On the Predominance of Cupcakes as a Cultural Form

One cannot help but observe the predominance of cupcakes in modern America. Why the cupcake, and why now, at this particular historical moment?

What the fuck is up with all the cupcakes?

Within five minutes of my home there are two bakeries specializing in cupcakes. Two bakeries two hundred yards from each other. They sell cupcakes, and that’s about it. Cupcakes.

Go to a kid’s birthday party and if you survive the bowling or the bouncy castle or the laser tag with the mewling mess of Other People’s Children shouting and screaming, you and your kid will be rewarded with a cupcake. No cake, maybe not even any candles. Cupcakes, that’s it.

Theoretically they come frosted or plain, but plain is such an outright disappointment to everyone, it’s almost embarrassing, so frosted it is. Topped with swirling piles of sugar and fat, the cupcakes come bearing equally saccharine names like Red Velvet Elvis and Cloud 9 and, no shitting you, Blueberry Bikini Buster.

My friends, my very smart friends in academia who study the latest trends in culture and technology, I have a question. You can talk about the spatial turn and the computational turn all you want, but can someone fucking explain the cupcake turn to me?

I have my own theory, and it goes like this: cupcakes match—and attempt to assuage—our cultural anxieties of the moment.

Cupcakes are models of…

AUSTERITY

It’s not a whole cake. It’s a miniature cake. A cake in a fucking cup. A cupcake is a model of modesty. And it’s the best kind of modesty, because it paradoxically suggests extravagance. Cupcakes are rich. And expensive. You could buy two dozen Twinkies for the price of a single caramel apple spice gourmet cupcake.

SERIALITY

By the very nature of their production, cupcakes are made in multiples. A 3×3 tray of 9 cupcakes or 4×4 tray of 16 cupcakes, it doesn’t matter. Cupcakes are serial cakes. Mass produced but conveying a sense of homestyle goodness. Cupcakes are the perfect homeopathic antidote for the industrially-produced food we mostly consume. Fordism never tasted so sickly sweet.

ARTISTRY

On the surface, gourmet cupcakes are artisanal desserts. For all their seriality, cupcakes still contain minute variations in flavor and toppings. Yet underneath, the base model remains the same. Cupcakes embody the postmodern ideal of the manufactured good that has been injected with artificial difference, in order to conjure a sense of individuality. Cupcakes are indie desserts. And like hipsters, cupcakes are pretty much all the same. Cupcake sprinkles and hipster scarves serve the same purpose, turning the plainly ordinary into the veiled ordinary.

HYBRIDITY

Ontologically speaking, just what the hell are cupcakes anyway? A cupcake’s not really a cake. A distant cousin to the muffin, maybe. Is it a pastry for the 21st century United States, a kind of American croissant, full of gooey American exceptionalism? The cupcake itself doesn’t even know what it is. It’s a hybrid form, a Frankencaken. But in a culture frightened by change, blurred borders, and boundary crossings, the cupcake makes all those scary things palatable. As long as it comes in little accordion-pleated paper cup.

Austerity, seriality, artistry, hybridity, that’s what cupcakes are all about. The perfect food for our post-industrial, indie vibe Great Recession. Enjoy them while they last.

Crimson Velveteen photograph courtesy of Flickr user Gina Guillotine / Creative Commons Licensed

79 thoughts on “On the Predominance of Cupcakes as a Cultural Form

  1. I’d like to build on these observations, beginning with serialization. Because we can select from the many, we are free to choose “just one” with the knowledge that it is our own. Purchase a slice of cake, and you’ve merely taken a part of the whole. Purchase a cupcake, and be in possession of a perfect thing. “This is my cupcake. There are many like it, but this one is mine.”

    In a restaurant, the soufflé—a highly technical dessert—is the proclamation of a master dessert chef. But outside of the restaurant, we do not have time for its demands. So we turn instead to other sugary treats which seem to possess skill. Our comparison point for the cupcake is the many years of history in which it stood for a messy kids’ birthday party. For so long we expected so little from the cupcake—canned frosting and greasy wrappers—that the presence of the “artisanal” cupcake indicates our ability to transform the mundane. (See also the haute dog, gourmet burger, three-grilled-cheese.)

    There is little process variation in the preparation of the cake portion of cupcakes (baking is a science, not an art) but it provides a platform for that which defines the cupcake: the frosting. The cupcake is not just a symbol of artistry but our search for a new kind of mastery. With it, we are able to beat our chests and proclaim that we understand food, flavors, and our palette. We flavor sugar, pile it high, and revel in the transformation.

    The promise of the cupcake is it is a self-contained package. Bring a dozen to a party and nobody needs plates, nobody needs utensils. It comes in its own little paper container which, after providing a surface for the crumbs to fall upon, can be neatly wrapped and discarded.

    It is too bad the cupcake, with its cartoon-like frosting swirl, has been blindly accepted. Because of the cupcakes we see coming from the “experts” have an aesthetic of exaggeration, we believe this is the cupcake’s proper form. Yet they are gastronomic monstrosities. The frosting-to-cake ratio is sickening, the texture of the towering frosting is too dense, and it is too large to enjoy for its portable qualities.

    The cupcake is telling of our era. Everything the cupcake should be has been disregarded in favor of appearance. The cupcake is a symbol of individualism: it is loved because of its unique pretense; it is loved because it is not shared, rendering it obtainable; it is loved because it is easily tamed. And it is appreciated because—despite its low complexity—it is something we can’t be bothered to learn to do ourselves.

  2. I have wondered about this too. But the cupcake turn has been happening for some time–and I believe it is strongly linked to veganism and the rise of gluten-free baking. Cupcakes are structurally a lot easier to achieve than large cakes–they are way, way, less likely to “fall” or collapse from a failure of leavening. Thus, they are easier to make successfully without one or many of the traditional ingredients of cakes, wheat flour, eggs, and/or dairy. As someone who has baked many gluten-free vegan cupcakes in my time, I can testify to this. (See also the the cookbook Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, from 2006.)

    Then again, cupcakes are over-saturated and hipsters have moved on to artisan doughnuts (see Voodoo Doughnut in Portland), macarons, and the horrid “cake pop” phenomenon. But your theories of austerity and seriality apply to all of these baked goods as well.

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  4. I agree with Franny — for novice bakers, cupcakes are less intimidating than a big cake.

    Related question — what explains the popularity with the Food TV show “Cupcake Wars”? (must confess that I find this show, like the little sweets themselves, mighty addictive)

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