As the Modern Cupcake Moment swirls into its second decade, America just might have to admit that what we’re dealing with — 669.4 million sold from a year from October 2010, according to the market research firm NPD — is not a fad. It’s an enduring love affair.
“Cupcake culture has been iconic in the US for 100 years,” says Steve Abrams, co-owner of New York’s Magnolia Bakery. American recipes for cake baked in small cups and the term “cup cake” cropped up earlier, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “There is no cupcake craze.”
He ought to know. Cupcakes represent half of his company’s $20 million in annual sales, which surged following the bakery’s 2000 cameo appearance in HBO’s Sex and the City.
One food trendspotter attributes cupcakes’ retail ascent to a convergence of factors. “If you look back at the modern arrival of the cupcake, it happened to coincide with and was the motivator for the niche, specialty bakery that evidently was ripe to come,” says Kara Nielsen of the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco.
At the same time cupcake-only bakeries started to multiply in the mid to late 2000s. As household budgets tightened during the down economy of the past four years, cupcakes became an affordable luxury, a means to relieve the angst of repressing big-ticket desires. “With a cupcake, recession-weary consumers can treat themselves,” says economic analyst Domenick Celentano, who writes about the food business on About.com.
Chris Carbone who studies consumer trends for the market research firm Innovaro, says cupcakes appeal to post-modernists who value creativity, authenticity, aesthetic design and personalisation.
Cupcakes r us
It’s the day before Thanksgiving 2011, and the faithful are congregating at the original Sprinkles in Beverly Hills, Calif., the cupcake boutique that has grown from this one shop in 2005 to nine stores nationwide.
Tourists take pictures to pass the time while standing in a line that’s 20 deep. Two women who aren’t in line peer in the window just to see what it looks like inside.
“Everyone has come here for a hug,” says Los Angeles psychiatrist Carole Lieberman. “People are lining up not just because the cupcakes taste good. A lot of things taste good. They’re looking for that same feeling inside.”
Cupcake bashers are just as passionate. Baltimore celebrity baker Duff Goldman shot at cupcakes with a rifle on his Food Network show, Ace of Cakes. In 2009, the Guardian newspaper cast them as the “favourite greedy treat of the me-generation.”
“Cupcakes are indicative of where this country is with our desire to self-soothe through food,” says Brad Lamm, author and registered interventionist who appears on The Dr Oz Show. “Our desire for more and for self-soothing is out of control,” Lamm says.
“I was so intrigued by the cupcake food truck that all summer I’d hang around and wait for it," Chicago psychoanalyst Mark Smaller says, likening it to memories stirred by ice cream-truck bells. “The experience of walking over to a truck might evoke, consciously or unconsciously, a very positive experience of feeling connected to one’s parents and feeling special in one’s parents’ eyes,” he adds.
Psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer, another Dr. Oz-sanctioned expert, takes a different view of the cupcake-centric human connection.
“The popularity of cupcakes directly tracks the rise in cultural narcissism that has resulted from the Internet’s impact on our psyche,” he says. “Through our over-reliance on the Internet, we’ve become a culture of emotionally disconnected individuals who live in socially isolated cyber-fantasy worlds. The fantasy worlds we create for ourselves on the Internet are an equivalent of the modern myth of Narcissus where we spend hours in an isolated aggrandisement of self.”
“Through cupcakes, seemingly innocent little ‘treats,’ we can project fantasies of who and what we desire to be. Instead of connecting us to others, however, cupcakes keep us separate and add to our sense of isolation.
Cupcake in the mirror
San Francisco psychotherapist Brooke Miller says cupcakes represent a perfectly proportioned sense of self.
“With so much stimulation and expectation — material wealth, keeping up with the Joneses, Hollywood and our own parents’ expectations — many people turn to food to manage the emotion that comes up with living a life they assume is under par.
“They keep us ‘boundaried’ and feeling contained, like we don’t need to do, eat or prove anything more than what is unwrapped in this little wrapper of joy.” Self-realisation through cupcakes can take many forms. In the event of an identity crisis, one can consult Cupcakes for Every Personality, a guide created for the Georgetown Cupcake sisters’ 2010 appearance on Oprah.
Serious souls are vanilla. The adventurous are peanut butter fudge. Spunky are lemon berry. Practical folk are carrot. You creatives are pumpkin spice. Nonsense? More than one commentator has quipped, “Sometimes a cupcake is just a cupcake.”
It has a nice ring to it. Then again, so does the cash register.
Consumers are seduced. As Georgetown Cupcake’s Katherine Kallinis says, “This is what love looks like in a baked good.”
In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post.