Though the plague of cupcake shops has not spared any city in this great union, it would be hard to find one that illustrates my point better than American Cupcake. Some months back, when I stopped by the narrow storefront in San Francisco’s Marina District and spotted the cotton candy machine in the window, my first thought was: my 10-year old daughter would love this. But then I looked at the menu and realized the restaurant had its sights set on a different demographic. The place was clearly not meant for children.
Certainly the company website with its piping bag-wielding hottie showing more cleavage than dress, is designed to whet the appetites of libidinous sophomores rather than sugar-hungry tots. Even so, the menu reads like a parody of (or is that an homage to?) a second-grader’s birthday party. There are the requisite cupcakes slathered with s’mores and bubblegum buttercream, as well as fried Oreos, ice cream sandwiches, candy apples and “spun to order” cotton candy. A whole sub-menu is devoted to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But what makes it all so terribly adult are the spiked milkshakes, beer float and candy cocktails with names like “the drunken ballerina” garnished with sprinkles and a toy dancer.
Symbolism lost in cupcake tiers
If this were an isolated phenomenon I would put it down to the Bay Area’s peculiarities, but you can find twenty-somethings from Westwood to East Hampton ordering mac ‘n’ cheese and Kool-Aid-colored cocktails. In Brooklyn, Tumbador Chocolate makes an “artisanal” version of Devil Dogs. In Napa, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery makes gourmet Oreos. Gussied up s’mores are everywhere. American brides now often turn to cupcakes instead of wedding cakes to celebrate their nuptials. It’s a bizarre shift in symbolism. Whereas the white wedding cake so clearly stood for virginity undone by the knife wielded by bride and groom and was then distributed to the witnesses of the act, cupcakes represent something altogether different. Does the happy couple really want to suggest that a wedding is just another childhood birthday party?
What I can’t quite make out is whether these are all kids playing at being grownups or adults pretending they’re children. The confusion undoubtedly stems from their baby-boomer parents who taught them to fetishize youth above all else. Jeffrey Arnett, a professor at Clarke University, has a theory that we should add another age of life to the usual childhood, adolescence and adulthood, one he calls “emerging adulthood.” I imagine it is precisely to this demographic that a place like American Cupcake caters. You can hardly blame them. Over the last three decades or so, household members have stopped eating together and if they do, often eat different food. Certainly the culinary industrial complex has made it a breeze to make (or buy) multiple meals. Thus children are never acculturated into eating like adults.
Limits of cookie-cutter tastes
Childhood tastes have certain characteristics: They involve foods that can be eaten out of hand, slurped through a straw, or, at most, require a spoon. The dishes are uncomplicated in taste: If savory, their primary flavor is salt; if sweet, they are very sweet indeed. Because many of them originally derive from the test kitchens of corporations (think Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Nabisco’s Oreos, General Mills’ Betty Crocker Cake Mix), they are formulated to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And one other thing most kids like is for their food to be the same. If that’s all they know as children, that’s what they’ll want when they grow up. Next thing you know there will be a Crumbs on every corner, foie gras will be outlawed, and steak will be banned from the White House. Soon enough we will be reduced to a diet of Girl Scout cookies.
For you see, I am convinced that this is a zero-sum game. For every slider and mac and cheese, I fear there is less space in the world for a daube of venison or pommes Anna; for every cupcake eaten, less demand for a Dobos torte, charlotte russe, or rum baba. No matter the lemon verbena icing or single estate chocolate frosting that is smeared on the cupcake, it cannot disguise its family resemblance to Duncan Hines. The attempt at sophistication is like that of the 6-year-old who has gotten hold of her mother’s lipstick.
Complexity, variety and imagination in food need an experienced, knowledgeable — and adult public. The danger is that, as the American palate becomes ever more infantile, our culinary culture will become poorer for it.
Makes you want to down a pitcher of Cosmopolitans doesn’t it?
This week’s Zester Soapboxcontributor, Michael Krondl, writes about food, culture and history. His most recent book is “Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert.” See www.sweetinvention.net for more information.
Photo: Author Michael Krondl. Credit: Joanne Dugan