A sprinkling of hysteria as Americans go crazy for cupcakes

By Andrew Gumbel
Sunday 18 September 2011 21:58

First came the craze for gourmet coffee. Then, over the past year, America went nuts for frozen yogurt. Now, the latest craze is a throwback to childhood, or perhaps a hint of naughtiness disguised as nothing but all-American wholesomeness – the humble cupcake.

Suddenly, cupcakes are everywhere. In New York, the queues to buy them at an establishment in Greenwich Village called the Magnolia Bakery stretch out of the front door. In Los Angeles, Oprah Winfrey and a gaggle of other stars frequent a Beverly Hills cupcake emporium called Sprinkles. Parents are serving cupcakes instead of cake at their children's birthday parties. Courting couples are planning cupcake weddings instead of the more traditional tiered cakes with white royal icing. You can buy chai latte cupcakes, mojito cupcakes, cupcakes filled with chocolate ganache and coated in a light dusting of fleur de sel, cupcakes made to look like flowers, even cupcake-motif t-shirts and cupcake underwear.

There is no national cupcake chain yet, but it is coming. Sprinkles has already branched out from southern California to Dallas, Texas, and is planning new outlets in Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas. Starbucks, the main beneficiary of the coffee craze of which began in the 1990s, has started selling its own cupcakes along with its chai lattes and mocha frappuccinos.

Quite what the appeal is, is a bit of a mystery. Some say it is a way for adults to relive their childhood, only with gourmet accoutrements. Some say it is pure sex appeal – the trendiest cupcake in LA by far is red velvet with cream cheese topping. Others see it as the latest illusory form of dieting, much like the low-carb diet a couple of years ago. Eat a cupcake and you can kid yourself you are controlling your craving for sweets, in a neat, petite package. "When you hand someone a slice of cake, sure they're happy but, hand them a cupcake and they are dazzled. They spin it around and look at it from every angle," said Isa Moskovitz, a New York food writer and aficionado. "Cupcake eating is more of an experience or an activity. With other baked goods, you're just having dessert."

Whatever the reason, the craze is unmistakable and, it seems, uncontrollable. At the latest count, there are now 300 gourmet cupcake outlets across the US – mostly in the coastal cities but also in the heartland. Women now sport cupcake tattoos. A Michigan company has launched a new line of cupcake holders. A Boston-based mini-chain called Johnny's Cupcakes sells merchandise as well as the cakes themselves – "Make Cupcakes Not War" t-shirts, and women's undies that read, "Have you had your cupcake today?"

Wise heads disagree on where exactly the trend started, but one big push certainly came when the stars on TV's Sex And The City ordered cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery. Until then, Magnolia was a multi-purpose bread and cake shop, but then cupcakes took over. It proved too much for the bakery's two founders, who parted ways as a result of the pressure and ensuing disagreements about which way to take their business.

In Los Angeles, Sprinkles got a kick-start two years ago when Barbra Streisand sent some of its cupcakes to Oprah Winfrey. She featured them on her show and, before long, half of Hollywood was hooked. Courtney Love complained that Sprinkles had caused her to gain 10 pounds. Tom Cruise's wife, Katie Holmes, couldn't get enough of them. Star sightings at the Sprinkles store became ridiculously common – Teri Hatcher from Desperate Housewives, Kevin Bacon and the tennis star Serena Williams, to name a few.

The phenomenon has spread to the internet, too, with cupcake-themed blog sites springing up everywhere. Perhaps the best of these is Cupcakes Take The Cake. It is managed by Rachel Kramer Bussel, an editor of erotic literature and former sex columnist for The Village Voice. She doesn't for one minute buy the return-to-childhood theory.

"I consider a hand-delivered cupcake the perfect way to seduce someone," she says. "Since there are so many ways to eat a cupcake, watching a lover delicately lick the frosting or savour both layers can be an intimate act, especially under direct, voyeuristic supervision. The very word 'cupcake' has become a double entendre of the sexual variety. I have been on the receiving end of raised eyebrows when offering someone a cupcake."

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