When I started writing for NPI, I knew I was going to take some unpopular positions. But, never did I anticipate taking a position as unpopular as this one is going to be. I am against the cupcake. Cupcakes are a poor man’s cake and an even poorer man’s muffin.* Cupcakes are to desserts as The Marriage Ref is to Jerry Seinfeld or what Derek Bell is to the 2000 Mets. Cupcakes are an embarrassment to the dessert genre.
*Occassionally, they attempt to be an impoverished-man-on-the-brink-of-bankruptcy-and-death’s brownie, but these cupcakes make up such a minority of the cupcake population that I’ll leave them out of the equation.
As a young child, I hoped for anything but cupcakes during children’s birthday celebrations at school*. Munchkins, brownies, cookies, cake, raisins, and cured salmon were all preferable birthday celebratory foods.
*Luckily, John S. couldn’t contribute to this cupcake debacle during the school year.
Cupcakes are generally prepared not because of their taste, but for their convenience and cuteness. You don’t have to cut them and they can be distributed easily to multiple people. And, frankly, they are cute. But, food shouldn’t primarily be evaluated on cuteness; it should be evaluated based on taste.
And, that’s the problem with cupcakes: Their purpose isn’t to taste good. A muffin is of a similar shape and generally, especially because it lacks icing, the body of your average muffin is pretty tasty. There are many different varieties of muffin (blueberry, bran, chocolate chip, banana, etc.) because people care about how it tastes. Your average muffin need not have icing added to it in order to be edible.
But, when people ask about cupcakes, rarely do they ask the flavor. If they do, it’s often a question of the flavor of the icing: vanilla or chocolate? People care about the icing so much because it’s what makes up for the blandness of the body of the cupcake. Dessert eaters generally don’t ask if the brownie has powdered sugar on top or if the muffin has granules of sugar because what’s important is the taste of the body of the muffin and the brownie. Not so with the cupcake.
I should note that it’s not impossible to make a great cupcake. Sprinkles does it. But, first, the Sprinkles’ cupcake depends somewhat on category blurring: My banana cupcake really did seem like a muffin with icing. This is totally fine—in fact, it made for a very enjoyable eating experience—but when the best of cupcakes isn’t clearly within the cupcake category, that could be indicative of something wrong with the cupcake. Second, Sprinkles is the exception. Just like I probably could get a tasty deep dish pizza somewhere with really high quality ingredients that is not representative of deep dish pizza generally, the gourmet $3.25 Sprinkles cupcake looks like a cupcake but is not representative of the cupcake population at large.
So, mothers and new-age fathers, next time you’re making a desert for your child to bring in to school for her birthday, think about what you want to promote. If you don’t mind completely denigrating the role of taste in food, then go with the cupcake. It’s cute.