What is Up With the Cupcake Thing?

Sometimes human beings confuse me.

Okay, I will amend that. Not all humans confuse me–just most of them.

And it isn’t sometimes–it’s most of the time.

So, let’s just start this over, shall we?

Most of the time, I find the behavior of most human beings to be quite confusing.

Take the case of the cupcake.

Cupcakes have become suddenly trendy, (okay, in truth, this trend is not that new–it has been going on for a couple of years now, but I have resisted talking about it thus far, so let’s call it sudden) trendy to the point that there exists an entire blog written about nothing but cupcakes. Actually, the truth is, there was one blog written about cupcakes, but now there are lots of them. Everywhere you look someone somewhere is baking, eating, talking about, writing about and obsessing over cupcakes. There are highly successful bakeshops dedicated completely to the cupcake in major metropolitan areas
across the country.

You can even order cupcakes online to be shipped to you, you know, just in case you don’t live near one of those cupcake bakeries. (And the bakeries near you don’t make good cupcakes, and you are either too lazy or too baking-challenged to make your own.)

I don’t know why, but there you have it. Cupcakes are the “It” dessert of the twenty-first century.

They are a cultural phenomenon.

But I haven’t written about this trend, which has been going strong for about two years now, because, well, I just don’t get it. And I didn’t really want to be the curmudgeonly one to pop a pin in the balloon and take all the fun away.

I mean, I’m far from a cupcake hater–so before people get all het up over this little essay, let it be known now and henceforth that while I don’t see what it is about cupcakes that could possibly cause all of this cultural phenomenon stuff, I am not anti-cupcake. I just don’t bloody well get it.

I mean cupcakes are nice–I won’t turn one down. They taste good, well–I mean, if they are made from good ingredients, they taste good. And they can be very pretty and all, but really–I don’t get why someone would want to spend three dollars or more on one. Or write about them all the time–or make a wedding cake out of a mountain of them. (I especially don’t get that, because they can go stale so easily–and I don’t like thinking about decorating each one, then transporting them to the location of reception, and then assembling them without horrible accidents happening along the way. I mean, wedding cakes are scary enough to transport and assemble without death and destruction–can you imagine three hundred cupcakes? It gives me hives, I tell you, hives.)

But I have stayed out of the cupcake thing because I don’t want people to think I don’t take their passions seriously. I write about Asian food, local food and why it is important to recognize that meat comes from animals, and that if you can’t deal with it, you shouldn’t eat it. If other folks want to write about cupcakes all the time or make them all the time or even eat them all the time-who am I to say “Talk to the hand?” Nobody, that’s who, so I just stayed a silent supporter of the cupcake fans of the world, while being quietly bemused by all of the fuss.

But as of today, my silence on the issue of cupcakes is officially broken. Why?

Because I read this New York Times piece on how parents are getting up in arms over some school systems decreeing that elementary school kids cannot bring in cupcakes for birthday parties.

That was the crumb that broke this cupcake-neutral writer’s back.

It was too much. I had to say something.

In “Don’t Even Think of Touching That Cupcake,” author Sarah Kershaw relates that now that boards of education are cracking down on junk food sold in schools, cupcakes are in dire straits. They have been banned from some classrooms, even if they are brought in by a child to share on his or her birthday.


Look, I am all about getting the soda and candy machines out of the hallways and the trans fats and fast food out of the lunchrooms. I understand the limitation on sending candy goodie bags for Halloween and Valentine’s Day. I understand why some schools are banning kids from bringing peanut butter sandwiches from home–some other kids might be so allergic to peanuts they’d just haul off and die from accidentally getting a tiny smudge of it on their own lunches. I get that.

I even get the wisdom of cutting down on the number of sugar-laden bake sales and candy sales used to support the school choir and band, though I am not sure how to make up those funds. In fact, I am not too sure how school systems should make up the funds lacking from those candy and soda machines, but, well, that isn’t what I am talking about.

I am talking about cupcakes. Brought from home. By a kid. To share. On his or her. Birthday. Dammit.

And a cupcake every now and then has never hurt anyone.

Now, don’t start in with me about the obesity crisis in the US. I am well aware of it. I know, I know, that we are seeing more incidences of Type II diabetes in kids than we have ever seen it before. I know. I know. And lots of kids eat too much fast food and drink too much soda and don’t have any gym classes, so they are on the less than slender side. I know.

But, look. The fat and sugar police are going too damned far here. Or at least, I think they might be. I might be wrong. But, back when I was in school, we had plenty of kids bring cupcakes on their birthday, and we ate them, and were happy, and very few of us were fat. We weren’t! In fact, we sometimes had treats donated by the local ice cream place, and we ate those. Ice cream. In school.

But then, those were -treats-. They were an every-now-and-then sort of thing. We didn’t eat sugary stuff every day in school. And our school lunches were not too bad–especially not in grade school. Back then, the lunch ladies actually did some cooking, and their rolls, chili, pizza and chicken soup were something to be excited about. And the mashed potatoes started out from potatoes, not from boxes–they were really tasty.

And most of us drank milk–not soda every day. Soda was a treat, too, for most of us.

Oh, and the other difference–is we had recess and gym every day. EVERY DAY. Until high school. And then we could only get out of it in our senior year, and only if we took some egghead classes like Chemistry II or Anatomy and Physiology. Like, if you wanted to get out of gym, you had better be ready to either cut apart a fetal pig and play with its innards, or huddle over a Bunsen burner doing qualitative analysis for months on end. (Needless to say, I took the egghead route: dead pigs and reagents were much more interesting than one more game of dodgeball or one more attempt to break my neck on the balance beam. I didn’t just get called The Culinary Nerd for no reason, you know.)

I don’t know. I just feel like yeah, we need to get the junk food out of the schools, but can’t we also get the kids moving again? Get them into some physical activities–and not just afterschool sports, but stuff in school, too. That way, it won’t just be the jocks who use their bodies and burn calories, but the nerds and everyone else, too. That way, there will be some balance, right?

That way, if a kid does bring some cupcakes to share with the class on her or his birthday–it won’t be such a big deal. It will be a treat–not an every day event.

But maybe I am wrong. Maybe there should be a zero tolerance policy for sugary foods in our schools.

I think that being that hard line about it smacks of nutritional fundamentalism, and frankly, I think it stinks just as much as political or religious fundamentalism and is just as dangerous.


Because whatever we make sinful, and take away from our kids will become that much more attractive to them.

You watch.

We will be raising generations of kids who worship cupcakes in a way that will make the current faddish devotion to them seem quaint by comparison.

But I am not worried–too many parents are getting their panties in a wad over the proposed cupcake bans to the point that pro-cupcake language has to be added to rules disallowing sugary snacks that go before various PTAs for votes. Otherwise, they wouldn’t pass.

I find that heartening, but also somewhat surreal.

And I come back to where this essay started–I find most people confusing most of the time.

All of this hullabaloo over a simple cupcake….


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  1. […] Tammy’s Recipes – Everyday Cooking Inspiration wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt. I mean, wedding cakes are scary enough to transport and assemble without death and destruction can […]

    Pingback by Birthday And Wedding Cakes » What is Up With the Cupcake Thing? — September 26, 2007 #

  2. […] mia wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptI know, I know, that we are seeing more incidences of Type II diabetes in kids than we have ever seen it before. I know. I know. And lots of kids eat too much fast food and drink too much soda and don’t have any gym classes, … […]

    Pingback by Free Diabetes Information » What is Up With the Cupcake Thing? — September 26, 2007 #

  3. Rules about cupcakes?!?!?
    Don’t these people have more important things to do? Like being concerned enough over what they provide for the health and nutrition of their own offspring that the occasional cupcake treat is just that – a welcome ‘treat’.
    And a cupcake is just cake in a cup… or am I missing something…
    I baked my share in a prior life…many years ago in a land far away.
    Um, in other words, I agree with you, whole-heartedly!

    Comment by Katie — September 26, 2007 #

  4. I agree. Yet again you have managed to verbalize feelings that I’d been having, but hadn’t been able to express properly. Well done and thank you!

    …Sorry to nit-pick about your peanut butter comment (particularly since it isn’t the point of this post), but I had an acquaintance who claimed to be reactive enough that the smell of peanuts could set her off.

    Comment by Lisa — September 26, 2007 #

  5. Hahah… I do love a good rant, and by gum this was a good rant! 🙂 Cupcake Prohibition, yet. Wait and see, cupcakes are going to go “underground” and people will pay huge amounts to get them stale and smuggled! 🙂

    Comment by shammi — September 26, 2007 #

  6. First they came for the cupcakes,
    and I said nothing
    Next they came for the beef,
    and I said nothing….

    Beware the Secret Food Police, they are trying to turn us all into grain snarfing tree hugging bad stereotype vegetarians. Some people need to get a life and let the kids be.Maybe someone should give them a peanut butter cupcake. I hear arsenic makes pretty sprinkles.

    Comment by Bryian — September 26, 2007 #

  7. You’re not the only one, I don’t get the cup-cake thing either. It’s a bit like the muffin craze that happened a while back. I don’t hate cup-cakes or muffins but I wouldn’t particularly buy or want to eat one.

    Comment by Nicole — September 26, 2007 #

  8. At my school students aren’t allowed to bring any kind of homemade treat for any occasion. It’s because there have been some incidences of students getting sick after eating food that was brought by another student. Isn’t that just sad? However the individually-wrapped treats they are allowed to bring can be total sugar, no restrictions on that.

    Comment by Kalyn — September 26, 2007 #

  9. I couldn’t agree more. Down with the sugar police, up with P.E.!

    Comment by Yogamum — September 26, 2007 #

  10. “nutritional fundamentalism”
    What a great term!
    And so necessary, what with the weird trends that food is being distorted with.

    I think cupcakes are good for school treats because they’re pre-unitized and no-one can complain about which one they got….well they could but not with justification.

    Comment by wwjudith — September 26, 2007 #

  11. I like cupcakes. They’re cake and they’re cute, all in one convenient carryable package!

    I’ll even admit to going to a cupcake shop a while back. But I was disappointed by it — too artificial. I prefer making my own.

    Comment by Alexis — September 26, 2007 #

  12. When I started school, recess was something that continued through middle school. By the time *I* got there, recess had been eliminated. Gym class was always pretty torturous for me. I’ve got some visible under x-ray physical disabilities that make a lot of normal sports pretty painful. And of course the things I can do comfortably were “too expensive” or “not appropriate”.

    I was lucky that my parents encouraged me to participate in things that didn’t hurt. So I learned to swim, and to bike, and got lots of encouragement to go hiking.

    Now that I’m older, I can see that the town where I grew up was designed to make it unsafe to walk and bike. No wonder most kids didn’t do those things, and no wonder people thought I was odd for being able to walk or bike 3 miles. And me biking to school would have been unthinkable… the closest school was about 4 miles away, with the shortest and flattest route being a 4 lane divided highway. The next best routes featured things like 10% grades, narrow lanes, sharp curves with poor sight lines, and speeds of 45-50 mph.

    No wonder kids get fat. Unless they’re lucky enough to like organized sports, there’s nothing else for them to do. It’s enough to make me a rabid supporter of bike and pedestrian facilities.

    Comment by Emily Cartier — September 26, 2007 #

  13. I agree with you whole-heartedly. I think we should be teaching kids about how cakes and sweets can be eaten occasionally as part of a healthy balenced diet.

    Comment by Caty — September 26, 2007 #

  14. The cupcake liberation front thanks you for this thoughtful post. Bring back gym and recess that involves exercise and hands off our cupcakes!

    Comment by Nancy — September 26, 2007 #

  15. My cousin got married in July. I boycotted it because of coffee. I adore coffee – good, quality coffee. Without benefit of flavored syrup, suger, milk, sugary milky froth, or anything else that masks the flavor of a good coffee. She has always liked the most pretentious coffee available and the more flamboyant the prep the better. So I didn’t go. And I wasn’t too surprised when my mother sent photos of her cupcake wedding cake. It looked like crap. Like when the Catholic church went all psycho and started serving communion wine in individual plastic cups. God forbid we should come together in something like COMMUNION.

    Anyway, I love cupcakes. I love to make them and take them to the office. I love to experiment with them. But WTF?!?!?

    Also the school police need to be lined up and methodically shot. When my baby sister was born my one major memory (I was 7) was my mother sent me to school 10 minutes before going to the hospital with a big tray of cupcakes for my class. It wasn’t my birthday – but it was a special day in my life – and she did that for me.

    Comment by k — September 26, 2007 #

  16. I am not surprised it has come to this.

    Our State (Tx) is considering banning whole milk. 2% is fine, and 2% chocolate milk LOADED with CORN SYRUP is fine, but not 4% WHOLE FREAKIN’ PLAIN MILK!
    Never mind that these kids see maybe 3 or so green vegetables on that tray a week. LOOK, CORN IS NOT A VEG! Neither are baked beans, mashed potatoes or oven baked fries! ARRRGH!
    It all comes packaged from state commodities vendors and our lunch ladies aren’t allowed to buy local anymore.
    It gets mandated by the Legislature. Who taught these people nutrition???

    Comment by Maven — September 26, 2007 #

  17. I agree…sometimes things should be kept simple and pure…all this revolutionizing harms food just as it harms humans!

    Comment by Mansi — September 28, 2007 #

  18. Honestly, I think it’s more than “what we make sinful kids will want more”; I find the concept of making particular foods ‘sinful’ problematic because it breeds exactly the kind of unhealthy attitudes about food that contribute to disordered eating, particularly in girls and women. My moral choices about food are about where it comes from and how it’s produced, and shouldn’t be about the body and diet police, who have a vested interest in making me hate myself.

    That said, as much as I hate the whole ‘sinful/sinless/guilt-free’ way of marketing chocolate and sweets, I was rather impressed at the supermarket the other day to see a brand of organic fair trade chocolate marketed as ‘sinless’. The double-meaning made me smile. And really, linking sin to things that hurt the planet/the developing world makes much more sense to me than linking it to sugar or chocolate.

    Comment by Jennifer — October 1, 2007 #

  19. Coincidentally, I did a small post the other day about how a so-called cupcake bar was opening in our (small) city and I didn’t get it. Then others informed me via comments about the cupcake phenom. So, as one person commented here, the “trend” is just trickling down to some of us! I’m not anti-cupcake, either, but my reaction is just kind of “huh.”

    The whole kids not being able to take homemade treats to school thing is, in my opinion, yet another example of the utter insanity that has taken hold in this country.

    Comment by Lisa — October 3, 2007 #

  20. […] The New York Times wrote an article about the cupcake problem and the move to ban cupcakes from schools. Barbara from Tigers and Strawberries sums up the issue nicely and makes a convincing case for NOT banning cupcakes in schools. […]

    Pingback by Cake Roundup » Pink Cake Box Wedding Cakes & more — October 6, 2007 #

  21. In my nieces’ school you can’t bring homemade anything to school to share with your class. It’s a health code thing, or something like that. You can bring a giant box of Twinkies, but no homemade granola bars. Silly, but safe I guess.

    Comment by Amanda — October 6, 2007 #

  22. I seem to remember some talk during my little sister’s last years at elementary school, there was talk of stopping the bringing of “treats” for birthdays. However, it was less a concern about scary sugar and more that our school was in an underprivileged neighborhood. A number of students couldn’t necessarily afford to come up with 2+ dozen snacks, particularly those whose moms were working 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet. It actually made a lot of sense to me at the time, because I remembered the one student in my grade whose parents had something like 11 kids in a three bedroom house, and he never had anything to bring on his birthday, and I remembered how uncomfortable he always looked when the teacher would mention his birthday. So I think those kind of bans do make a good deal of sense.

    Comment by Rebecca — July 14, 2008 #

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