Eat! It’s Tubby Town

It was a balmy Sunday night at the Magnolia Bakery, and it seemed as if every New Yorker not home

It was a balmy Sunday night at the Magnolia Bakery, and it seemed as if every New Yorker not home snuggling with their spouse in front of The Sopranos was part of the crowd spilling onto Bleecker Street. There were half-nibbled iced cupcakes in their hands and rapturous expressions on their faces. Some were enjoying their sugar fixes in a daze, wandering in slow circles in a dingy, vermin-infested park across the street.

“I’ve been here probably 600 zillion times,” said Nadia Newman, 22, a billowy Brooklynite who was enjoying a moist chocolate treat. “It’s so soft, it’s absolutely fluffy,” she said, without a trace of remorse. She said she was a singer and that her record label had told her to lose weight, but she was unable to break her weekly Magnolia habit. For her it began late one evening after she noticed a trail of grown adults carrying cupcakes in the West Village and followed them to the shop. “It’s a scene,” she said. “It’s a real hangout.”

“I come here at least three times a week. At least,” said Janelle Yater, 28, who lives on Cornelia Street and works in sales. “I come here by myself alone at night.” She proclaimed the cupcakes “fulfillment.”

She’s not alone. The steely, anorexic ambition that consumed this city for the better part of the last century is taking a snack break. And we’re not talking Veggie Booty, folks. Think big, gooey melted chocolate cookies from City Bakery; pints of real Ben & Jerry’s (no more frozen yogurt!); huge slabs of coconut cake at Bubby’s. Take a look around: New York is fat as a house, and enjoying it.

The city’s new layer of fat is not the apologetic fat of yore; it’s a fat that pronounces itself. It’s the fuck-you fat of James Gandolfini and Rosie O’Donnell and Alec Baldwin; the perky, focused fat of Hairspray sensation Marissa Jaret Winokur and gyrating television teen Kelly Osbourne; the born-again baby fat of pudgy pitcher David Wells; the horny bombshell fat of model Sophie Dahl and rock star Pink.

Call it survivor fat for impending God-knows-what, call it carpe diem, call it simple self-indulgence, but in any event, call the pizza parlor!

More evidence that socking away cupcakes and Skittles has replaced sex as New Yorkers’ favorite vice: The New York Times is covering food as if it were a war, adding unapologetically plump-armed British “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson and Random House editor at large Jason Epstein to an already bulging roster. Mr. Epstein said that he was approached by the Times after Sept. 11, given carte blanche, and found himself inspired by culinary writer M.F.K. Fisher. “She wrote about food and love when Europe was collapsing in the 30’s,” he said. “Hitler was taking over, the fascists were killing people, and she wrote about sitting down to eat.”

At the Magnolia Bakery, three men in their 30’s–who, in another era, might have been lining up to enlist–were sitting down to stuff their faces with milk and cake at a small iron table. Behind the counter, an employee was spreading thick, yellow icing on a fat, round cake while another slid a hunk of white-chocolate macadamia-nut cheese cake into a customer’s waiting hand and grooved to the music, Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.”

“This is all fattening,” said Barbara DiNicola, Magnolia’s manager. “All flour, whole eggs, butter and sugar.” She said the place was churning out thousands and thousands of cupcakes daily; six years ago, it was hundreds. “People think this place is a nightclub, because of the crowds outside,” Ms. DiNicola said. Down the street, a new bakery, Polka Dot Cake Studio, recently opened, perhaps to siphon off those who can’t wait half an hour for one of Magnolia’s sugar bombs.

The West Village is hardly the only neighborhood with an expanding waistline. At the City Bakery on 18th Street, owner and head chef Maury Rubin said cookie sales have gone up in the last six months.

“Our highest seller is cookies and cookies and cookies,” he said. “We sell a monumental number of cookies every day. I won’t disclose the exact number, but it’s in the ‘beyond several hundred’ category. Chocolate chip is the most popular, of course. People are enjoying all kinds of foods that are otherwise under the–in my mind, idiotic–category of ‘sinful.’”

“Anorexia’s so out,” said a City Bakery customer named Skye Stuart. “That was so three years ago. Nowadays, women, especially, are just like, ‘Fuck you, I’m eating whatever I want, and if you don’t like it, I’ll find somebody who will.’”

On a recent afternoon at Dylan’s Candy Bar, the regressive bonbon emporium on 60th Street and Third Avenue owned by Ralph Lauren’s daughter, a 24-year-old production assistant named Heather Ward had dropped in, as she does regularly, to indulge what she called her “little sugar addiction.” She usually gets the Rice Krispies treats but was eyeing a tray of chocolate-covered graham crackers. “These look good,” she said.

Dylan’s Candy salespeople said that the busiest hours were not in the afternoon after school, when parents help kids choose their gummy bears, but in the evening right before closing. The customers then are adults, and they’re buying for themselves. “They’re even more wild than the kids,” said Jaclyn Ayala. “They’re beasts sometimes.”

Her colleague, Nilsa Mena, was wearing a turquoise T-shirt that hugged her curves. She said she’d gained 20 pounds–“and counting”–in her six months at the store. “I’m gonna eat my burgers and my candy and I don’t care if I weigh 280 pounds,” she said. “The meaning of life is to enjoy it, and I’m gonna enjoy it.”

Gourmet magazine editor in chief and former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl has noticed that New Yorkers are eating more heartily. “It’s about time!” she said. “I certainly think that in the wake of Sept. 11 people started feeling vulnerable and as if they should enjoy themselves as much as possible. Life started feeling very precious. So they started giving themselves permission and silencing that little voice that says, ‘Don’t eat that.’ People started living their lives with more gusto.”

“We all have a natural body type and part of the whole diet craziness is to be something that we’re not,” said Ms. Reichl. “So this is saying, ‘Relax, be the body type that you are, you can eat normally.’ And people did relax. And the consequences really weren’t so horrible. If you enjoyed your food, you weren’t going to blow up. You can relax and enjoy your food and you don’t have to feel guilty about it, it doesn’t mean you have to gain a million pounds.”

Kurt Gutenbrunner, the chef at Wallsé, the Austrian place on West 11th Street, agreed. “For the longest time we overdid it with the wild arugula salad and the Diet Coke,” he said. “Slowly we realized it doesn’t work, we can’t survive on wild arugula salad and Diet Coke. If I put goulash on the menu, it flies out of the restaurant. If I took off the spätzle, there would be a mini-revolution.”

At Bubby’s in Tribeca, manager Vincent Barile said, “‘Save room for pie!’ is our motto here. Now people are eating more and saving room for pie. There’s no more ‘I can’t have this’ and ‘I shouldn’t order that.’ You just don’t hear it anymore. Now we see a lot more ‘healthy’ customers than before, if you know what I mean. This place was a mini-California before. Now Ben Affleck orders the famous Frog Parker Pulled Pork sandwich. J. Lo orders to-go a lot–she likes the barbecue chicken.”

And how does Zagat favorite Danny Meyer (owner of Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, Eleven Madison Park, etc.) weigh in?

“I can verify that people are less afraid of looking like a protagonist in a Rubens painting,” he said. “When we recently opened Blue Smoke for lunch, with no fanfare, I frankly thought no one would eat barbecue for lunch. But today there were tons of people gorging on barbecue, ribs and sticky toffee pudding. They’re washing those ribs down with–when it’s not beer or bourbon, it’s typically a root-beer float. I’m noticing more voracious consumption also at Eleven Madison Park in the past few months. At dinnertime, we cannot keep up with chocolate soufflés, and those are chocolate soufflés for two. We can’t keep them in the house. Our most popular entrée is the côte de boeuf, a roast beef for two. It comes with potato gratin.

“If I think back to 10 years ago, when I first got into the restaurant business, I notice that now people are more active,” he said. “I think people feel more comfortable with themselves and their bodies and food is something you can indulge in more when you’re exercising.”

Eddie Pugsley, the manager of Smith & Wollensky steak house, said business is up. After Sept. 11, he said, “we were contemplating closing. But now steaks are being eaten at numbers that we didn’t think would be possible only 12 months after. Smiles are on the customers’ faces.”

Bill Yosses is the pastry chef at Citarella in midtown.

“Now, when people indulge, they will go for rich desserts, but they have to be high quality,” he said. “If that’s the case, they’re ready to dive in. There’s more joie de vivre about eating, a European sense of enjoying life to the fullest and eating well. I started a 12-bean vanilla ice cream, whereas most ice creams are only one or two bean. We serve as many desserts as we do main courses here. At this time of year we have a new Concord grape dessert with a cheese-cake soufflé.

“There’s definitely been a priority change,” he added. “That bony look was never attractive. There’s definitely a fuller look today. People are getting over the food phobias of the past. Crazy diets are not in.”

Cheryl Sleade, the pastry chef at Bouley, agreed.

“I know in my own personal life I notice a difference,” she said. “I think people are eating things they feel more enjoyment for. People come in specifically to try the desserts. I’m in a little bit of a food rut personally, because I’m eating a lot of comfort food and not a lot of variety. Right now I eat more what I enjoy. Soon after Sept. 11 my friends and I were laughing about how all of us were eating really hearty food. One person said it was Freudian, in that it means you are ready to take in the world and so you eat more. He had remembered studying that. When everything is bizarre and horrible and then when you’re ready to accept these events, you eat. I remember all of us commenting that we had such appetites.”

“Everybody orders desserts at our restaurant,” she added. “They not only get a dessert, they get a dessert soup first.”

Eat! It’s Tubby Town