Against Cupcakes

The yipping lap dog of baked goods inspires three new shows.

The cupcake: a frou-frou form of regressive behavior

Well nigh a year ago, Daniel Gross, Slate’s “Moneybox” columnist, wrote in these pages about the cupcake, that fashionable treat with the annoying aura. Considering the cupcake as an economic indicator, he offered that the current recession “laid the groundwork for the recent proliferation of cupcake stores in American cities,” described an industry in its bubble phase, and pointed to the reasons that a crash would come soon. “Cupcakes are essentially reactionary … willfully uncomplex, familiar, and comforting,” he wrote. “But as reactionaries often do, they’ve gone too far.”

The cupcake downturn cannot come soon enough. Every time I drag myself into the office, I pass “NYC’s only cupcake, wine, and beer bar” and then congratulate myself on resisting the urge to smash its front window. It is one of several places cutely blighting the nation with cupcake-and-wine pairings, the sort of dining experience that gives decadent nonsense a bad name. As any child will tell you, this dessert is supposed to be paired with milk, please. Any other beverage that attempts to recontextualize the snack just renders it plainly silly. The cupcake has become a yipping lap dog among baked goods.

To consume one conspicuously is to participate in the most frou-frou form of regressive behavior the hospitality industry has yet devised. “What it awakens is not so much childish tastes as childish imaginations,” Ian Jack recently wrote of the cupcake’s comic-book cuteness, nicely choosing childish over childlike. The contemporary cupcake is a dessert fit for a Disney princess, and attempts to prove otherwise are embarrassing: A new-ish outfit called Butch Bakery boasts of making “manly cupcakes” for “manly men,” complete with jungle-camo frosting patterns and other assurances of its clients’ virility; varieties include the Old-Fashioned (orange-soaked whiskey cake with lemon curd filling), the Jackhammer (chocolate cake with chocolate hazelnut filling and hazelnut buttercream), and the Big Papi (cinnamon spice cake with performance-enhancing drugs).

Of course, the world being what it is, the cupcake crash is taking its sweet time. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that cupcake cafes were fueling growth in the restaurant industry in New York City, thus improving the overall unemployment rate. “The cupcake industry seems to be recession-proof,” we were supposed to believe. Thus, while waiting for the real world to experience a confection correction, we must turn to TV for signs that this madness must stop. It was here, after all, that Sex and the City—without reference to which no cupcake article is complete—transformed the pastry into a totem.

On the evidence of Cupcake Wars (Food Network), which just wrapped up its first season, this food item has departed from the familiarity and anti-complexity Gross described and entered its baroque phase. Each week, four contestants compete in elimination challenges, scrambling to please the palates of judges who are prepared to hiss invective against overly dense frosting. Often, these challenges involve incorporating into cupcakes ingredients that have no business in cupcakes, and competitors manage to do compelling things with lox and bacon and seaweed. Thus, on one level, watching Cupcake Wars is a bit like a watching an episode of Iron Chef about making jalepeño bagels. But really it is another food show where the food itself verges on being a mere prop and all the thrill is in the race against the clock: “All right, people, drop your spatulas. Time is up.”

D.C. Cupcakes (TLC, Fridays at 10 p.m. ET) concerns an outfit called Georgetown Cupcakes, run by type-A sisters Sophie and Katherine, who pad around the nation’s capital wearing pink Wellington boots and, for the benefit of the camera, forced expressions of concern and dismay as the situation requires. In real life, they have exhibited the savvy and tenacity to succeed in a tough business; on the show, they barely know how to ask for directions. In one episode, they fly into a panic when running slightly behind schedule to deliver cupcakes for a wedding, their hysteria more appropriate to totally forgetting something truly important, like maybe the groom.

Where the shades of pink favored by the D.C. Cupcakes crew tend toward a powder pink, the team onThe Cupcake Girls (WEtv, Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET) seems to prefer bubblegum, and there are some moments when it seems that this is the most important difference between the two shows. The Cupcake Girls also follows two female business partners by way of riffing on themes of sorority, entrepreneurship, and bad traffic. Here, best friends Heather and Lori operate a Vancouver chain apparently called Cupcakes, a name which, though unoriginal, is at least easy to remember.

Like the D.C. Cupcakes crew, Heather and Lori do a passable job of playing ditzy for the camera. These gals also operate their business as a family affair, with Heather’s mom and dad both on staff. “It’s hard giving your parents shit,” Heather says beneath a bleep. (Funny, I thought half the point of adolescence was in demonstrating how simple that can be.) Her mother works the phones as the office manager, while her father, nominally a delivery driver, is tasked with flaking off on the job and intermittently making statements tipping over the borderline into offensiveness by their smirking tone: “As we all know, women are not always reasonable.”

All of this nonsense is precariously joined to moments of human seriousness. Lori comes to tears after a frustrating visit to her fertility specialist. Heather has to skip an AA meeting. Cadence—their star employee despite the fact that she does a subpar job of Windexing the display case and openly rebels against wearing a hairnet—is transgendered and discusses with some gravity her difficulties as she proceeds through various surgeries. Note that The Cupcake Girls airs on Saturday night, as if its ideal viewer were not only dateless but has run through all the Kate Hudson movies that Netflix has to offer. A cupcake show presented as an off-beat dramedy, it is diverting enough in its own right, though surely, as far as this trend is concerned, a sign of a frosting apocalypse.

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