The desserts that you eat are contributing to the world’s demise. Your town, safe from acts of baked good terrorism in the past, is considering the opening of a cupcake bakery franchise. It will be met with some small excitement, since you and the people you love adore cupcakes. You enjoy the process of separating ridged paper from flour and sugar and dabbing at the leftover icing with your thumb. The bakery will open, and there will be lines out the door. They will wrap around the block and you will stand there in the rain, waiting to get inside, to smell vanilla, to point at gobs of icing and say I want that one. You will leave with more cupcakes than you plan to eat that evening—partially because of the wait, partially due to your own indecision: wedding cake or banana cream? Cookies and cream or carrot cake? You will eat all four cupcakes before you get home. You will not cut them in half, you will not share with a friend. You will go through stages: feeling ready to take on the world, cure the common cold, write the next great American novel. You will start to feel ill from the glucose, you will feel regret. You will hate the look of your face in the mirror. Finally, the sugar will be processed and you will fall asleep on your couch. When you wake up the following day, the world will have dissolved into chaos. The infrastructure of your country will have collapsed: there will be looting in the streets—everyone will be on their own, families divided, allies broken. The cupcake will be all that we know—all that we know are cupcakes.
At a time where the United States is spread thin due to obligations both domestic and abroad, there has been an increased desire to remove ourselves from the global stage–to take on an isolationist role in the world and remove ourselves from so-called “foreign entanglements”. There is a call back to our non-interventionism roots of the 1920s—that the source of our problems comes from outside forces, and that by removing our obligation to other countries, we will be able to use our resources and focus on issues that directly effect the United States of America and its citizens. These non-interventionists have significant backers. George Washington, in his farewell address stated, “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible…it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.” This sentiment has been echoed over the years: the unwillingness to enter into World War II, the Cooper-Church Amendment, the fact that only 30% of Americans have passports.
As you look towards the heavens for a reason as to how it came to this, a brief history. The cupcake, certainly, is not a new thing. The first documented use of the word was in Miss Eliza Leslie’s Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats cookbook, published in 1828 in Philadelphia. American, certainly in its pedigree, and further bolstered by the fact that Miss Eliza’s father was a personal friend of both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The cakes were baked individually, more often than not in ramekins, meant to withstand the heat of the oven. Certainly, the act of preparing a dessert in a vessel that holds such foreign foods as crème brûlée, soufflé, moimoi, and, godforbid, French Onion soup could not be tolerated, and the galvanized steel muffin tin became the preparation utensil of choice.
The early cupcake was very British in nature. It resembled more of a Victoria cake—a tea cake which traditionally leaves out the frosting element that we have come to expect. The British, to their credit, would eventually come around to the idea of the American cupcake, instead calling them “fairie-cakes”, a delightful and quaint Britishism made even more delightful and British by the fact that they are referred to as such because one imagined a gaggle of fairies around the cake eating it as if it were a regular sized dessert.
For a while, the cupcake was really nothing to write home about. The cupcakes I assume most of us are familiar with were those found in the bakery section of our local supermarket–a weak chemical and sugar concoction with dry yellow cake and a granular sugary white frosting. Perhaps with a plastic ring affixed to the apex of the thing, of which we would lick the frosting off of the loop before sliding a hologram representation of Spiderman around our thickening fingers. However, there was always a level of excitement when being presented with cupcakes. Our mothers and the mothers of our classmates would send dozens upon dozens to our elementary school classrooms on birthdays, and there was a brief moment of excitement with the knowledge that there will be cupcakes today—that instead of memorizing the natural resources of the Mid-Atlantic states, we will be eating a frosted dessert. We will put away our textbooks, we will fold our paper towels length-wise, and we will indulge. Everything would be put on pause for a moment; we will forget about work and simply eat. As a result of this nostalgic connection, cupcakes are an automatic comfort food; something that we can consume in order to improve our emotional status. When we eat these things we forget about the stresses of our job and deadlines the same way we forgot about embarrassment at answering a question incorrectly or failing miserably at the Presidential Physical Fitness Award test.
So why wouldn’t we want to have a cupcake when we’re feeling down and out? They are small and portable, colorful, varied, they come with their own concept of portion control (although on occasion the cake to icing ratio makes one wonder) plus they remind us of what we enjoyed about our youth. The so-called “cupcake craze” of the late 90s/early 2000s can be credited to this movement—specifically the drama-filled and collagen-filled antics of Carrie Bradshaw and company on Sex and the City. A hotspot on the show, the cupcake is associated with not only venting and girl talk, but also with small victories. Where does Carrie admit to Miranda that she finally has feelings for another man other than Mr. Big? That’s right, while expertly unwrapping a monstrous pink cupcake. Even the uttering of her new crush’s name is done with a mouthful of sugar. The Magnolia Bakery, preferred cupcake haunt of Carrie & co., was even featured on the Sex and the City bus tour for quite sometime, until the owners of the Magnolia Bakery were torn apart by their successes and started their own spin-off bakeries, both of which have expanded past the radius of New York City and have encouraged the franchising of cupcake bakeries. Sprinkles Cupcakes, based out of Beverly Hills, was founded by Candace & Charles Nelson after a visit to Magnolia Bakery and is considered to be the first cupcake-only bakery. Magnolia continued to make full-sized cakes and even banana pudding despite the fact that the cupcake was always their best-seller. Sprinkles also has the honor of being one of the first cupcake chains. There are currently eleven locations in major cities across America with as many as fifteen others set to open in 2011. Furthermore, Candace Nelson is the judge of Cupcake Wars, a Food Network reality show where contestants compete to craft the best cupcake—a nod to the cutthroat baking business, complete with a logo of a cupcake with a gun turret sticking out of the front, set to obliterate rainy days and bad dates.
According to the Chicago-based marketing firm Mintel , cupcakes will be the fastest growing part of the baked goods industry, expected to grow in sales by over 20 percent between 2008 and 2013. A Cupcake in Every Hand! they will boast, and we will cheer. And this is where the danger reveals itself. The beauty of the cupcake is also its greatest threat. A cupcake is a deeply personal object. Not only are they provided in a miniature size, each one is like unwrapping a present made especially for us. There is no need to share—no need for a knife or plates, no need to do the dishes later. You eat the cupcake by yourself and dispose of the wrapper and walk away satisfied. As a result of this process, we are alone with ourselves and our thoughts—while Miranda and Carrie meet for cupcakes, they order separately, each one of them talking about their own self-indulgences (a common theme of the show, certainly) while neglecting the other. There is no dialogue over cupcakes the same way there is a dialogue over cake. No debate over who gets the last piece, or a critique over the cutting skills or lack thereof of the knife-wielder. It has gotten to the point where in lieu of wedding cakes, brides & grooms are requesting wedding cupcake arrangements—mosaic style dessert concoctions where the bride and groom pull a cupcake from out of the frosting architecture, even though it is difficult to grasp a single round morsel with two sets of hands. Instead of sharing a dessert with a loved one, we are building walls out of batter, each one of us focused on our own issues and recollecting a glorified past, a time when we were carefree—romanticizing a nostalgic ideal instead of recognizing the person in front of us. Our mind wanders to what our schoolyard boyfriend or girlfriend is doing and we neglect our dates, forget our surroundings, and wish to be alone with our thoughts. We might never make it to the wedding. We just want to be alone, dammit. Alone with our memories of how things used to be, our Snuggies, and our cupcakes: our sweet delicious towers of cake, our mouths open wide, icing swiping at our noses.