This article is a longer version of an item that appears in the Guardian’s online food and drinks section, Word of Mouth.
The world now has its first cupcake ATM. That’s right – a candyfloss-pink hole in the wall dispensing cupcakes 24/7, just in case we need to scratch an itch for garishly-iced sponge confection in the middle of the night. Who’d have thought?
The doomsayers had been predicting a post sugar-rush crash ever since the cupcake surge began around the turn of the millennium. But the canny marketing wheeze by US gourmet cupcake company Sprinkles to install an ATM (or more accurately ACM – Automatic Cake Machine) in the exterior wall of its Beverly Hills store is a custard pie in the face of cupcake doubters.
More than 1,000 cupcakes a day have been issued by the machine since it was installed, to customers prepared to queue 50-deep and pay $3.50 a pop for the privilege. It raises the possibility that cupcakes may not, after all, be a passing fad. After all, 670 million cupcakes were consumed in the US last year according to research company NPD, and have now entered their second decade of vogue. As the Washington Post observed, cupcakes may have crossed the line from fad to fixture.
If more proof were needed, look no further than the global movement called CupcakeCamp where enthusiasts in 60 cities gather to celebrate cupcakes. Or, in the organisation’s own enigmatic words, “Cupcake Camp is an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and eat cupcakes in an open environment.”
Pioneering American cookbook author Eliza Leslie would surely need her smelling salts if she knew how her recipe had taken off. Published in 1828, her cookbook Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, is believed to contain the first recorded cupcake recipe. Some think the cupcake name is a reference to the individual pottery cups in which they were baked before the birth of the muffin tray. Alternatively, it might derive from the way Miss Eliza measured her ingredients – 1 cup flour, 2 cups sugar and so on – which broke the tradition of weighing everything and must have saved her many hours in the kitchen.
Miss Eliza’s cakes, made without the benefit of raising agent, were probably more akin to cup-sized rocks than the airy creations we drool over today. The US Hostess brand lays claim to having produced the first mass-produced cupcake-style product in 1919 – by today’s standards a very dull bake indeed, comprising simple devil’s food cake with not a hint of filling or icing. Ironically, given the cupcake-baking mania that would later sweep American homes, advertisements for these treats boasted: “Now baking at home is needless.” Cupcakes didn’t evolve into the objects of desire we know today until 1950.
New York City’s Magnolia Bakery, the acknowledged crucible of the cupcake boom, opened in 1996, selling prettily decorated cupcakes from its iconic nostalgia-themed store in Greenwich Village. A couple of years later Carrie Bradshaw took a bite of one an episode of the phenomenally popular TV series Sex and the City –in the process setting the world on its frosting feeding frenzy.
The phenomenon was not to be confined to the US. In 2000, Nigella Lawson persuaded the British public of the virtues of cupcakes over the more perfunctory English fairy cake. Her retro-chic spin on cupcakes, sprinkled with dolly mix and other classic childhood treats, tapped into a vein of nostalgia for a sweeter, simpler era (although arguably one that never existed). Nigella encouraged women to bake cupcakes not because it was their role in life to do so, but because they were entitled to reclaim some of the domestic sphere if they chose to. Cupcakes proliferated in UK homes and in dedicated bakeries. The UK joined a cupcake bandwagon that seemed unstoppable.
Of course, in trying to make sense of it all, we have, inevitably, politicized a simple piece of cake. Not content to accept that they’re easy and cheap to make, glamorous and stylish to buy and appealingly proportioned in a diet-conscious world, social commentators have sought a deeper reasoning for the popularity of cupcakes. Some have decried them as a symptom of a society no longer willing to share; the Guardian described them as “the favourite greedy treat of the me-generation”.
Academics at New York’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy have even posited that the location of cupcake bakeries might be a more accurate gauge of urban gentrification than more traditional socio-economic barometers like property prices. Interestingly, they had to abandon their field research when the number of New York cupcake outlets grew too numerous to properly assess.
And where there’s a craze there’s a critic. Cupcakes have come under attack in recent years, a lot of it sneering in tone. In an essay in award-winning food journal Fire & Knives, academic Sarah Emily Duff questioned the vehemence of the anti-cupcake lobby and pointed to the Observer’s description of cupcakes as one of the ten worst food trends of the decade, up there with genetically modified food.
But Duff made the further point that some of the attacks stemmed from the fact that cupcakes were deliberately positioned in the marketplace as “girly” food.
“… I do feel that some of the anti-cupcake movement is informed by a dislike of things associated with women,” Duff said. “What concerns me is that we’re still associating children’s food with a particular kind of childlike femininity.”
Beyond gender issues, you also get the distinct feeling that much of the anti-cupcake movement is rooted in good old food snobbery, with cupcake commoners on one side of the baking schism and the elite macaroons posse on the other.
But the biggest names in gourmet cupcakes are too busy inventing mad new flavours, installing hole-in-the-wall gimmicks and plotting their expansion to take any notice of the harpers. For example, Sprinkles already has ten US stores and is preparing to expand to London with its ATM “soon” as well as Paris and Tokyo. Several other companies have similarly ambitious plans to spread the cupcake love.
The largest gourmet cupcake chain in the US, Crumbs, went public in a $66 million merger last year and has since expanded to 50 outlets, with plans to grow six-fold in the next few years. But all is not completely rosy in cupcake land. Crumbs reported net losses of $3.7 million in the year to December 2011 and announced that structural and merchandising changes would be made in a bid to turn the good ship cupcake around.
It may be premature to state that the cupcake bubble will never burst.