Has our obsession with cupcakes gone too far?
// Claire McGillivray

 “Think about it. Banning cupcakes is almost like an assault on the national identity,” says Kathryn Oths, a University of Alabama anthropologist who spends much of her academic time studying food and culture.

Her radical statement was in response to the 2006 banning of cupcakes at George Mason Elementary School in Alexandria, USA. The Washington Post detailed the outrage of many parents, perhaps some not as radical as Oths, but of the same mind in their belief that cupcakes are a vital part of an idyllic childhood. Over the last decade they have become a trendy, everyday indulgence that has been enthusiastically encouraged by the mainstream media.

Cupcakes, then and now

Cupcakes have been a treasured European decadence for over a century. Much like penicillin, cupcakes were born out of an experimental accident. A 19th-century American baker ended up making too much cake batter and proceeded to do everything he could to avoid wasting it. By simply dumping the excess cake batter into little cups and tossing them into the oven along with his cake masterpiece, a beautiful delicacy was created.

Now, cupcakes are included in the celebration of birthdays, Valentine’s Day, elementary school cupcake drives, and even the occasional wedding ceremony. Cupcakes have become so popular that specialty cupcake shops are now popping up in metropolises all across North America. The shops offer a variety of cupcake flavours, but specialize in only one dessert item; an arguably risky business strategy.

Cupcake specialty stores often make bolder choices when it comes to flavour. “Mint Condition” and “Blue Hawaii” are both flavours offered at the Vancouver specialty bakery Cupcakes, run by Heather White and Lori Joyce. White and Joyce actually secured a show about their bakery on the W Network, called The Cupcake Girls. Additionally, several vegan and gluten-free pastry options are popping up in specialty bakeries around Vancouver, like Cassia Cupcakery on Commercial Drive.

Cupcakes in businesses suits

Capitalizing on the specific needs of a diverse range of customers, specialty cupcake bakeries can be extremely successful, especially in busy areas like downtown Vancouver. Cupcake businesses are currently so successful that entrepreneurs are creating how-to websites so that even individuals who know little to nothing about business, but have a passion for cupcakes, can open up their own specialty shops. For example,, based out of the United States, offers access to an array of valuable “resources, supplies and inspiration.”

Though many could argue that cupcakes have become a somewhat passé fad, in the world of business and finance, cupcakes are continuing to hold their own as a viable and in-demand product. It’s difficult to predict whether cupcake popularity will remain a trend or fizzle as a fad, but if the last ten years are any indication, the industry will not be going down without a fight.

That being said, a number of desserts are competing to be the next big trend on the horizon. Katie Sweeney, an avid lover of food and regular blogger on the website YumSugar: To Die For, reports that “food forecasters are predicting that Americans are ready to move on to the next big dessert craze.”

Sweeney mentions some likely dessert trend possibilities such as macaroons, though they are difficult to make, or the recent “cake pops”, as seen in a variety of flavours at Starbucks.

Cupcakes and hot ladies

Despite the obscurity and the single-product business approach, cupcakes have taken modern media by storm over the last number of years. Reality television, in an arguably desperate attempt at inspiration, has fully embraced the global cupcake phenomenon. Both the Food Network and the Cooking Channel have several reality shows featuring cupcakes, including Cupcake Wars, DC Cupcakes, and Sweet Dreams.

The popularity of cupcakes doesn’t stop at reality television. Saturday Night Live recently did a rap segment referencing the Manhattan West Village high-life that most specifically includes stopping for cupcakes at the Magnolia Bakery in New York City.

It is difficult to pinpoint the catalyst for this bizarre media frenzy over cupcakes, but as with many trends, celebrity approval might have something to do with it. Since the turn of the century, cupcakes have had a recurring role on the hit television series Sex and the City. Lead characters Carrie and Miranda are often filmed at the famed Magnolia Bakery in New York’s thriving Manhattan neighbourhood.

Ever since their first appearance at Magnolia’s in season three, cupcakes have become a symbol of sophistication, gossip, and sex. The sugary treats have taken on the resemblance of, at the core of things, a forbidden fruit – a sweet indulgence to share with friends.

Cupcakes and charity work

Whether or not Sex and the City can be credited, cupcakes have become a peculiarly ingrained aspect of North American culture over the last decade. Of course, North Americans are not the only culture graced with these frosty treats. Christianity Today, an international religious publication based out of the United States, details one couple’s missionary work aiding women in Kabul, Afghanistan by passing on their knowledge of baking practices. The article, entitled “Helping Afghanistan One Cupcake at a Time”, written by Evelyn Juan in the fall of 2005, archives the experiences of Donna and Aziz (only first names were listed due to issues of safety) during work stays at the Women’s Centre in Kabul.
“My heart was just so broken for the women, especially the widows,” says Donna in interview with Christianity Today. Donna and her husband donate their time at the Women’s Centre in order to teach the women homemaking skills that they can use to generate an income. The Afghani women can then go on to work as cooks and housekeepers in some of the wealthier Western homes of Kabul, and eventually pass on their skills to other women by becoming teachers themselves.

One of the most important skills that these women are taught to develop is baking. Pastries actually generate a prominent source of income for the women while at the Centre, a major charitable organization recently placed a standing order of 500 cupcakes each week. This unique connection is most definitely, if nothing more, further proof that cupcakes represent a shared passion, a societal indulgence, and a global phenomenon.

Cupcakes are also present in charitable organizations in Vancouver. On Feb. 16, the H.A.V.E. Culinary Training Society of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) hosted the 3rd Annual Cupcake Throwdown at the Chapel Arts Centre. The event supported dozens of cupcake artists in a throw-down competition. Event-goers received five taste-testing tickets as well as a ballot for voting on their top picks.

H.A.V.E. is a local DTES society “that provides foodservice job training and work opportunities to individuals in Vancouver who experience barriers to employment.” Focusing on cupcakes was a good way to bring attention to the organization while keeping the bakers focused on current pastry trends.

Cupcakes vs. your personal trainer

One issue that the media of cupcake-lovers don’t particularly address is the high sugar and fat content found in cupcakes. According to Eating Well magazine, “where good taste meets good health,” the typical bakery cupcake contains approximately 585 calories, 20 grams of fat and 12 grams of saturated fat. Even a store-bought cake mix, done at home, will likely contain around 298 calories, 14 grams of fat and 5 grams of saturated fat.

Surely, the popularity of cupcakes must be adding to a growing North American waistline. To counter these insanely high numbers, Eating Well recommends recipes (such as their own) with fewer calories and fat as well as “an ingredient list you can pronounce and half as much added sugar as the bakery cupcake.” Their Raspberry-Swirl Cupcakes have 194 likes on Facebook, which is almost as high as the calorie count.

Cupcake motivations

As the American women’s liberation movement activist, Gloria Steinem once said, “America is an enormous frosted cupcake in the middle of millions of starving people.”

Her metaphor is quirky, but it hits a very vital point. Why, in a world where the United Nations reports approximately 25,000 people dying everyday from starvation and hunger-related causes, is there a first-world obsession with something as trivial and insignificant as cupcakes? In a world fraught with war, poverty and famine, is it possible that cupcakes act as a pseudo-escapism for the privileged first-world population? Whether escapism or indulgence, cupcakes are undeniably making people happy.

//Claire McGillivray, writer
//Graphics by JJ Brewis

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