While boozing recently in celebration of a friend's birthday party, the birthday girl reveled there would be cupcakes later. As I'm sometimes wont to do, I tiraded on the cupcake's criminality for about five, maybe ten minutes before a well-tuned waiter asked whether or not I needed another heffeweissen. "Yes, please," the party said in unison.
I can get pretty riled up.
However, in this case I think it's with good reason. The cupcake assumes much of what's wrong with urban America. At its heart it's a selfish food, a sad food. The cupcake is lonely.
When we're kids, the cupcake is wonderful. For Timmy's second-grade birthday party, cupcakes are the perfect solution. Each child has something uniquely his own. Little Suzy can grab one, rush off to some dirty corner and return, eyes glazed and wild, lips stained blue-violet from the plume of sugar icing. And the teacher doesn't have to spend 20 minutes fighting the tide of seven-year-olds as they ebb and flow impatiently, waiting for him to parse pieces of a larger cake. But at some point we must grow up and engage the world around us.
The cupcake is a lonely food, its single-serving size just the thing for someone on her way home from work. His way home from the gym. It's designed to reward, to comfort the singular human. But doesn't it then serve as a reminder of loneliness to the person it's comforting? The individually sized dome of icing and cake, whether it is simple chocolate or some strawberry-banana-walnut-kiwi monstrosity, stands by itself, separated from the rest of its batter, sheltered in that little paper container. Each cupcake consumed on a park bench serves as a hat-tip to the isolation we experience even when surrounded by eight million people.
The cupcake is also a selfish food. It eliminates the need for compromise and communication. You get your chocolate, I get my vanilla, and the woman behind us gets her cherry-mango-coconut swirl-top kittycake with an extra helping of "You go, girl!" Each of us is happy, but for what reason? Because we get what we want? Getting what you want isn't always the best thing, and it doesn't serve as a way to think about the world around you. First it's the cupcake, then it's the Escalade. At some point we have to ask whether or not orange-raspberry-mocha right now is the best thing we can do for ourselves and each other.
I'm not saying cupcakes should be eliminated. I'm not saying they're inherently bad (though I'm kind of saying they're inherently bad). I am saying they tell us a lot about ourselves, as all food does--imagine a bakery creating amazing cakes portioned for three people--and that we should pay attention to that kind of thing. And next time you're with a group of friends, see if you can make a cake. Together. And if you're alone and headed home from work, make a friend. Then split something. Breaking bread is wonderful, even when that bread is sweet and topped with icing.