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Like all fashions, food fads are by their nature transient. The Atkins diet enjoyed a mercifully brief vogue during the early 2000s; and in 1997 Britain’s supply of cranberries was totally depleted when Delia Smith cooked with them in that year’s Christmas special for her television series. (Something similar happened when Nigella Lawson professed a weakness for frozen peas. Truly, the British are mad.)

Inevitably, after a surge in popularity, these diets or ingredients are either dropped or supplanted by new fashions, or incorporated into our diets to such an extent that we wonder why we were ever so mad about them in the first place (I think of sundried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, smoked paprika….). It’s not often, though, that people declare themselves ‘sick’ of a particular product – or ask that there be a ‘backlash’ against it. But this has happened, and also fairly recently.

In the past fortnight or so I’ve read a range of articles calling for an end to…cupcakes. Yes, this most mini member of the cake family seems to be facing a kind of culinary doom. But why? What could be so appalling about a dab of Victoria sponge topped with either royal icing, or a blob of butter cream? They were the first cakes my sister and I baked on our own, and I made some last week for an indoor birthday picnic.

Valentine Warner writes in this month’s Delicious:

My assistant brought a pretty blue tin into work the other day and sweetly said, ‘This is for you.’ I prized open the lid and had to disguise my flaring nostrils. Cupcake alert! Feeling the need to be polite, I reached in gingerly, wondering why I feel so unkind towards this fancy spongy hell-spawn.

In the recent tenth anniversary edition of Observer Food Monthly, an article lists the top ten food trends of the past decade. Among its five worst are supermarket vegetable boxes (a genuinely daft idea, I agree) and cupcakes. Why? Because ‘these twee treats have had their day.’ Are cupcakes really as bad as genetically modified food – another of the Observer’s five worst food trends since 2001?

I think that it’s worth thinking about the vehemence of the anti-cupcake lobby. Food, as I have noted before, represents considerably more than simply nourishment. We attach a range of assumptions, prejudices, and meanings to food. These change over time and vary according to context, but remain a potent influence over how – and what – we eat. Importantly, they also shape our identities: food contributes to the construction of national, social, racial, and gendered identities. Cupcakes aren’t simply cupcakes. They are more than sponge cake and icing.

Cupcakes were not always fashionable. Warner writes:

Cupcakes aren’t exactly new. Most of us ate a paddling pool full of them between the ages of five and 10. They were party cakes whose function was twofold: half to be eaten and half to be smeared over the car on the way home.

I know exactly what he means. When I was a little girl in Paarl in the late 1980s and early 90s, cupcakes – or fairy cakes as we tended to call them – were birthday party food. They were dyed pink and lilac to go with our fairy dresses and decorated liberally with hundreds and thousands, glace cherries, silver balls, and whatever else we found in the baking cupboard. Woeker en Woel, Paarl’s biggest tuisnywerheid (a cooperative selling food, needlework, and other things made by women at home) used to sell them in batches of twelve in beer boxes. They were iced in green and pink and I remember them as being enormous – about the same size as flat, brown mushrooms. By no stretch of the imagination could these be considered elegant.

The rise of the cupcake began during the late 90s, and many pin this to the opening of the Magnolia Bakery in New York City in 1996. The Bakery sells individual, beautifully-decorated cupcakes alongside its more usual selection of cakes and pastries. Of course, other bakeries may well have been doing this for decades, but what makes Magnolia different is that it is in Manhattan, and that it is fashionable. The ascendancy of the cupcake was confirmed in 1998 when a couple of episodes of the then wildly popular HBO series Sex and the City depicted Carrie and her friends scoffing cupcakes in the Bakery.

Adre Meyer's Cupcakes at the Hope Street Market in Cape Town

Since then, macaroons, pies, and whoopie pies have been dubbed the ‘new cupcake’, but to little effect. Even with the apparent current backlash, cupcakes appear still to sustain a baking industry: there are legions of recipe books (even Martha Stewart deigned to write one), blogs, websites, market stalls, bakeries, and cafes dedicated solely to cupcakes. This is also a global fashion which spread quickly from the eastern seaboard of the United States to the rest of the world.

In Britain, the cupcake was popularised by Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000). Unlike other food writers, she acknowledges that their appeal is based on a nostalgia for childhood. She notes: ‘At about the same time I started getting into top cupcake and fairy-cake mode, ostensibly for children, I noticed that the people who really seemed to get excited by them were the children’s parents. I think it’s not till you hit 30 that nostalgia is even a remotely comforting option.’

In contrast, the Telegraph’s Xanthe Clay writes, in all seriousness, that her favourite cupcake decoration is ‘summer berries whose freshness cuts the sugary icing. Perched atop each cupcake like a Philip Treacy hat, they’re as exuberant as Carrie’s wardrobe and they taste fabulous.’ This is food – almost literally – as fashion. Valentine Warner adds:

I think it’s the re-branding of this childish treat that gets me so cross. Or perhaps it’s not the cupcakes that annoy me but, rather, their west London devotees climbing into huge urban four-wheel-drives holding wee shiny boxes crammed with mouse-sized cakelets.

Cupcakes are associated with women. They’re girly. They’re ladyfood. And this isn’t inherently problematic. In fact, some contemporary feminists argue – rightly – that the labelling of cooking, baking, knitting, needlework, and other ‘feminine’ pursuits as being silly, frivolous, or demeaning is sexist. They point out that all over the world, suffragettes embroidered banners and other protest material, and held tea parties and cake sales to raise funds for the campaign for women’s right to vote.

I’m not, of course, accusing Valentine Warner of misogyny – although I do feel that some of the anti-cupcake movement is informed by a dislike of things associated with women – and I think his point that cupcakes are simply glorified children’s food is important. Cupcakes are marketed to women on the grounds that these little treats are dainty, pink, and pretty – like women (or, rather, girls, or ladies). They are safe for slim, demure ladies to eat: they contain fewer calories than a wedge of cake, and they’re easy to pick at with a (mini) cake fork. When Warner describes the cupcakes as ‘mouse-sized’, he could as easily be referring to the women who buy them.

Like cupcakes, this gendering of food isn’t anything new. As I noted a few weeks ago, some Victorian doctors advised that women, children, and invalids be fed carbohydrate-heavy, bland food to ensure that their delicate systems remained calm: too much red meat, fruit, or spice would upset them and cause them to behave inappropriately.

What concerns me is that we’re still associating children’s food with a particular kind of childlike femininity. Why are cupcakes marketed so successfully to well-off, educated middle-class women? (And cupcakes are often exorbitantly expensive so it’s only well-off women who can afford them.) In a nasty irony, when Sex and the City depicts Carrie eating cupcakes it isn’t to emphasise her healthy attitude towards food (that we should eat everything in moderation), but, rather, to indicate that even when she does eat cake, it’s small, childlike, and entirely unthreatening (as she is).

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).

Nigella Lawson, How to be a Domestic Goddess (London: Chatto and Windus, [2000] 2003).

Valentine Warner, ‘Valentine’s Notebook,’ Delicious, May 2011, p. 49.

Other sources:

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘Scientists, Pseudoscientists, and Faddists’ and ‘Too Rich and Too Thin?’, in Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 86-97, 194-211.

Susie Orbach, ‘Interpreting Starvation,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 133-139.

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Doris Wit, ‘“How Mama Started to Get Large”: Eating Disorders, Foetal Rights, and Black Female Appetite,’ in Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of US Identity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 183-210.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. shahpar #

    oh my god, can i just say how much i enjoy your posts in general and this one in particular?

    i am taken aback by the movement against cupcakes. i had no idea they were such a bother. this valentine fellow is rather mean about his assistant too.

    new yorkers are mad about cupcakes. they make them in all sorts of fancy ways and decorate entire shop windows with them. there is a children’s bookshop (cant remember the name) where we had to go early to stand in line for the cupcakes, which were very good. i ate at quite a few cupcake shops and felt that cupcakes were marketed as “cute” and “girly”. if you are male, the only time you can eat cupcakes is when you are either accompanying a boy in a car seat, or are actually one.

    i was with bangladeshi friends while chasing cupcakes. we noted how different cupcakes were in NYC than in dhaka. here they are made with the cheapest quality ingredients and sold in roadside shops. no frosting. just a chunk of cake in marigold yellow, sitting in a greasy pleated paper skirt. we used to get them in our school canteens and kids in bengali medium schools like the one i went to probably still eat cupcakes. its the food to go with roadside tea and is a quick snack for the blue collar workers. rickshaw wallahs and bus ticket sellers and garment factory workers all eat it. nothing girly about it.

    May 22, 2011
    • I’m SO pleased you enjoy the blog and, frankly, it’s comments like this which make it all worthwhile.

      I had NO idea that cupcakes had such a different set of meanings in Dhaka. I wonder how long they’ve been eaten as a teatime snack? Also, and I’ve been thinking about this for a while, in South Africa – and particularly around Durban, where the biggest Indian diaspora lives – people are mad for a kind of cake called ‘snowballs’. It’s really sponge cake with icing – and I think, increasingly, that they came to SA from India.

      Shahpar, my dear, we NEED to write something about this.

      May 29, 2011
  2. Alex #

    Hi Sarah,

    Great blog! Interestingly, the cupcake industry has really blossomed in Australia in the last three years. In Sydney we have various cupcake chains littered throughout the CBD and suburban shopping districts offering coffee and cupcake deals, cupcake catering for weddings, high teas, and birthdays, and even giant-sized cupcakes!

    The Sparkle cupcake bakery in the foodie fashionable Surrey Hills also offers cupcake cooking classes and creates quite gourmet flavoured treats. It is definitely more popular with female consumers although I have noticed that the nostalgic dimensions of cupcakes similarly draw men to them as well.

    The recent penchant for cupcakes in Australia is I think related to its overall obsession with food culture (in particular celebrity chefs and reality cooking programmes). Baking, moreover, is fashionable again for young, middle class women – the cupcake is just one manifestation of a renewed desire among women to fashion intricate, delicate dainties to share with friends and family. Unfortunately, however, it is also an indication of a continued gender divide in the kitchen. Whilst it is mostly male chefs that are everywhere promulgated as representing professionalism in Australian cuisine, women are left to ponder the trivial and the decorative.

    May 22, 2011
    • Hi Alex!

      Thanks so much for your comment – and all the way from Australia too. I do so love the internet.

      I wonder if the ubiquity of cupcake bakeries has something to do with urban renewal? This map charts the spread of cupcake bakeries with the gentrification of San Francisco:

      You make such an important point: ‘real’ food is seen as male, pretty, silly food is female. I’m actually really pleased about the resurgence of baking/knitting/needlework among young women – I feel that it’s a shame whenever we lose a skill or a craft – but this deserves greater interrogation.

      May 29, 2011
  3. I love this post!

    I agree with your take on cupcakes as being geared more towards women, and their cutesy aspect has a lot to do with that, I think. The tendency of cupcake shops to be in gentrified areas lso irritate me though – they’ve become so trendy that they sell for the most ridiculous prices, and are often not that tasty. It definitely seems more cool to eat a cupcake than eat a proper piece of cake, which anyway seems to have a better cake to frosting ratio. All this being said, I do still love cupcakes. Not more than regular sized cakes, but nonetheless.

    In the same vein though – cake is still predominantly seen as a female indulgence, not something I’m sure is really warranted. What is it with confectionary and the female gender? Perhaps because baking has also historically been more associated with the mother? Oh, and I wasn’t familiar with the Sander Gilman you mention – will definitely be checking it out. I love love love Gilman.

    May 23, 2011
    • Thanks so much! Your point about cupcakes and gentrification is SO important. This map actually charts cupcake bakeries and the extent of gentrification of San Francisco:

      I must write more about baking and gender – it’s actually quite complicated. Bread baking seems to be a male activity, while cakes are female. Why? It’s an interesting question.

      Sander Gilman is AMAZING. He was a visiting prof at my university in the UK for six months and it was fantastic to hear him talk.

      May 29, 2011

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