By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010; C04
In the decade since "Sex and the City" elevated boutique cupcakes to the status of fetish object (as it also did for overpriced pink cocktails and strappy Jimmy Choos), the cupcake has become the preferred treat of an increasingly childish culture. We are all now just waiting to be allowed past the red-velvet rope.
Who can quibble with the intoxicating allure of the $2.75 Georgetown Cupcake? Who can articulate a discomfort with the subliminally retro Betty Crocker ideals about femininity (the gyno/Easy-Bake Oven connection!) or ponder the limited entrepreneurial choices for women, even in 2010, when your mouth is full of chocolate ganache?
The message is clear: There is no problem or anxiety today that cannot be seemingly soothed by joining an hour-long line to buy a trendy cupcake. It is rich in almost every sense of the word.
But really: TV shows, too? "D.C. Cupcakes," which premieres Friday night on TLC, joins a growing number of manic-bakery shows (some with dwarves, some without) and follows the day-to-day operations of Georgetown Cupcake, the always-busy bakery at 33rd and M streets NW that opened in February 2008. The series, which will run for six episodes, features proprietors and sisters Sophie LaMontagne, 33, and Katherine Kallinis, 31, who've seen their shop grow from a pipe dream to a mini-empire that makes 5,000 or so cupcakes a day.
The sisters, originally from Toronto, repeatedly remind us in "D.C. Cupcakes" of all they have sacrificed for baked goods: For Sophie, a Princeton grad, it was working in the finance world. For Katherine, it was a gig doing PR for Gucci. "We ditched our corporate jobs," Sophie says, "and followed our dreams to make the world's best cupcakes." (And again: We gave all that up. And again: We followed our dreams.)
"D.C. Cupcakes" has no problem making it all look terribly exhausting, because it is. Decked out in pink aprons (which match the pink boxes in which customers spirit away the precious, precious cupcakes), the sisters direct the chaos at the display cases, where employees deal with the masses, and back in the kitchen, where their irritable head baker, Andres Melendez, tries to keep up with demand. Melendez serves as a sort of masculine counterbalance to the femininity of Georgetown Cupcake, and he is quick to show his displeasure when things get frantic.
Ovens simmer and cocoa powder streaks faces, but "D.C. Cupcakes" is marred by the cardinal sin of reality TV: Its subjects are all too aware of the conventions, pantomiming reality in the service of reality. The sisters and their employees aren't much better at pretending and narrating than those poor dullards seen shopping for real estate on HGTV. Everything they say sounds like the second or third time they've said it, obeying cues from the producers. It would be less boring to just stare at actual cupcakes for a half hour.
For some reason (some reason in addition to the needs of narrative), the sisters' Greek mother is a fixture of the shop, although everyone agrees that "Mommy," as she is called by the employees, isn't good at baking or mixing. She's more of a mascot; the recipes are based on treats that the sisters' grandmother used to make.
These are all details I would note if I were writing a gender studies thesis about the success of Georgetown Cupcake -- hapless mother forgets which batch is in which oven; daughters conjure up the spirit of the grandmother through the secret of using apple cider vinegar in the red-velvet mix; the symbolic freight of our national cupcake craze, seen not only as a sweet treat but as something that women (customers, the sisters, Mommy) both make and worship and thus devote their lives to. (We gave it all up for cupcakes.)
Not for nothing is cupcake consumption somehow equated with remaining thin, which you might have noticed if you've ever waited in Georgetown Cupcake's line: Who are all these lithe beauties queued up all day long, allowing themselves the dainty indulgence? There are plenty of research studies on the subject of women and chocolate cravings, the results of which verge on obvious truths but also on condescension. (Oh, woman. She's cuckoo for cocoa puffs.)
This line of questioning -- sturdy, cultural curiosity that explores who we are via what we eat and buy -- routinely eludes the cutesiness of reality TV. Here, cupcakes are only great. Food is sport, feminized (unless it's a show where a tubby man tries to eat a bucket of 50 hot wings in 30 minutes). On a show such as "D.C. Cupcakes," there is only the sugar rush, with no chance to explore how society's cravings can tell us about class, gender, economics, status.
Friday's episode finds LaMontagne and Kallinis and their staff scrambling as Valentine's Day approaches and the store gets ready to sell four times its usual daily output -- especially mass quantities of the ever-popular red-velvet cupcake. Outside, amid the drifts of Snowpocalypse '10, a crowd stretches down the block.
"Are you all in line for cupcakes?" a baffled man asks the faithful, giving them the mocking skepticism normally reserved for sci-fi geeks in line for a sequel. "Are they really that good? That's really worth waiting in line for? It's Valentine's Day, shouldn't you be doing something else?"
Remember cupcakes before all this? They were just cupcakes -- Mom's equitable solution to a classroom birthday party, leaving a sheen of shortening on the roof of your mouth. There, back then, the mania for getting and savoring one's cupcake was understood: If there were 29 children in the class, there would be 30 cupcakes in that Tupperware tray (one for teacher). You'd gobble it up and that was that. No religion, no fantasy, no dreams. Those were cupcakes. These are something else.
(30 minutes) debuts at 10 p.m. Friday on TLC.