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Cupcake Nation By Joel Stein

October 24, 2008

Cupcakes are a throwback to
the carefree days of childhood

“Dolly Cupcake” and photo by
Cupcakes A Go Go
Sarasota, Florida

Zen Cupcake’s commentary:

Hmmm. The writer Joel Stein questions society’s love affair or obsession with cupcakes. He portrays cupcakes as “fake happiness.” He gives us food for thought. Cupcakes have become big business from coast to coast.

In today’s economy, a $3.00 cupcake can become an expensive luxury. The paradox? The financial stress of the current time has increased the desire for comfort food to assuage the anxiety of money matters.

Cupcake Nation

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the cupcake. Just like there’s nothing inherently wrong in the Koran. But our society’s twisting of the cupcake’s role has become a sickness. They’ve paved the local bakery and put up a $3 cupcake store. Not only has the cupcake specialty boutique spread like a contagion to nearly every major city in the country, but nearly a dozen cupcake-recipe books have come out in the past two years, which is particularly amazing when you consider that, not counting dye, there are only about seven ingredients in a cupcake.

Patient zero was Magnolia, a tiny, retro bakery in New York City’s West Village, which, in 1996, had some extra batter and made a dozen cupcakes. Soon Magnolia had to institute a limit on cupcakes per customer. Then Sarah Jessica Parker, who lived nearby, put her local phenomenon on Sex and the City, leading tour buses to stop there. At the admittedly delicious Sprinkles in Los Angeles, which Oprah declared her favorite cupcake after getting a box from Barbra Streisand, the line on weekends is more than half an hour long. Which, yes, is longer than it takes to bake a cupcake.

I totally get it. As a kid, my heart pumped in anticipation of a classmate’s birthday and the inevitable arrival of that wide, low pink box. I’d pick away at the frosted top, then collect the remaining pure cake in both hands, eating out of my palms like a crazed bird on a sugar high. And when no one was looking, I’d shove the paper in my mouth and chew it like cupcake gum. Even now I like an occasional chai latte–flavored Sprinkles cupcake, just as I appreciate a great burger or mac and cheese. The problem is that in the yuppie-under-40 set, there are no other desserts. Just a constant weighing and comparing and blogging about the nation’s cupcakeries, as if they were the Goldberg Variations.

To my shock, Michelle Myers–who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, runs the patisserie Boule in Los Angeles and makes some of the best canelés and Parisian macaroons in the U.S.–approves of cupcake mania. “It crossed our minds that we put a lot of expensive ingredients and skilled technique into making canelés, and they’re the same price as cupcakes,” she says of what artisanal bakeries have discovered is the most profitable dessert not made by Hostess. But Myers also loves being transported to her childhood via the American madeleine. She not only buys cupcakes but also bakes them on weekends for her little sister.

Candace Nelson, who co-owns Sprinkles with her husband, opened a second Los Angeles location last week and plans to go national. “These are scary times. That’s when people crave comfort food,” says the former investment banker. “That’s why I went into the cupcake business. I’m in this little cupcake bubble where everyone is smiling ear to ear.”

That’s what bugs me about cupcakes: they’re fake happiness, wrought in Wonka unfood colors. They appeal to the same unadventurous instincts that drive adults to read Harry Potter and watch Finding Nemo without a kid in the room. They’re small and safe, and so people convince themselves that they can’t have that many calories. They are the dessert of a civilization in decline. The worst part is, I want a cupcake right now but bad.

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