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Monday, March 22, 2010

I dig cupcakes, and I looove seeing all the cupcake shops popping  up everywhere. Two years ago I spent three weeks in Italy, where an evening stroll linked arm-in-arm with a friend or sweetie is a daily ritual, often celebrated with a few scoops of gelato. In Florence especially, it was almost impossible to find a block without a gelato shop. The decadence of enjoying the night air eases the day's stress to nothing, and is made all the sweeter with a gelato in hand. I have thoroughly missed this daily activity, so I was thrilled when the cupcake shops opened everywhere. Finally, Americans are learning that constant discipline in everything just isn't necessary. A little indulgence now and then helps you remember how awesome it is to be alive. Americans hop from puritanical to hedonistic in everything, never able to appreciate moderation. Cupcakes may be just what we need!

Why am I going on about cupcakes? A blogger for the Seattle P.I., Suzanne Ball, doesn't understand The Cupcake Craze. Actually, she seems to find it laughable and ridiculous. As do some of the commenters on her article. If you're curious about something, say... cupcakes, don't write paragraph after paragraph about how much you don't understand it and therefore don't like it. Do a little research first. Walking into a cupcake bakery, seeing the $4 price tag, and then walking out again is not research. So I sat down and thought about it, this Craze that I'm kind of on the peripheral of. Unfortunately, my response just got longer and longer, so I thought I would blog about it instead of posting a very wordy, rambling - but interesting! and informative! - comment at the PI.

According to another commenter, this whole thing started in 1996, at Magnolia Bakery in Greenwich Village . But Suzanne doesn't seem to understand why/how it became a huge phenomenon. I believe the HOW is tied to the "Indie" movement that has been growing over the past decade: people, mostly women, deciding to make things for themselves instead of just purchasing it from a store, in an effort to be independent, self-sufficient. "Crafting" has exploded from Indie to mainstream. Along with crafting came increased interest in the "Home-Ec" stuff that the modern woman sort of abandoned during the Women's Lib movement.

Cooking and baking is no longer just for chefs or foodies, but anyone who has an interest in creating versus purchasing. Couple the Indie movement with the electronic age where everyone has a blog, and suddenly there are countless blogs about creating, crafting, and cooking. A lot of these women decide they are good enough at what they've learned to sell their goods. Like cupcakes. So now we have something that started out Indie, has gone mainstream, and then finally gone commercial. Ironic, but not unusual. Have you stepped into a Michael's or Joann's lately? Gone to a scrapbooking party? Crafting, sewing, knitting, scrapbooking, cooking - these are all at-home, do-it-yourself activities that people used to do on a regular basis. Now, there is an entire industry, divided into subcategories, to sell you magazines about your craft, fancy materials to use in your creation, innovative and attractive ways to store your tools, new gadgets that make things easier and more efficiently. Cupcakes have become popular the exact same way scrapbooking has.

So that's the HOW. But what about the WHY? What is so damned special about cupcakes? There are a million reasons, the primary one being they taste good! But again, I think the women in the Indie movement have a lot to do with it as well. Meeting up in groups to craft is a regular occurence, to share the creative experience. These get-togethers are always self-catered with potluck foods that everyone can munch on, and cupcakes are just that much easier to share.

Then there is this need to re-capture our youth, another central part of crafting. Grown women wearing candy necklaces and barettes made for 5 year olds. TV and Cartoon shows from the 80s ending up on popular clothing. Sweets were big when we were kids, and "adult food" just isn't as fun as kid food. Cupcakes are easy to make, providing a quick relief to the monotony of "responsible" eating.

Cupcakes are small. I have yet to meet a woman who can look at a small, miniaturized version of... anything and not call it "cute". Cupcakes are cute! This can be played around with in decorating/frosting. Coming up with recipes is only half of the creative process - finding interesting, new ways of decorating cupcakes is just as fun.

Cupcakes are blissfully easy to make. You can start with a box mix, or whip something up from the basic elements most people always have on hand in their kitch - flour, sugar, eggs, etc. And then you can go crazy adding extra elements into the mix for interesting combinations - ginger, orange rind, coffee, fruit, lavender, maple syrup. The options available are endless.

I think that's enough in the "WHY?" department, so let's move on to "WTF? OMG! Sooo x$pensive!!!"

Seriously? People will pay it, and love it, period. Starbucks started an international phenomenon with the $4 espresso. And the $2 biscotti and $3 pastry and $5 quiche. We should be asking ourselves why it took so long for a similar industry to pop up using the same scheme. Especially considering how often the average person buys coffee from a stand or shop, versus how often a person will be willing to break their responsible diet routine and splurge on a little morsel of sinful bliss. There isn't really a danger that cupcakes will lead to more obesity, since the average person has the willpower to limit their trips to the cupcake shop. Whereas coffee is the new cigarette, expensive, addictive, and popular with ever-younger growing ages of children. I'd rather buy my kid a cupcake once a month, than a mocha 3 times a week.

Now ask yourself why the cupcake bakery sells their cupcakes so expensively. It's called quality. Yep, Mom's Betty Crocker brand cupcakes are awesome, but plenty of coffee drinkers dig Folgers from the grocery and still splurge on a latte now and then. Cupcake shops buy higher-end ingredients than the typical mom. Swiss chocolate, unprocessed sugar and flour, fresh and local lavender, whole vanilla beans from Madagascar - all purchased in bulk, this stuff is hugely more expensive than a box of cake mix. Then there is rent, utilities, industrial ovens and refridgerators - all of which is paid for by $4 cupcakes. Not to mention salaries. Baking professionally has always been, and will always be, a true labor of love - crazy hours and a ton of physical, repetitive work.

If you haven't yet, start up a conversation with an Indie crafter about why they do what they do. You will learn it's about passion, self-expression, laughter, accomplishment. You will discover that what started out as crafting is now truly personalized artwork, miniaturized and accessible to the general public - art was never meant to be only enjoyed in museums and owned by the rich. It is meant to be enjoyed on a personal level, creating a small but real bond between artisan and buyer. And finally, you'll hear about how important it is to them to support their fellow artists and shop locally instead of from a Big Box Store. Because your new Indie friend invests so much time and attention and love and personal funds into what she creates, she realizes how much goes into the creations of other artists. Being an individual is a huge deal in the Indie Craft movement, but so is community - supporting each other, respecting other artists, and making friends with like-minded people is just as important.

I used to call jewelry making my hobby, something I did on the side when the mood struck me. Now I call myself a jewelry designer, I invest most of my time and money into creating, and every item I make is a piece of art that is special to me. When someone buys something from me, the dollars make me happy. But knowing someone has appreciated my work enough to buy my $40 gemstone necklace instead of a $20 knock-off made of plastic and glass at WalMart means the world to me. I know that the item was special to me when I made it, and now it is going to someone who finds it special enough to part with a little extra cash. It is an addictive feeling, being appreciated and knowing that my jewelry is an investment that will be loved, instead of an impulse buy at Target that may or may not be worn once. It fuels my creativity, inspires me to create more, create better. Also, it's extra incentive to drive across town to my favorite cupcake shop, and extra money in my pocket to buy a $4 cupcake. Or two.

ps: the more you buy Indie, the better you get to know the people, the more you get into their social circles. And then you get invitations to events with lots of potluck food, including free $4 cupcakes.

3 comments:

KB said...

Great blog, M. I disagree with the cost factor though, because any home baker worth a crap will already be purchasing those same high quality ingredients that the cupcake shops use and as an aside, I have tasted many a cupcake from a fancy shop that didn't taste nearly as good as what I have made at home from a box mix.

mysie said...

Who knew I had so much to say about cupcakes?? And you're right on both counts. Good bakers probably have higher quality ingredients on hand, but is the average American mom a "good" baker who cares enough about her baking to buy the good stuff? And bad cupcakes suck ass. A few weeks ago, I went to a new boutique bakery I had seen from the car once. Looked like cupcakes, but their deal is making donuts and then decorating them like cupcakes. Not a fan of cake donuts, so I was quite disappointed.

KB said...

Donuts disguised to look like cupcakes? That's just wrong. I am not a fan of the cake donut, either. Too dry and BORING. Yuck. I think the average American mom is probably a decent enough baker to play around with different add-ins and flavorings to box mixes. I think the key to a good cupcake in addition to moisture content is great frosting. Now *that* can't come out of a can. =)