For a long time, I thought cupcakes would eventually go away. Like the Atkins diet and elaborately molded stacks of tuna tartare, the precious little nubbins would hop off into the sunset, and we’d all move on to the Next! Big! Thing! Cupcakes went through the traditional stages of a relationship with the food media—first, they were cute; then they were eye-rollingly common; now, they’re done. Except they’re not. Although there’s already a cupcake bakery on practically every block, more businesses keep opening (most recently, a cupcake truck).
And cupcake fanatics—an entirely different breed from casual enjoyers—continue in their over-sugared ways. In April, Grub Street, New York magazine’s food blog, ran a post in which Nancy Olson, Gramercy Tavern’s pastry chef, rated cupcakes from 15 of the city’s bakeries. Within hours, the post had attracted nearly 70 comments, many of them so full of vitriol that they might as well have come from a bunch of PETA folks frothing at the mouth over foie gras.
A commenter calling herself Lady Bouvier was the first to pile on: “I registered just so I could say this b—- is delusional,” she wrote, not sounding much like an actual Bouvier. “Sugar Sweet Sunshine only 10? Sugar Sweet Sunshine has the best cupcakes in the city by far. Nancy Olson should know this: She doesn’t look like a stranger to the cupcake.”
And it only got more ad hominem from there. One commenter imagined Olson had somehow been plucked from obscurity to helm the pastry program at one of the city’s best restaurants: “You should choose a chef who has some authority in the industry, not just someone who’s been blown up by the Danny Meyer empire. Who was Nancy Olson before she came to Grammercy Tavern [sic]?” (Answer: Olson attended the Culinary Institute of America, was the sous pastry chef at Aureole, and worked at highly regarded spots like Bouley and Dona.) Someone else, writing in all caps, declaimed that the list reeked of “sabotage”; another called Olson “delusional.” Cupcakeconnoisseur wailed, “I am outraged by this article. . . . Clearly, Olson is NOT a cupcake connoisseur. . . . I will clearly never trust New York magazine in telling me what cupcake I should eat.”
So what’s going on here? Even “best of” lists of iconic foods like pizza and hamburgers don’t inspire this level of rage. Perhaps it comes from the fact that no one is mean to women like other women. Cupcakes are marketed to females—the pastel shades of frosting spread on the cake just so, the sugar flowers, the promise of built-in portion control. And there are the inevitable undertones of guilt and naughtiness that follow foods marketed to women. If a slice of cake is gluttonous and guilty, a cupcake is—if not guilt-free—just nearly so. It’s so small! It’s so pretty! Even the Sex and the City girls eat them! Adding to the stereotypically feminine appeal, a cupcake shop often feels like a cross between your mythical Midwestern grandma’s house and Tiffany’s. You’re here to be loved and feel special, the cupcakes arranged like so many petite baubles in the display case. Embarrassingly, I’m not immune to these charms. More than once, I’ve walked into a cupcake bakery and suppressed the urge to say, “Oooooh!” The sight of those swirly, colorful caps of frosting push some unknown button in my brain—and I don’t even particularly like the damn things.
I e-mailed a friend—a prominent Boston-area psychologist—to ask her about the cupcake phenomenon. She did not want to be quoted by name on this important topic, but she did say she thought their appeal had something to do with a “We’re all special” mentality: “As Generation Y works its way into the workplace and marketplace,” she said, “we find more people saying, ‘I want to have my cake—cake that is individualized, reflects the special person that I am, and is packaged for one—and eat it, too.’ ” A cupcake is not for sharing.
But I did want to share some cupcakes—with another friend, a woman I’ll call the Cake Tsar. The Cake Tsar bakes such amazing cakes that my friends and I organize potlucks just on the chance that she’ll bring one. I went out to eight different bakeries, rounded up more cupcakes than people should ever have in their apartment, and invited her over to see if we could find one we really liked. (Calm down, connoisseurs—this is no “Best Cupcakes” list.) The Cake Tsar is not a snob, but she knows what she enjoys. “The quality of the cake in a cupcake is not as good as that in a slice of cake,” she said, and I agreed, having had one too many sawdust-like examples. Her husband noted that he thought a slice of cake was more festive; it implies that a whole cake has been baked, a special occasion. The Cake Tsar said she thought a cupcake was actually more utilitarian than a slice, since it’s eaten on the go. “A cupcake is masturbatory!” said—who else?—my own husband, who argued that a cupcake is inherently onanistic. Duly noted, and moving on.
We sampled a cupcake from each of the bakeries—I had bought a vanilla-vanilla version from each as a control, as well as a more interesting flavor or two. We especially liked Baked’s vanilla treat (pronounced “perfect” by the Cake Tsar) and Sugar Sweet Sunshine’s pistachio number. Tonnie’s Minis’ vanilla offering was passed around for shock value, as it seemed to be infused with a vile, vaguely piña colada flavor. But in the end, sugared up, lying on the floor and drinking vodka tonics, we were neither impressed nor unimpressed. A cupcake is just a cupcake.
Except when it’s a bejeweled cupcake. For a kick (or a downer), Google “diamond cupcake,” and see how many women take their bling in dessert form. In fact, musician Pharrell Williams has just collaborated with artists Takashi Murakami and Jacob the Jeweler to create a golden, diamond-encrusted cupcake. But Williams was keeping it real on Vernissage TV, saying, “For me, the taste of cupcakes is worth far more than diamonds could ever be.” More diamonds for the rest of us.