This short essay appeared in the summer 2012 issue of the D.C. food zine The Runcible Spoon, which you can (and should!) buy here. For more info on The Runcible Spoon and its amazing editor, Malaka Gharib, check out these nifty write-ups in The New York Times and New York Times Magazine.
In the summer of 2009, I had the enormous pleasure of landing what was, at the time, my dreamiest of dream jobs: Working as a server on New York’s first cupcake truck.
I tasted disillusionment early in my tenure. After spending a week studying species of insects for the New York City Food Safety Exam, I met Vlad, my future boss, on a dark corner in Chelsea. It poured all afternoon and my umbrella broke in two, so I held a soggy notebook over my head as I approached him. Vlad — a stocky, scowling Muscovite of indeterminate age — wore a large diamond stud in one ear and slicked his hair back with something that smelled like animal lard. After a brusque handshake, he gestured to the truck.
“You sign the contract in there,” he said, his accent so thick I hardly understood.
In the coming weeks, I came to understand Vlad and the truck better than I liked. Because the inside counters lay so close together, I found myself hip-to-hip with a variety of Russian men: Lev, a skinny guy from Brooklyn; Brian, whose real name was disconcertingly not Brian; and a few Jersey Shore types I only met once or twice. They all smoked and spit and forgot to wear plastic gloves. I wanted to remind them, but kind of feared they worked for the KGB.
The cupcakes themselves sat in the very back of the truck, zipped up in covered carts. Aside from the $10 an hour I made under the table, these were the reason I stayed: rich, moist, only vaguely crumbly cupcakes, with a swirl of cream cheese frosting and a dusting of sugar sprinkles. No one knew who made them. When customers asked, I fed them the line Vlad gave me: “Our homemade cupcakes are baked fresh everyday by a professional chef in Brooklyn.”
But sometimes that line wasn’t enough. Sometimes, in fact, the cupcakes failed to sell. On those unpleasant, sweaty, mid-July days, Vlad would grumble from the front seat for an hour or more before snapping off his Russian-language radio and making up a heavy tray of cupcakes for me to give away. “Don’t come back until they’re gone,” he’d order as I struggled to lift the tray.
Usually I listened, hawking the sugary, sludgy cupcakes until my arms went numb. But on one particular day, I looked back at the truck and did not see Vlad through the windshield. So I walked around the corner, propped the tray against a garbage can, and dumped half the cupcakes in the trash. Then I sat on the curb in the sun and ate three chocolate cupcakes all in a row. Licking the frosting off my fingers, I remembered why I loved my job.