Behold the blueberry cornflake muffin: big, bright, cobalt berries extruding from batter flecked with flakes of cereal, a crust of sea salt glittering across the top. The same type of muffin, sourced from Ovenly, a boutique Brooklyn bakery, appears in fancy “indie” cafes throughout the boroughs of New York City. At $3.75 a pop, it’s perfect when I feel like splurging on a snack before I sit at my laptop to scroll through the news, eavesdropping on events both near and far, in whichever shop I prefer. Yet, although it’s delicious, something about the muffin’s pervasiveness troubles me. “Localness isn’t gone, but it’s going,” John Steinbeck lamented in 1960, as the growth of capitalism dissolved distinctions between locations at what felt, to him, like a rapid pace. In the decades since, the global and local have exchanged places many times, with localness itself now a globalized good. The muffin, already a citywide staple, sits at the brink of further expansion. In a recent interview with Forbes, Ovenly cofounder Erin Patinkin said, “Our goal is to be the bakery in every city in the country.”
Founded in 2010, Ovenly now has four locations in New York City. The bakery specializes in creative play with traditional ingredients, the blueberry cornflake muffin being a prime example. The muffin is widely beloved, such that food bloggers across the internet devise recipes in attempted imitation. It’s not hard, since the original muffin is allegedly handmade. As Patinkin told Forbes, “We are very committed to scaling artisanal handmade products, not just products.” And these products are made not by just anyone: the bakery intentionally employs people who were formerly incarcerated. By not requiring background checks when hiring, Patinkin and cofounder Agatha Kulaga claim to create job opportunities for people who would otherwise be denied them. “Ovenly does more than bake,” goes the bakery’s slogan. But at first, they didn’t publicize these hiring practices. “As a for-profit business we didn’t want to come across as inauthentic,” Kulaga explained to Forbes. While many businesses fear that lack of a clear social justice mission will hurt sales, Ovenly feared the opposite—that speaking about doing good while collecting profits would make customers suspicious. However, once they began discussing this mission, customers said they wished they had known about it sooner. Many would seem to agree, then, that to scale support for formerly incarcerated people is a worthy goal, one that is arguably baked into the muffin.
But is eating baked goods made by the formerly incarcerated the most efficient route to a more just society? Ovenly’s anxiety about its own performance of authenticity suggests that many are wondering.
The same muffin in every shop is an unclear sign, indicating neither poverty nor abundance, necessarily. After all, in New York City, high-end meal-kit startups and bodegas alike buy from Hunts Point Distribution Center in the South Bronx, which supplies 60 percent of the area’s produce. In this light, the muffin portends further confusion between the distinguished and the commonplace; it is special because it feels common. And the bakery, self-consciously community minded, “traditional” but bound for growth, is on a complicated course. What’s next, and which is worse: the muffin gentrifying the shelves at every local corner deli or gracing the cover of every culinary magazine, its berries shot in absurdly high resolution?
With its references to the modest and homespun, the muffin draws on a strain of bogus capitalism that functions like an expensive garage sale, overcharging for hand-me-downs.
In 2015, it was revealed that the production processes at Mast, the artisanal chocolatiers of Brooklyn, were not honestly “bean to bar,” the standard of purists; Mast was melting down mass-produced commercial chocolate, which was then very attractively repackaged and sold at a higher price. The case of the muffin might be similar. Although marketed as artisanal, muffin production requires little skill or time. Making 12 muffins myself would cost about $6. Blueberries are the most expensive part; cornflakes are the cheapest. This being said, although cornflakes appear generic, like affordable drugs, Corn Flakes are name brand, a Kellogg’s patent. Simple, classic, or even elegant, depending who you ask.
When I studied in Brazil as an exchange student several years ago, a local family hosted me. Meals were lean, and the dish I looked forward to most was cornflakes for breakfast. Simple, but when paired with the decadence of whole milk, divine. For better or worse, the appeal of this globalized nonluxury/luxury staple seems baked into the Ovenly muffin along with the longing for a life without prisons, as well as our peculiar reluctance to fully commit to realizing such a life. Hedging their bets in the face of these forces, Ovenly characterizes its ethos as “complex but not complicated.” When the muffins spread across the country, and maybe one day the world, I’ll be curious to see which virtues go with them—complexity that dares to be complicated? Or will both be gone for good?