Cupcakes are having a bad month. Early in October, police were called to a domestic dispute in Chicago involving a woman pelting her husband with cupcakes. This happened within days of National Pro-Life Cupcake Day, where anti-choicers took it upon themselves to bake treats and deliver them to children along with a little lecture: "Aborted babies don't get to have birthdays! Enjoy!"
So this is how a trend dies: Something sweet turns sour and hateful. Seeing the cupcake abused in this way is like seeing Silly Bandz employed as eye-removing slingshots.
But is the end really nigh for butter-frosted dominance? Almost as soon as cupcake stores began popping up like Starbuckses around 2009, a backlash brewed among food bloggers ("Cupcakes are evil," John Durant wrote) and celebrity chefs (David Chang: "I f----ng hate cupcakes"). The Guardian railed when cupcakes migrated across the Atlantic, their garish, New World, sickly sweet heft usurping the delicate fairy cakes the Brits prefer at tea time. Articles in food magazines speculated about what would fill the space when the cupcake bubble inevitably burst: Whoopee pies? Funnel cake? Macarons?
Yet cupcakes have proved resilient. This year, the quickly expanding U.S. chain Crumbs Bake Shop announced plans to go public, having achieved $31-million in annual revenues. "Cupcakes are part of our dessert culture, like cookies and brownies," co-founder Jason Bauer told Newsweek. "Cupcakes are here to stay."
But why? Certainly the cupcake is a bite of nostalgia, a taste of the pre-latchkey kid fantasy of home-baked goods and nuclear households awash with the smell of vanilla. The website for Dlish, one of several cupcake stores near my house in downtown Toronto, reads, "Remember how comforting and satisfying a sweet, freshly baked treat could be with a cold glass of milk?" Clearly, we do. Food is a direct route to one's emotional past. Before there were fried green tomatoes, Proust had his madeleine and Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich ruminated that French prunes would forever call forth images of "his nanny, his brother, his toys."
Some psychologists maintain that comfort foods like cupcakes serve as "social surrogates," an object that becomes a stand-in for those who are absent, mimicking intimacy. A University of Buffalo study found that eating chicken soup – for subjects who identified chicken soup as a comfort food – immediately triggered memories of relationships. Certain foods may actually make us feel less lonely.
Perhaps cupcakes are winning because they serve a dual function: They conjure warm past associations, but are also the ultimate solo indulgence – single-sized and not for sharing.
Of course, those who hate cupcakes find them less comforting than infantilizing (see: #teamgrownupcake). They are too cute and sweet and hyper-feminine, an adult version of the Disney princess groundswell. In pop culture, cupcakes have become a female emancipator: In Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig's flailing character mourns the collapse of her bakery and soothes herself by making cupcakes. The new double-dip recession sitcom 2 Broke Girls features the titular characters trying to pull themselves out of the 99 per cent by starting a cupcake business.
There's something appealingly subversive about women finding economic liberation through a maternal, domestic product like a cupcake. Etsy it up! But then again, maybe the gruelling work of making cupcakes is just a new kind of kitchen slavery. Perhaps frosting shouldn't be the big dream of the modern woman.
In fact, the retro emotions at the gooey centre of the cupcake trend may be a little unsavoury. Richard Coe, in When the Grass Was Taller, his study of 600 childhood autobiographies, found that nostalgia is often not about reverence for the past, but sadness for the present. He calls this "black" nostalgia: "It is not so much that the child itself, now an adult, has forever outgrown the splendours of the past, but rather that civilization and 'progress' have annihilated, perhaps totally and irretrievably, an ancient way of life and replaced it with something crude, rootless and modern. This is more than nostalgia; it is nostalgia shot through with bitterness, resentment and disgust."
What better way to swallow our modern alienation than with a pound of frosting for a mere three dollars?
The comfort food that seems poised to threaten the cupcake's dominance is baked in its own complicated associations. As a headline in The New York Times read, "Pie to Cupcake: Time's Up." In Brooklyn, hipsters are queuing for homemade caramel apple pies at Four & Twenty Blackbirds, while, in Vancouver, people will drive 90 minutes to the Airport Coffee Shop in Chilliwack for a slice. Pie may not actually be as American as Americans think (ancient Greeks liked it), but its revival hints at a desire to romanticize not just one's personal past, but a formerly glorious nationhood. If cupcakes are about me, then pie is about us. Simple and survivalist, pie may be the ultimate recession food: a sweet crust stuffed with whatever scraps are left over.