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The Deeper Meaning of Cronut Fever

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Cronut Fever is only the latest food-related example of mass hysteria – a collective condition described by social psychologists in which large groups of people behave irrationally, usually against their own interests and sometimes at the expense of their health. What else can you call it when huge crowds are willing to wait four hours in the summer's searing heat to sample a mere pastry? Can a single baked good you can finish in three minutes be worth it? Of course not, but the epic lines continue.

[The Dancing Plague of 1518 via Wikipedia]
The first known instance of mass hysteria occurred during the Dancing Plague of 1518, when residents of Strasbourg, France began twisting and twerking inexplicably for days, until some keeled over and died. More recently in 1962 at a Tanzanian girls' school, students began laughing and couldn't stop. While Cronut Fever is a more benign manifestation of this phenomenon, it still involves masses of people with a collective compulsion willing to do anything — including hiring surrogates or spending scads of money on Craigslist — to get it. But at least you won't die waiting for a Cronut — though passersby may die laughing at you.

[A recent Cronut line. Photo: Instagram/justsamuelk]
But are the crowds really lining up for Cronuts, or does the illness represent a deeper and more symbolic yearning? The sense of belonging or even being at the vanguard of the food culture, certainly, though as the months wear on and the lines continue, who can still believe participation in the fad remains cutting-edge? Pundits have described the behavior as FOMO — Fear of Missing Out, in this case fear of missing out on something that perfectly symbolizes our food culture at this place and time.

[The ramen burger line on a recent Saturday]

If we look at other recent line-generating food hysteria — the ramen burgers at Smorgasburg, for example — they have one commonality: Cronuts and ramen burgers both represent culinary mash-ups of incongruous ethnic elements into a new gastro-entity, a process that might have happened naturally over a period of years, but in this case occurs in a single instance of forced creativity. The Cronut involves the marriage of a sweet American donut with a flaky and sassy French pastry, while the ramen burger requires a familiar American burger patty be inserted into a pair of deep-fried Japanese ramen disks, which make for a really scratchy bun. The result in both cases is a globetrotting novelty, the perfect treat for jaded foodies who have wearied of more straightforward culinary pleasures.

It might cause you to believe that the contemporary religion known as Foodism has jumped the shark and is at the end of its tether. That might be so, but cases of strange mass-market food obsessions and enforced culinary mash-ups have been occurring for at least a century, and represent nothing new. The ascendance of social media has created the only real difference. Instead of incubating and growing stronger over a period of months and years, modern food hysteria flames up immediately via Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, and Facebook. Generating situations that resemble historic mass hysteria more than ever before.

[The pretzel croissant by Robert Sietsema]

Indeed, croissant fusions like the Cronut have long been old hat. Four years ago Maury Rubin of City Bakery caused a sensation by inventing the pretzel croissant, a tasty entity halfway between a pretzel and a croissant, and also something of a technical wonder as to how it was achieved. Had Twitter been the force it is now, and we'd had a food culture where a handful of cognoscenti can touch off a firestorm among their followers, we might have seen long lines for pretzel croissants. Rubin also created the bacon-maple scone — fusing the sweet and the savory into a single pastry, while deploying an element that was already the single biggest food obsession of the '00s: bacon!

[Magnolia Bakery via Foursquare]
Stand-alone meatballs and small, heavy-on-the-frosting cupcakes are two other obsessions that have generated long lines in the last decade. While meatball madness has thankfully waned, the near-psychotic preoccupation with cupcakes remains at Greenwich Village's Magnolia Bakery, though clearly abetted by the continued popularity of Sex and the City and the proximity of Carrie's townhouse. What else is it but mass hysteria when tourists journey across oceans to stand in line for a taste of a cupcake eaten in a single episode of a long-dead TV series? And the cupcakes aren't even good.

[DiFara via Google Plus]
The pizza of Dominic DeMarco is another example of food-related mass hysteria that materialized before the social media began to dominate the discourse, in this instance propelled by newly established food bulletin boards. When Jim Leff of Chowhound first discovered DeMarco, the sainted pizzaiolo was making a pretty good slice of the neighborhood variety still common in Brooklyn. But relentless online hype – and a profound rising-to-the-occasion on the part of DeMarco – resulted in fidgety lines starting around 2003 and still continuing today that were the equal of Dominique Ansel's.

In the pre-computer age — say prior to 1995 — these irrational mass fads developed more slowly, but lasted longer, never quite reaching the level of mass hysteria, but sometimes coming close. Here are a few that caused a mania way out of proportion to their actual culinary value. Call them the slower-moving Cronuts of their time:

[A fondue party via Bachology]

Fondue Parties: What is fondue? Melted cheese thinned out with wine in which you dip little pieces of stale bread. Really, none too exciting. Yet in the '60s this dish – which originated in Switzerland – caused near hysteria. For a time fondue parties were compulsory events, handily eclipsing cocktail parties. Nowadays when you go to a street fair or flea market you're likely to spot fondue sets in mint condition, still unused in their original wrappers. Because nobody really liked fondue parties.

[Jell-O salad ad via The Society Pages]
Jell-O Salads: Gelatin desserts weren't much in the public eye before cough-syrup salesman Pearle Bixby Wait bought a patent for powdered gelatin in the 1890s and created modern Jell-O. Wait couldn't get much traction till he sold it to someone named Orator Woodward, who first promoted it as a modern dessert — abetted by the arrival of modern refrigeration techniques – and then had the brainstorm of distributing free cookbooks. He expanded the flavors available to include cherry, peach, and chocolate, and managed to get celebrities to publicly eat it. The wildfire popularity he generated via his modern marketing schemes, and the genius of convincing the public that Jell-O was not only a dessert but a salad as well, propelled the crazy fad way into the 1960s. But who bothers with Jell-O today?

[White sugar photo]

White Sugar: When sugar was introduced into Europe in the 12th century by soldiers returning from the Crusades, nobody quite knew what to do with it. It was considered a replacement for honey, with a more complex and lingering sweetness. One of the first things it was used for — it gradually became more common as the Middle Ages progressed — was preserving fruit, in a way still useful today if you're a fan of fruitcake. But with sugar soon being incorporated into savory dishes and baked goods, something that represented an actual addiction began occurring. So that when the sugar supply was cut off in Paris in 1792, massive riots involving 50,000 housewives ensued.

[Pop Rocks Candy]

Pop Rocks: Fizzies were the harbinger, an artificially sweetened beverage wildly popular among kids in the '60s and '70s, made by dropping an effervescent tablet in water and watching it foam up. In the late '70s, a product with a similar idea was developed. Pop rocks were a candy that, once placed in the mouth, fizzed up and created small explosions. Kids went crazy for them. Delusionally, parents believed the force of the explosions could knock fillings out, while kids believed if you washed pop rocks down with soda pop, you would die. Neither was true.

· All Coverage of Cronuts [~ENY~]

Magnolia Bakery

401 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014 (212) 682-3588 Visit Website

Di Fara Pizza

1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn, NY 11230 (718) 258-1367 Visit Website

Dominique Ansel Kitchen

137 7th Avenue South, New York, NY

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring St., New York, NY