An article in my local newspaper states that the cupcake craze afflicting this nation for the past few years may be fading, that cupcakes may be ceding pride of place to pies. Having attended several recent weddings where cupcakes were served in lieu of traditional wedding cakes, I greet this news with both joy and relief.
Like the Macarena, Tofutti, the pedestrian scooter, the urban cowboy look of the early 1980s and America’s brief, misguided obsession with Paris Hilton, the era when the cupcake was in the ascendant deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history. What a nightmare it has been.
Pastry historians agree that the cupcake craze was triggered by the repeated appearance of the puny, self-effacing confection on “Sex and the City,” a television program I have never seen for the obvious reason that it launches stupid Barbie doll-ish trends like cupcake mania. What began as nostalgia for an earlier, simpler time that never existed soon morphed into a bona-fide cultural juggernaut, with the cupcake officially asserting itself as an acceptable replacement for traditional, full-sized cakes at weddings, birthday parties, retirement send-offs and even funerals. People blogged about it. Martha Stewart wrote a book about it. Wedding planners wouldn’t shut their yaps about it.
My own belief is that a marriage that begins with the cupcake can only end with the Cheez Doodle, that a marriage conceived in frivolity will find its natural climax in tragedy. I’ve been married for 34 years; not once has a ceremonial cupcake insinuated itself into our relationship. A clafoutis or two, a few pear tortes, yes. But a cupcake? Never.
Last year, on a trip to Washington, I was ambling through the tony neighborhood of Georgetown when I noticed about 100 people lined up on 33rd Street, the queue snaking around the corner. I assumed that they were waiting for tickets to hear Lady Gaga or Sarah Palin, but when I asked my daughter, she said they were lined up for cupcakes at the city’s premier cupcakery, the subject of a recent cable TV reality show.
This was sick. This was pathetic. This reminded me of scenes from “Seinfeld,” when people would line up around the block to patronize the “Soup Nazi.” But at least the Soup Nazi (based on a real place) sells a product that is both nourishing and archetypal. Soup, even overpriced soup, is rooted in the mythology of America. Soup is not a joke. Cupcakes are.
With their fawning subservience to the cupcake, Americans had once again been led by the nose into mortifying behavior by the marketers who invent odious social trends and then trick everybody into thinking they result from a real paradigm shift bubbling up from the heartland. Nothing else can explain America’s brief, but inexplicable, infatuation with Menudo. Or Vanilla Ice. Or Lee Iacocca.
There is a subversive element at work here, too. The cupcake, to me, symbolizes compromise and acquiescence, a retreat from American greatness. The scaled-down cupcake—minuscule, inconsequential, silly—is a Carter-era bagatelle. It is frou-frou. It lacks muscle, sinew, cojones. It signifies that the cupcake eater, in the words of the immortal Warren Zevon, appreciates the best but is settling for less. Warren Zevon was never, ever seen eating a cupcake. He went to his death denouncing the cupcake. Or so I am told.
I am not entirely convinced that L’Époque de Cupcake has run its course, nor I am overjoyed that the serviceable yet ultimately humble pie may be replacing it. Marie-Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake,” not “Let them eat pie.” And she certainly never said, “Let them eat cupcakes.”
But a pie is better than a cupcake; it at least leads society back in the general direction of the Double Mocha Cappuccino Tiramisu Mirage and the Seven-Layer Nuclear Trauma Wedding Cake. And by pulling Americans back from the brink of disaster, it spares us an even more preposterous future, where people might line up around the block outside bakeries with names like Beignet and Macaroon and the ultimate nightmare: Georgetown’s Finest Toast. A society that would roll over and play dead for Machiavellian cupcake merchants is a society capable of anything