
And the fate for these kinds of rare ideas is almost always diffusion, but there is a difference between the diffusion of an idea – you take croissant dough! but you fry it like a doughnut! – or the diffusion of an actual product: The Cronut™ (it is actually trademarked) with all its inherent supply-chain economy/environment-upending side effects, clean factories, and beautiful packaging, stacked in palettes in Costco freezers, an aisle over from the Heinz tomato ketchup and Goya black beans, somehow no longer special. Perhaps someone decades from now will pass along a story to their colleagues about the ritual that defined the genesis of the cronut in our present day and its long and winding path to ubiquity, perhaps after they have polished off two at an office birthday party, where a lukewarm half-dozen remain on a tray dotted with sticky crumbs on a countertop in an unloved office-park kitchenette.
And with regards to Arcadia: it’s all trivial – cronuts, ketchup, canned goods, 20th-century British drama. It’s what we line up at daybreak for that makes us matter.
*Pandas in a blanket
A variation (dare I say innovation?) on a freezer-section classic developed by Christina and me; this has become our go-to for potlucks. We use the pre-made crescent roll pastry that’s available near the dairy section of most supermarkets but swap out American-style cocktail wieners or hot dogs with Chinese sausage. Dot the inside of the pastry with a sauce we like to call “Communist Grandma” (the art direction explains this). Serve with sriracha ketchup – a sauce of equal parts Huy Fong Sriracha and tomato ketchup – Heinz original or whatever you have on hand.