As I walked the streets of the Upper West Side during my trip to New York, I was disarmed to see so many Starbucks.
Now, don’t misunderstand me — I don’t see Starbucks as the evil empire. Hell, one of my best friends works at the corporate office here in Seattle, and she has informed me that Starbucks spends more money on health insurance every year than they spend on coffee. Impressive. They provide a service to the world, functioning as everyone’s third place, that space of comfort away from home and work. They installed comfy couches and fake fireplaces, and the people came flocking.
But does there really need to be a Starbucks every five blocks between 116th and 34th Street? And why are they all full, all the time? Doesn’t anyone in New York have jobs?
(And why does Starbucks have to over-roast their coffee?)
One of the only disappointments of my recent trip to New York was finding how corporate the place has become. A block in the 90s looks like the same in the 80s looks like a block near Lincoln Center: Starbucks; Gap; Barnes and Noble. Throw in a nail salon, a sushi restaurant, and a pizza place, and there’s the entire block.
There are twenty more times independent bookstores and local music stores in quaint little Seattle than there are in all of Manhattan.
Even the grocery stores feel as though they are shaped from the same enormous cookie-cutter mold. D’Agostinos, Gristedes, and the Food Emporium — they lurk on every other block, all with rather dispritingly limp produce and ill-lit aisles. Whole Foods has clearly invaded Manhattan, and that’s an improvement over the other chains, in my opinion. But they also stalk like giant behemoths, a dazzling warehouse, a mini-mall of organic food, every one the same, and every one too expensive. My friend Kari and I stopped in the Whole Foods at the Warner Center on 57th Street to stock up on groceries for dinner that night, and I nearly fainted from the sensory overload.
Is it any wonder that this neon-blinking atrocity, which Hershey has continuosly blaring in the middle of Times Square, feels like a metaphor for me of how corporate parts of Manhattan are?
Of course, there are still independent food producers left in Manhattan. It’s such an enormous place with a thousand little pockets of concentrated blocks, that there will always be a tiny store selling one item. Murray’s Cheese Shop on Bleecker. Il Laboratorio del Gelato on Orchard Street. Yonah Shimmel, the Downtown Knish on Houston Street. It’s always the independent food producers who interest me most. And frankly, their food always tastes better than the food of even the most enlightened chains.
I have discovered, since I had to go gluten-free, that most of the people who make gluten-free foods make great food. They all started with a sense of urgency, a real desire to make food that lingers in the memory with unexpected pleasure. Those foods come with fervency. A woman starts baking gluten-free cookies in her home kitchen. Everyone remarks, “These are fantastic. I wouldn’t even know they are gluten-free!” Driven forward by the sense of joy her food is giving people, she starts delivering to local coffee shops. And then she decides to open her own bakery.
I’m so glad that Erin McKenna followed that winding path, following the fervor of needing a memorable gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free cupcake. If she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to eat at Babycakes.
Babycakes is simply the best little bakery I have ever stood inside. Tiny as a mini-muffin, Babycakes is just around the corner from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, on Broome Street. It makes sense that Ms. McKenna opened her daring little bakery in this neighborhood, historically the land of immigrants and enormous hopes. (And also some of the best food in New York.)
It’s an improbable story. Told three years ago that she can no longer eat gluten or dairy, Ms. McKenna decided to cut out sugar as well. Most of America, of course, would immediately cry: “What else is there to eat?” Well, so much more. Determined to still eat comfort foods after a lifetime of birthday parties and baking with her mother, this feisty young woman started experimenting with agave nectar and cold-pressed coconut oil as ingredients. A whiz in the kitchen, she impressed her friends with how genuinely fabulous it all tasted. And thus, a bakery was born.
Ah, but not so easy. The loan she tried to take out for her small business fell through. And even though the little shop is no bigger than a thimble, really, this is still Manhattan. So she and her co-workers have been pulling twelve-hour days, working for little pay, and essentially just praying that people will come in.
People are coming in.
When I was there with my friends Monica and Gabe, people strolled and sauntered into the place at a steady pace. And how could they resist? The place is just so darned adorable — there’s no other word for it. There’s a certain kitschy, girly sensibility to the bakery. The women behind the counter wear pink, candy-striper aprons. The walls are a pleasing pastel palette. And everywhere are nostalgic signs from the 1950s, talking about frosting shots and the inability to please everyone.
As an indpendent woman in 2006, I feel blessed that I have choices that my grandmother and mother never had. They were obligated to be in the kitchen, cooking away all day. But me? I choose it. I have that luxury. For me, the signs and sensibilities of Babycakes were a way of paying homage to that generation, winking at them as we bake.
The morning I was in Babycakes was magic. After a brittle cold winter week, we had a warm Saturday morning. Everyone who walked into the bakery began smiling. I have to say, though, I’m sure that the enveloping smell of warm chocolate cake and tart lemon cupcakes mingling in the air enticed the smiles to emerge. Everything smelled wholesome and decadent at the same time.
We ordered a chocolate chip cookie and two cupcakes. Somehow, we resisted the gooey chocolate cake resting on the top of the counter. I had to take a photograph and let that take the place of throwing my mouth down and gobbling it all up in one bite. I restrained myself. But it smelled that good.
My friends and I walked out of the store, and into the sunlight. We took photographs on the sidewalk and laughed at ourselves. We bit down into our treats and murmured about their goodness. The cookie was crisp and thin, filled with oozing chocolate. And the cupcakes? Well, since I had already been to another gluten-free bakery that morning with my friends, and I was headed for a plane that afternoon, I let Monica take them home instead of eating them on the spot.
She reported joy upon eating them.
I ate well and gluten-free in a number of places in New York during my whirlwind eating tour. But in the end, I like Babycakes best. I only wish that I lived in the neighborhood, so I could visit its warmth more often. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, and I want to support my sisters. But it’s clear that these women are — in spite of the money worries, the small space, and the tremulous feeling of the unknown — having a great time. And in the end, isn’t that what we hope to do when we make food? Make a mouthful of joy for someone.
Give me a Babycakes over a Starbucks any day.
248 Broome Street
between Ludlow and Orchard
I have awarded Babycakes this honor as part of the Indpendent Food Festival and Awards, of which I am proud to be a part. Here is a precis of the idea behind the award from our host, Hillel of Tasting Menu:
Food can be a wonderful part of life. A growing legion of people in the world think of every meal as an opportunity for a great experience. And yet, sometimes it seems like an ever shrinking number of people actually make great food. tasteEverything is dedicated to the idea that the more people share their great experiences, the more likely it is that the people who make great food will prosper and increase in number.
For more great food and opinions about it, check out the awards all week at Taste Everything. Go and read, then support your local food producers.