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Rose, blackcurrant violet, and lily of the valley sound like choices available at flower stores. But with the emergence of macaron shops around the city, these flavors have become typical fare for New York pastry chefs. Ladurée—the birthplace of the modern macaron—opened a shop on the Upper East Side on Aug. 29, and there are rumors circulating about a downtown expansion. But is Ladurée’s arrival an attempt to cash in on a booming U.S. macaron market, or merely an attempt to bring the haute pastry back to its high-culture (and expensive) origins?
The modern macaron—two cookies stuck together with buttercream or jam—was invented in the early 19th century by Pierre Desfontaines of the French pâtisserie Ladurée. Since then, the macaron has become the best-selling cookie in pâtisseries across France. In Montmorillon, there is even an entire museum dedicated to the macaron and its place in French culinary history. However, unlike the long-time popularity of the croissant and the crepe, it was not until 2006, when Sofia Coppola featured Ladurée macarons in her film Marie Antoinette, that America gained interest in the colorful, bite-sized dessert.
Within years it became almost impossible to walk a New York block without seeing dozens of flavors of macarons decorating the windows of cafés.
Macarons have been the subject of books (I Love Macarons by Hisako Ogita), blogs (madaboutmacarons.com), and featured on television shows (they are Blair’s favorite treat on Gossip Girl). Bon Appetit magazine went so far as to christen the french treat, “the new cupcake.”
Matt Powell, a senior in CC, co-president of the Columbia Culinary Society, and author of a paper titled What Makes a Dessert? explains that it is easy to see why the macaron caught on so quickly in America. “It is colorful, and it is a quick bite of flavor. It is the ideal dessert,” he says.
The macaron’s popularity in America and America’s subsequent influence on the dessert have become quite controversial. Many feel that America, by mass-producing the macaron to fit demand, have turned it from something usually labor-intensive, delicate, and, as a result, expensive (about $2.50 per small macaron), into something almost unrecognizable to macaron connoisseurs. While the macarons of French pastry chefs like François Payard take more than 24 hours to make and have a very short shelf life, Trader Joe’s offers a box of freezable macarons for $4.99 per dozen. Macarons have begun to appear at Starbucks, Whole Foods, and even McCafés—a coffeehouse chain owned by McDonald’s.
Professor of sociology Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, author of Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine, says that, if offered in bulk, the macaron will be “dumbed down, if not totally ruined.” She compared it to the bagel: in supermarkets across the country, “bread” called bagels are offered, but most New Yorkers would not recognize these plastic-wrapped orbs as authentic.
Ferguson’s predication has turned out to be largely true—reviewers who have tried McCafé’s and Starbucks’ macarons complain that they are too sugary and too dense. Starbucks spokeswoman Lisa Passé even admitted to the Wall Street Journal that “it’s hard to do something mass-produced because they’re so delicate.” Yet, Trader Joe’s macarons have had more success than their fast food counterparts. The website Serious Eats published a review of Trader Joe’s macaron called “French Macarons from Trader Joe’s Are Pretty Damn Good,” saying, “For only $4.99 a box, I’d definitely buy these again.”
Due to what many perceive as the Americanization of the macaron, Ladurée’s arrival in New York City has caused quite a stir among macaron devotées. The French eatery promises a return to the macaron in all its delicate, melt-in-your-mouth glory. The New York Times has already heralded the Parisian pâtisserie as a breath of fresh air in a macaron-saturated metropolis. David Holder, the president of Ladurée, is insistent that despite expanding to America, Ladurée is one hundred percent Parisian. The macarons are flown over from Paris and the store is pale green with traditional Parisian décor. Holder told Interview magazine that “you have to feel like being in Paris.”
But while many are ecstatic about Ladurée’s arrival in New York City and have waited in lines outside the bakery for hours, others have been less than impressed. Many on Yelp complain that they are “overly soggy” and “definitely not worth” the $2.70, claiming that La Maison du Macaron (another high quality macaron shop) is a better option than waiting in line for hours.
Although it’s still early, it seems as though Ladurée’s journey overseas may not bring about the gourmet macaron revolution that many foodies hoped for. Perhaps they aren’t successfully replicating the Parisian tradition, or maybe Americans aren’t willing to fork out $3 and instead opt for lower-quality, mass-produced macarons. Unfortunately for connoisseurs, it’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
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