Sweet Nothings

I had TIVO triple-checked and ready, set to go ahead and record the early episodes of D.C. Cupcakes, a new six-part reality series on TLC on Friday nights. It catches the kitchens of Georgetown Cupcake, this city’s sweetest success story, started in 2008 by sisters Sophie LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis (who left careers in fashion and finance to bake their way to bliss). The duo now sell 5,000 of their frosted favorites a day, and the pavement outside their new-site store (3301 M St. NW) sags under the weight of the all-hours, hour-long wait-line.

Ooh was I looking forward to it, but for me the first two eps fell flat. They seemed to lack some key content: cupcakes coming out of the oven raw, or running out of red velvet on Valentine’s Day do not a throbbing plot-line make. And though the one-off jobs the sisters take on start out fun (a carnival mask for St Jude’s Hospital, a project for an animal rescue fundraiser), how often can you cover a shape with 1,000 mini cupcakes and have it be original? We’ve all seen better big-cake baking on Ace of Cakes and TLC’s own Cake Boss. Mostly though, a show (even one as sweet and digestible as this) really needs one or more appealing characters at it’s center, and while Kallinis looked likable, sister Sophie came across as controlling (“we’re the only ones who can do the signature swirl”), cross (“we’re bakers, not sculptors!”), and competitive (“my pup-cakes won!”).

Still, nothing stopping us celebrating all things treat and sweet with this still life from the NGA: Still Life with Sweets and Pottery is by Juan van der Hamen y León (1596 – 1631). The son of a Flemish father (also a still-life painter) and Spanish mother, he spent his life in Madrid. His paintings speak of his dual parentage, falling into the bodegón (still-life) tradition of Spain, but still looking markedly Flemish.

The Spanish ate up the artificiality of still-life and it was scenes like this that garnered van der Hamen y León a rep as the best Spanish still-life painter of the 17th century (at a time when the genre was being seen as a worthy subject in its own right). In an abstract setting with a darkened background, he starts to mix his ingredients. The ring-like stoneware bottle sits at the center of the composition and starts a play of other spheres and circles: the marzipan boxes to the right are foreshortened into ovals, there are round-bellied jars of honey and preserved cherries, a circular tray of balled donuts, snaky cakes and fat frosted figs. These sinuous sides soften the sharp-edged setting, and interest is added by the fact that the objects are exposed to different degrees to the light source. Texture is tongue-tinglingly tasty: powder-sugared, gleaming fruit peel, wicker weaving, dull clay, wood and glass are all here. Careful use of one color (red) in various tones, hatches the forms into a harmonious whole, so that looking closely at this planned-out picture is both an intellectual and a sensory in experience.

Few could find fault with a Georgetown Cupcake: their flavors are amazing, the cakes are moist and the frostings unusually unctuous. I’ll be watching the show to see if it gets better, but so far it looks like a fluffy sweet filler for the summer months schedule. What do you think?

One thought on “Sweet Nothings

  1. This evening I saw Theater J’s provocative and amusing “NEW JERUSALEM : THE INTERROGATION OF BARUCH DE SPINOZA AT TALMUD TORAH CONGREGATION: AMSTERDAM,” set in your Amsterdam, 1656 http://washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j/on-stage/09-10-season/new-jerusalem/TJ-New-Jerusalem-Main.html
    If Theater J wasn’t sold out I’d urge you all to rush and see this brilliant production. Playwright David Ives mentions Rembrandt once in the beginning.

    The conjunction of me reading your post, looking at the luscious still life, and thinking about 17th century Portugal and Spain of Juan van der Hamen y León (1596 – 1631) and viewing the play about Spinoza and his ideas, all add fullness to 17th century European culture.

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