Last Saturday, my 80-year-old dad and his lady friend came to my house in Wellesley for lunch. I roasted haunch of venison shot with bow and arrow and served it with butternut-squash lasagna made with winter vegetables from our garden. My dad looked at me and said, “I saw on the news about a woman who runs a cupcake store. The kids come and decorate the cupcakes themselves. She can’t make them fast enough. It’s wonderful!” Glowing with pleasure, he took another bite of my pear-and-apple pie and asked, “Why don’t you open a cupcake store?”
Uh, because I am wearing sweats and not a girly dress? Why would my Korean dad think that I long to make cupcakes for a living? Probably for the same reason that he thinks buying “gold, physical gold” is a safe investment: He’s been watching too much television. On cable and network channels, it seems that every other female character dreams of making cupcakes her business. The Food Network is now in the third season of its show Cupcake Wars, and it’s become the driving engine for 2 Broke Girls, a new sitcom about a pair of diner waitresses whose goal is to save enough money to open a cupcake shop. Never mind that the broke girls are too busy having misadventures to perfect their baking skills. If the people lack for bread, let them eat cupcakes! Plucky in their poverty, the two girls are the mystical mates of Doofus Dad and Viagra Man, white men who stumble around proudly unable to get the job done even as they inhabit strangely privileged worlds. The meta-narrative is clear: Cupcakes may be fluffy, but they will pay the bills, unlike those silly stockbrokers who lost all of your money but magically kept all of theirs.
In the real world, emasculation is a downer and cupcake boutiques fail. Sure, Sweet Cupcakes has four swank shops in the Boston area, and Kickass Cupcakes has two locations and a hipster food truck that mostly lives in front of the Harvard University Science Center. I’m not a fan of sweets in general but I love the idea of a “kickass” pastry that flaunts the frill in your face. Take that, fairy cake! (“Fairy cakes” are what the British call cupcakes.) The truck crew will also make a special-order gluten-free organic free-range cupcake for Cambridge people like my sister.
Those are the success stories. The list of cupcake bakeries that have closed is far longer. In a lousy economy, the dismal statistics are entirely beside the point. Cupcakes evoke nostalgia for stay-at-home-moms making sugar bombs lobbed with love, except my Korean mom never made them, and probably yours didn’t, either…except, maybe, once for the school bake sale using cake mix and icing from a can, and the end result looked like mutant muffins after the Labrador licked off all the jimmies.
So what is the meaning of this national cupcake obsession? There is even an origin story for the American cupcake craze: Point Zero is Sprinkles of Beverly Hills, California, where pedigreed French cupcakes glisten with good taste and even better fortunes. Pastry chefs like to yabble on about the petite proportions allowing them greater creativity in the kitchen; teenage girls think they’re cute and swirly, like sleeping kitties made of frosting. Admittedly, this is an unscientific observation based on my household’s giggling girls. One was just assigned an obscure short story about cupcakes in her Honors English class. She refused to give me details on the grounds that the story was about “Little Debbie-type cakes and not cupcakes.” Apparently plastic wrappers and preservatives are too down-market to fit the cupcake image.
Notes the always entertaining online Urban Dictionary:
Cupcakes are not just a normal baked good, in fact, by some they are considered infinitely powerful tools. Essentially, they are synonymous with complete Global Domination. Thus, the ability to bake these sweet delicacies is seen as an extremely valuable asset to those wishing to pursue the goal of total global control.
So now we’re onto something. That something is control, because if James Bond movies have taught us anything, the guaranteed way to fail at Global Domination is by going full-frontal on it.
By now most people know that Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” She didn’t even say, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” It was made up by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and he attributed it to Marie-Thérèse, not Marie Antoinette. The line had nothing to do with the queen but was his own excuse for disdaining ordinary bread as being too common for him.
In the 1760s, the perpetually broke Rousseau apparently walked into a chic Parisian pâtisserie, snatched a fancy brioche to accompany his shoplifted wine, and made a meal to match his self-image as an urban sophisticate in control of his world. His economic and social situation was closer to today’s diner waitresses than he cared to admit. Marie Antoinette keeps getting blamed for an eloquence she did not possess, and we go on happily swallowing cakes that have achieved total media domination while everyone was watching. How sneaky is that?
Today we turn up our noses at muffins, baskets of which were the corporate gift of the 90s. (“How do you know about these things?” asked the younger teenager in awe. “Because she was ALIVE in the 90s,” the older girl sniffed. I am officially old.)
In China, there is a similar tale told about an emperor who learned that his people didn’t have enough rice to eat. He replied, “Why don’t they eat meat?” So I told my dad, because he asked, “I butchered the deer on the dining-room table. I have knives.” He gave me a blank look, because I am five feet tall and literally resemble a cupcake, given my ratio of height to width. “Never mind,” I said, wiping the thought from the air because my elderly dad is a retired Methodist minister. He thinks well of the human race. “Next time you come for lunch, I’ll make cupcakes. You can share them with your friends.” My dad’s ladylike friend smiled and buttered another slice of homemade bread. She’s retired, too, but she works in handbags at Macy’s. I think the two of them deserve some special cupcakes.
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