Cro-Mag·non [kroh-mag-nuhn, -non, -man-yuhn] noun 1. an Upper Paleolithic population of humans, regarded as the prototype of modern Homo sapiens in Europe. 2. a member of the Cro-Magnon population.
Cro-Tard [kroh-tahrd] noun 1. a devolved member of civilization irrationally prone to eating, documenting their eating of, and hyping the eating of absurdist foodstuffs for a variety of equally absurd or insipid reasons. 2. a member of the Cro-Tard population.
This story begins with one of two women. The first? Nineteenth century English novelist Mary Shelly, famed author of Frankenstein.
The second? My girlfriend, who last year—after having to deal with the universally traumatic experience that is finding a new place to live in New York City—finally found a pretty decent deal in a studio in Manhattan. You can barely open the door without hitting her couch, but the location is clutch. Not just because it wasn’t in a particularly tourist-ridden part of an otherwise tourist-ridden section of Manhattan, or quiet, or charming, but specifically because of one particular feature that is—or was—dear to her heart.
See, her mom loves baking. And down the street from her, right around the corner, is this exceptional little French bakery. She used to go there in the morning before work for coffee and a really good pastry—nothing more.
But not long ago, things started to change.
The Line wasn’t long at first. But it grew, and it grew. Soon, The Line wrapped around the block, and the bakery—once a noble little neighborhood institution that quietly did a very normal thing remarkably well—had transformed into something else entirely: A breeding ground. For them. Those on The Line.
Back to Shelly. In her seminal novel Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein creates a “monster” that’s basically a replicated human out of various human parts, baked by lightening.
But the comparison here isn’t between Dominique Ansel’s monster (the Cro-Nut) and Dr. Frankenstein’s monster (the Monster).
It’s the villagers.
See, in Frankenstein, it’s more or less humanity’s horrified reaction to the Monster that results in everything going to shit. And what’s horror if not a variation on awe and fascination? The villainy didn’t start with Ansel or the Doctor. It started with the villagers. The villagers don’t want to understand the monster. The villagers don’t want nuance. They want a freak show. They want to tell their friends about the freak show. They want to leer. They want to be scandalized. And they want to ravage. Or destroy. Or consume. Or gormandize.
The villagers are the fucking monsters. The Cro-nut eating Cro-Tards had arrived. And they haven’t left since. And now, their ranks are growing.
This weekend Eater.com reported something totally predictable, but no less gross and pathetic: At North Brooklyn’s premiere outdoor food market, Smorgasburg, a line that is “like one and a half Cronut lines” developed for—what else?—a “Ramen Burger.” It’s a hamburger, but instead of being sandwiched between two pieces of bread, it’s sandwiched between two pieces of ramen. Let’s forgo any conclusions on taste, an entirely subjective matter. I’m sure, to some people, it tastes good. To others, not so much. But taste isn’t even remotely the issue here.
The issue’s that someone saw this of-the-moment trend of people flocking en masse to Frankenstein-esque food creations, and they saw this trend in the most crass way possible: As the jumping-off point to create a new monster.
The formula’s pretty simple:
1. Take a recent food trend, something that people have become irrationally overexcited about.
2. Find some way to indulge that overexcitment by combining it with some other element of irrational overexcitement.
3. IT’S ALIVE!
Like flies to cultural shit, the Cro-Tards reliable showed up in droves, and got in The Line for the Ramen Burger. And they didn’t just wait for minutes, or a half an hour, but an hour. Sometimes, more.
We’re not even talking about the best iteration of something, or the spectacle that is a craftsman in the essence of their work—like Dom De Marco, making his pizzas, or even Dominique Ansel, whose madeline cookies or kouign amann are both beautiful things to behold. We’re talking about someone putting a burger between two pads of ramen. It’s haute dorm-room cuisine, which is to say, ironic if you went to Harvard, sincere if you went to Chico State, equally stupid no matter where you went. The Ramen Burger is that much worse than the Cronut, in that it’s not the seamless integration of two things that have always been distantly related, or even some type of culinary revelation, like the first person to spill salt flakes on butter. This?
This is the El Camino Lift Kit of food. And the hype is—as my family physician used to say of that spat of ’90s-era panics that never manifested in full—”a product of Madison Avenue,” except the ad execs of Madison Avenue trying to con us are no longer ad execs, nor are they on Madison Avenue. Instead, they’re some plucky young turks well-versed enough in fuckery to know where the fish are, and know how to catch ’em. Again, while I have no doubt the guy responsible for the Ramen Burger is a decent chef, at this point, I can virtually guarantee his talent is more coveted at the top of a Wieden-Kennedy than in the back of a great kitchen.
And this brings us to the $64,000 Question: Who are the Cro-Tards?
Who’s going to wait an hour—sometimes more—of what precious little time most humans have away from the jobs they work so hard at, to spend it on line, waiting for a foodstuff that sounds like it was inspired less by any desire to feed people well so much as a shirt still sitting on a sale rack at an Urban Outfitters in Tempe?
My anthropological game-hunt of who the Cro-Tards are starts by identifying tribal patterns, and the last thing we saw like this was The Bacon Craze of a few years ago. Remember? Bacon Soap. Bacon Lube. Bacon Soda. And then, of course, Bacon Chocolate. And not just Bacon Chocolate, but 23k Gold Bacon Chocolate. How did we get to a point where someone felt they could actually sell bacon, in chocolate, with gold flakes to people? Because whoever sold it was obviously convinced of a market for it. One theory: Bacon’s a Taboo Food. It’s meat. It’s fatty. It’s a rich, greasy taste that is low in cost, a generally blue-collar food in America that never had been (nor really needed to be) elevated to much more. And middlebrow culture’s obsession with elevating low culture was eventually exploited.
This has happened a lot in America. Jogging just used to be jogging, and then in 1978, jogging became a whole fucking thing. But jogging, if there’s gonna be a craze, surely isn’t the worst one to go crazy over. And joggers who didn’t have their trails over-trodden with people rapturously engaging the fad of the moment were probably happy to have people finally understand what was so great about jogging.
But other than pig farmers—or, realistically, corporations who owned pig-filled factory farms—nobody was happy to be joined in the bacon craze. Nobody was relieved that somebody finally understood their routinely misunderstood affection for bacon. The Bacon Craze was just a case of fetishizing the taboo of this food, this low culture, this feeling of breaking some threshold of proper nutrition and creating an unholy matrimony between your body and this massively indulgent thing.
These “neat” and “taboo” foods that represent nothing more than a stamp on one’s passport of ostensibly adventurous (but really: idiotic, lame, and not-really-all-that adventurous) eating reflect something even worse—a base desire to be part of a mania. If anything, the Cronut itself is an exception, as Ansel’s an established craftsman, and this didn’t start as the birth of a craze so much as an idea to try out. An experiment. If it’s possible to show respect for a donut or a croissant, the Cronut at the very least does that. But I get the feeling Ansel’s craftsmanship is the last thing on the minds of those lining up for an hour or two for Cronuts, let alone the mouthbreathers lining up for a Ramen Burger.
In early 2009, my brother was coming to visit me in New York for the first time ever. I took him to Momofuku Ssam Bar, one of the most innovative restaurants in the city at that time (and arguably, still). I was excited to show him the depth and variety of the menu, what could be done when the most simple ingredients are subjected to unlikely, unimpressive-sounding combinations to produce brilliant results (apples and buttermilk; sea urchin and tapioca, etc.). I’d been hyping it to him for as long as the place had been open, telling him that it was like seeing Star Wars for the first time, an eye-opening experience that would change the way he ate food. He ate the dinner, and enjoyed it, but wasn’t all that pleased with what had come out. I asked him what was wrong, and I started to fault myself for the hype of the place.
That’s when he corrected me: “No, man. I get it. Everything was super-good. But I just didn’t get what I wanted. I’d read all about this thing, and I just didn’t get to order it.”
We ordered everything on the menu he wanted. I couldn’t think of anything he wanted, unless…
“I think it’s called the Steaken…or…FRANKENSTEAK! That’s what it is.”
I sighed, and asked him why he wanted to try the Frankensteak. It was just a piece of meat, held together by marbling with meat glue. It was an economic solution and a technology innovation, but otherwise, not all that compelling. It wouldn’t taste all that much different from a good steak, just cheaper and more tender. There was no convincing him, though.
After all, as he put it: “I gotta eat it. It just sounds so cool.”