Against the Cupcake

The Cupcake: An Abomination to the Dessert Genre

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.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on March 20, 2010 at 6:43 PM

    I guess you didn’t see the Bobby Flay Throwndown on Cupcakes. The recipes are impressive and the cupcakes look very tasty. Here’s the link:

    I agree (and feel a bit devastated about your childhood Josh) that most cupcakes lack any real appeal.

    I do think candied apples are more problematic in our society. They are messy, sticky,lack variation, kids rarely finish them, and the candy coating causes instant cavities.


    • Posted by John S on March 21, 2010 at 1:32 AM

      Never, in my life, have I ever understood the appeal of the candied apple: “Here’s something you don’t normally like….covered in syrup!”

      As for cupcakes, I agree. They can be good, but they are mostly beloved for their cuteness.


      • Posted by Tim on March 22, 2010 at 12:18 AM

        Yeah, I was so excited the first time I had a candied apple. And then it was, “Hey wait a minute! Everybody hold on for a second! This is just an apple! What kind of chicanery is the St. Leo the Great Parish Carnival peddling???”


  2. Posted by janechong on March 21, 2010 at 2:06 AM

    Oh, Josh, how we’ve missed your contributions! Slamming cupcakes AND deep dish in one post? So Epic. So Josh.

    Question: what is the essence of the distinction you are drawing between muffin and cupcake? It seems you are assuming that a superior bread body = muffin; inferior bread body = cupcake. Hence, a thoroughly delicious cupcake must be by default a muffin masquerading as cupcake, and thus, you declare, its merits are not generalizable to the cupcake species. This line of reasoning means the poor cupcake doesn’t stand a chance.

    My 2 cents: I always thought frosting WAS the difference between a muffin and cupcake. It doesn’t improve upon the muffin. It improves upon the cupcake, not because it compensates for the inadequacies of its bread base but because it complements its subtle (not, “bland”) body –deliberated designed with the powerful punch of the frosting in mind!

    It’s like a woman dressing for a gala. Dramatic hair and comparatively simple gown? Or raze the hair in favor of shining the light on your all-out one-piece backless stunner? You cannot deem combo 1 inferior by pointing to the relative simplicity of one of its two fundamental parts vis-a-vis the impressive WHAM of that which clearly constitutes the other combo’s whole game.

    In a nutshell: I love cupcakes and would choose them for my kids’ bank sale in a heartbeat. I also love muffins, but I don’t have the shapely head (read: bread recipe) to pull off the GI Jane look.


    • Posted by Josh on March 22, 2010 at 1:05 AM

      Jane, you cupcake apologist, you!* This is a phenomenal comment and I was almost as excited by the comment as you presumably were by the post. But, let me say, I respectfully disagree. The body of a cupcake is much more analogous to your traditional birthday cake than to your traditional muffin, which IS better, but it’s also just richer and fuller: it’s not as light and fluffy as the cupcake. A muffin could be a breakfast (i.e. it can be filling because of it’s filling body); generally, a cupcake can’t be.

      *You’ll be able to criticize my for this line very very soon.

      And, the cupcake is like a woman dressing for a gala. Uncreative tube top with beautiful and dramatic hair. Everyone looks at the hair and ignores the rest of the woman. Very depressed, she leaves the gala and calls an ex-boyfriend for support who says he has moved on to the type of woman who wears backless stunners and has beautiful hair while wearing them. She cries herself to sleep.


      • Posted by Tim on March 22, 2010 at 1:37 PM

        Josh, your attempted analogy fails because a muffin does not have frosting (the beautiful hair, I think, for the woman dressing for a gala). Furthermore, I don’t see why the cupcake is compared to the muffin so explicitly here. Sure, they have the same shape, but one is a breakfast food and the other dessert, where obviously its function is to taste great while being less filling. To say that the cupcake’s purpose is not to taste good while the muffin’s is is, in my estimation, backward. (Furthermore, why do muffins ALWAYS fall apart when I eat them? Am I doing something wrong?)

        This isn’t to say that I really enjoy cupcakes. Like non-ice cream cake, they’re all about the frosting, which is why I, like roughly 80% of the Western world, tend to lick the frosting off and dispose of the rest of the cupcake.


  3. Posted by janechong on March 21, 2010 at 2:08 AM

    Um deliberately. And bake. Freudian slip.


  4. […] apologism doesn’t always have to do with intention. Someone  could be a cupcake apologist (like commenter “janechong”) and need not discuss intention at all. This is a totally valid qualification. My point is just […]


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