This week’s recipe: Peanut Butter Caramel Pretzel Chocolate Chip Cookies
True confession: I’m obsessed with the Fyre Festival. I will read, watch, or listen to anything about those rich dumdums paying thousands of dollars to essentially live in a refugee camp. And apparently I’m not the only one, since both Netflix and Hulu found the need to create documentaries about the Fyre Festival, both of which were released last week. I, of course, watched both Fyre Fraud (the Hulu version) and Fyre (the Netflix version) as soon as I could. They didn’t teach me much that I didn’t already know from the excellent and hilarious Swindled episode on the subject, but it was interesting to hear the perspective of the various parties involved.
If you’re not familiar with the Fyre Festival, I recommend the Swindled episode, but here’s a quick primer. The Fyre Festival took place in spring of 2017 on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma. It was supposed to be the music festival to end all music festivals, even though their headliner was Blink 182, which…whatever. The entire festival was a scheme to promote a talent-booking app called Fyre, founded by a 20-something entrepreneur/douchebag named Billy McFarland and Ja Rule (remember him?) McFarland used millions of dollars from investors to pay some of the world’s most famous models and influencers to appear in a promotional video shot on the island and post about the festival on their Instagram accounts. Soon, people began to pay up to $25,000 for ticket packages that promised private jets, luxury villas, meals prepared by celebrity chefs, and more. But despite the apparent success of the concept, it became clear that McFarland had no idea what he was doing. With his hubris and desire to be “a fucking legend,” he disregarded the advice of anyone with actual experience in festival planning, all of whom told him that planning an overseas event for thousands of people in five months was impossible and irresponsible. Sure enough, most of the artists pulled out, and when the festivalgoers showed up, they were faced with Port-A-Potties, soggy mattresses in FEMA disaster relief tents, cheese sandwiches in Styrofoam containers…and no way off the island. After a night of chaos and despairing social media posts that ricocheted around the world to a gleeful, schadenfreude-fueled public, the festival was cancelled. McFarland is now serving six years in prison for wire fraud, and the phrase “Fyre Festival” has become a shorthand for everything that’s terrible about a certain class of Instagram-obsessed millennials.
It’s easy to see why so many people have thoroughly enjoyed learning about this train wreck. Credulous trust fund brats getting scammed, and the overgrown frat bro responsible going to prison, is about as close to a victimless crime as you can get. But there were also hundreds of contractors and Bahamian workers—many of whom put in 18-hour days in order to try to turn Billy McFarland’s demented vision into a reality—who never got paid, and both documentaries do a good job of reminding viewers of that. (In my opinion, Fyre did a better job of hitting the emotional beats and showing just how much was at stake for the local people.)
So which one is worth watching? I think that they were both very good, but Fyre Fraud wins out. It’s a slick, gimmicky production, and it flogs the Millennials, amirite? angle a little too hard. It also makes me very glad that I’m not on Instagram, since its talking heads insist over and over that if you’re not constantly updating and curating your social media presence, you may as well not exist, and that sounds exhausting (as well as reductive and inaccurate). But it offers crucial context about influencer culture and McFarland’s past business ventures that Fyre, a much more straightforward story, lacks. Ultimately, however, the difference in quality is ultimately less about what Fyre Fraud brings to the table than what Fyre leaves out.
Both documentaries are ethically compromised in different ways. The Hulu version has interviews with McFarland, whom they paid an undisclosed amount to participate. (He reportedly requested six figures from Netflix to participate in their version, but they declined.) The Netflix version, meanwhile, was produced in part by Jerry Media, which ran the marketing campaign for the Fyre Festival. While the association with Jerry Media gives Netflix access to lots of interesting behind-the-scenes footage, I believe that the Hulu documentary does a much better job of justifying its pay-to-play. Hearing from McFarland is valuable, and not because he deserves to tell his side of the story, but because the filmmakers give him enough rope to hang himself with. You see up close his blithe overconfidence, his ego, his pathological lying, his impulse to overrun any objection or criticism with torrents of bullshit—all of the personality traits that made the Fyre Festival debacle possible. But the crazy part is, he’s not even particularly good at lying. At one point, he claims that the festival’s organizers did secure the luxury housing they had promised attendees, but they lost the box of keys to the villas. The off-camera interviewer asks him why he has never explained this to anyone before, and he sits and squirms in silence for 20 seconds before the camera cuts away. In short, it should have been easy to see through him, and according to the talking head interviews in Fyre Fraud, many people did. But clearly, enough of them were committed to his success that they were willing to keep the con going even after they knew it was hopeless.
This, much more than Fyre Fraud’s groundbreaking discovery that millennial influencer culture is shallow and dishonest, is the most important takeaway from the story. Unfortunately, Netflix’s decision to partner with Jerry Media means that it gets deemphasized in their documentary. Jerry Media is understandably invested in crafting a narrative where it’s All Billy’s Fault and everyone who worked for him was simply taken along for the ride. It’s funny, because in many ways, the story of the Fyre Festival is a brilliant advertisement for Jerry Media’s services. They ran an ingenious marketing campaign that turned a whole bunch of nothing into the hottest ticket around. Sure, using beautiful, scantily clad women to advertise your product is not exactly revolutionary, but I appreciated Fyre Fraud’s explanation of why the orange Instagram tiles were so effective. (This is what I meant when I wrote that the Hulu version gave better context.) But in Fyre, the story is told so that Jerry Media’s involvement is reduced to bystander status. It’s as if everyone involved was put under some sort of spell that rendered them unable to blow the whistle or even to meaningfully object.
I want to think that I would never be taken it by something like this, and I feel confident in saying that I wouldn’t, but only in this specific instance. My entire social media presence consists of a lightly used Facebook account (and a LinkedIn page, if you want to count that). Even if I were on Instagram, I don’t think I’d follow the sorts of people who promoted the Fyre Festival. They weren’t appealing to my fantasy—sure, the Bahamas are beautiful, but I have no desire to go to a Migos concert with Kendall Jenner. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be taken for a ride. Far from it; I’m actually a pretty trusting and gullible person. The Fyre Festival scam targeted the sort of people who fancy themselves hip and beautiful and exclusive. They were drawn by the opportunity to perform hipness and beauty and exclusivity in front of the world, and watch others seethe with FOMO-driven envy. The notorious supermodel ad, in particular, really spoke to this desire, and was more successful at tapping into it than I could have believed. You would think that a lifetime of exposure to modern advertising techniques would have tipped off ticket buyers that the presence of supermodels in a promotional video did not guarantee their attendance at the actual festival. (Unless they think that every Carl’s Jr. burger also comes with a sports car and an oiled-up chick in a bikini.) But could I be scammed by something that was designed to appeal to the sort of person I want to be? For instance, I like to consider myself a civically-minded person who cares about the less fortunate. I might not be susceptible to the Fyre Festival, but I would certainly be susceptible to something like the Three Cups of Tea school-building scandal from a few years back, because it preys on my self-image and self-conception. So as easy as it is to laugh at the people who got scammed by the Fyre Festival–and it’s so, so easy–maybe a little empathy is in order. But not too much.
So anyway, here are some cookies. I made these for a party for my choir, and whenever anyone asked me what kind of cookies they were, I said, “Heart attack.” Seriously, these have everything in them: chocolate, caramel, pretzels, peanut butter. That’s what makes them so good. If you are dieting this January…sorry.
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
- 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs
- 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1-1/4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 8 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
- 1 cup caramel baking chips
- 1/2 cup crushed pretzels, plus more for topping the cookies
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two pans with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Melt the butter over medium heat on the stove. Stir regularly and remove the pan from heat immediately once all is melted. Pour into a large mixing bowl and whisk in the peanut butter. Add the brown sugar, sugar, and vanilla extract, stirring to combine. Add the eggs and whisk to incorporate. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt to the mix immediately and fold to combine. Don’t waste a lot of time as the mixture will be harder to work with as it sits and cools. Fold in the chocolate, caramel chips, and pretzels. Scoop 1-1/2 tablespoon-sized scoops (I use a large cookie scoop) of dough on the baking sheets about 2 inches apart. Roll the dough in your hands to smooth and stick random pretzel chunks on the top of the dough balls if you want visible pieces after baking. Bake in the preheated oven 10-11 minutes or until the edges are set. Allow to cool briefly before eating!