The psychology of cupcakes


It took 355 cupcakes to make this American flag. None went to waste. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 7, 2012

As the Modern Cupcake Moment swirls into its second decade, America just might have to admit that what we’re dealing with — 669.4 million sold from October 2010 to October 2011, according to the market research firm NPD — is not a fad. It’s an enduring love affair.

“Cupcake culture has been iconic in the U.S. for 100 years,” says Steve Abrams, co-owner of New York’s Magnolia Bakery. American recipes for cake baked in small cups and the term “cup cake” cropped up earlier, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “There is no cupcake craze.”

He ought to know. Cupcakes represent half of his company’s $20 million in annual sales, which surged following the bakery’s 2000 cameo appearance in HBO’s “Sex and the City.”

Among portable, single-serving desserts, cupcakes stand out for their red-carpet glamour and infinite flavor combinations. Since the Food section’s Cupcake Wars in 2008, at least 30 cupcake shops and six cupcake trucks have sprung up around Washington.

The more the merrier, says Adnan Hamidi, owner of Alexandria Cupcake in Old Town: “It really helps out to know that there are more bakeries opening up. It shows the strength of the industry. As long as no one’s opening next door to me, I welcome the competition.”

One food trendspotter attributes cupcakes’ retail ascent to a convergence of factors.

“If you look back at the modern arrival of the cupcake, it happened to coincide with and was the motivator for the niche, specialty bakery that evidently was ripe to come,” says Kara Nielsen of the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco.

At the same time cupcake-only bakeries started to multiply in the mid to late 2000s, food blogs, review sites and user-generated content took off on the Web. People who could suddenly self-publish their opinions needed something to talk about, and the cupcake proved noteworthy, she says.

As household budgets tightened during the down economy of the past four years, cupcakes ­became an affordable luxury, a means to relieve the angst of repressing big-ticket desires.

“People are tired of constantly worrying about what they’re spending,” says economic analyst Domenick Celentano, who writes about the food business on About.com. “With a cupcake, recession-weary consumers can treat themselves.”

Taking ownership of a gourmet cupcake is a qualitatively different transaction from buying a candy bar at a drug store, says Chris Carbone.

He studies consumer trends for the market research firm ­Innovaro and says cupcakes ­appeal to post-modernists who value creativity, authenticity, aesthetic design, personalization and locally sourced goods.

Because these consumers ­possess a “desire for experiences rather than just more stuff,” they’re in the market for more than a sugar rush. Patronizing a boutique cupcakery “has a high experiential component and connects [consumers] with a larger narrative,” he says.

Washington is among the more than 60 global cities to host a Cupcake Camp, an informal, predominantly female gathering and competition with professional and amateur bakers and dozens of consumers to taste and judge.

The city’s second annual event took place in September at Local 16 along the U Street corridor. Between bites of peanut butter, salted caramel, chocolate raspberry and red velvet cupcakes, participant Helena Rusak of Washington reflected on her visit to the juggernaut that is Georgetown Cupcake.

Lured to the tourist attraction, Rusak said her motives were vaguely voyeuristic.

“I went in and I really don’t know why,” she says. “I took pictures of people getting their cupcakes. I saw pink boxes. It’s really not my style. I guess I just wanted to be part of it and see what other people’s fascination was.”

“Cupcakes have become totally mainstream,” says trendologist Nielsen. “The novelty has worn off and they’ve become part of the landscape.”

But their appeal goes much, much deeper. Cupcakes R us.

Frosted hug or self-soother?

It’s the day before Thanksgiving 2011, and the faithful are congregating at the original Sprinkles in Beverly Hills, Calif., the cupcake boutique that has grown from this one shop in 2005 to nine stores nationwide.

Three teenage boys saunter by with cupcakes in hand, one of them bouncing a basketball at the same time.

Tourists take pictures to pass the time while standing in a line that’s 20 deep. Two women who aren’t in line peer in the window just to see what it looks like inside.

The younger of the two ­implores the other to try the cupcakes: They’re so good and the line moves fast, she says.

What’s going on here?

“Everyone has come here for a hug,” says Los Angeles psychiatrist Carole Lieberman. “People are lining up not just because the cupcakes taste good. A lot of things taste good. They’re looking for that same feeling inside. They’re all hungry for hugs.”

Customer Dina Berg Blazek gleefully bought a dozen on Thanksgiving eve. The event planner visiting from North Carolina became a Sprinkles devotee when an acquaintance brought them back East.

“I just love Sprinkles,” Blazek says. “I love how they’re presented. They’re adorable and wonderful, just the best ever.”

Cupcake bashers are just as passionate. Baltimore celebrity baker Duff Goldman shot at cupcakes with a rifle on his Food Network show, “Ace of Cakes.” In 2009, the Guardian newspaper cast them as the “favourite greedy treat of the me-generation.”

“Cupcakes are indicative of where this country is with our desire to self-soothe through food,” says Brad Lamm, a New York author and registered interventionist who appears on “The Dr. Oz Show.”

“People tell themselves, ‘One won’t hurt me’ because [cupcakes] are so small, dainty and delicious,” Lamm says. “Our ­desire for more and for self-soothing is out of control.”

Yet that professional theory has not affected his cupcake ardor or intake.

“I’m not against cupcakes. I’m against the way we’re feeding ourselves now,” says Lamm, who adds that “if you’re not overweight, having one every day or three a week is no big deal.”

Chicago psychoanalyst Mark Smaller cannot resist the magnetic pull of a cupcake food truck.

“I was so intrigued by it that during the summer I’d hang around and wait for the truck to arrive,” he says, likening it to memories stirred by ice cream-truck bells.

“A good childhood experience is going to be relived over and over again as an adult,” says Smaller. “The experience of walking over to a truck might evoke, consciously or unconsciously, a very positive experience of feeling connected to one’s parents and feeling special in one’s parents’ eyes.”

The parent-child connection looms large in “DC Cupcakes,” the Learning Channel reality show about the owners of Georgetown Cupcake.

Its worldwide fans delight as 30-something sisters Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis bake, fight, pout, compete and fantasize about their next creations. Their mother, a.k.a. Mommy, makes regular appearances, and the sisters often refer lovingly to sentimental memories of baking with their grandmother.

Now in its second season, “DC Cupcakes” strikes a chord because the sisters are “living everybody’s dream,” says executive producer Terence Noonan. “They gave up their day jobs to open a shop with sweets where people come and feel happy.”

Noonan theorizes that reality programs based around family are appealing because “they show what everyone’s kitchen table is like. You see yourself and your own family dysfunction on-screen, and people can really connect to that.”

Psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer, another “Dr. Oz”-sanctioned expert, takes a different view of the cupcake-centric human connection.

“The popularity of cupcakes directly tracks the rise in cultural narcissism that has resulted from the Internet’s impact on our individual and cultural psyche,” he says. “Through our over-reliance on the Internet, we’ve become a culture of emotionally disconnected individuals who live in socially isolated cyber-fantasy worlds. The fantasy worlds we create for ourselves on the Internet are an equivalent of the modern myth of Narcissus where we spend hours in an isolated aggrandizement of self.”

Cupcakes represent the mythical pool into which Narcissus fell and drowned, Hokemeyer says.

“Through cupcakes, seemingly innocent little ‘treats,’ we can project fantasies of who and what we desire to be. Instead of connecting us to others, however, cupcakes keep us separate and add to our sense of isolation.

“In addition, cupcakes evidence the narcissism born of the Internet by feeding us in shallow and un-nutritious ways. Similar to the way we cruise the Internet looking for bite-size and delicious bits of information, cupcakes enable us to cruise the sugary world of self-indulgence.”

The cupcake in the mirror

San Francisco psychotherapist Brooke Miller says cupcakes represent a perfectly proportioned sense of self.

“With so much stimulation and expectation — material wealth, keeping up with the Joneses, Hollywood and our own parents’ expectations of us — many people turn to food . . . to manage the emotion that comes up with living a life they assume is under par.

“In an interesting and delicious way, cupcakes are a sweet example of what it looks like to be good enough exactly the way you are. They keep us ‘boundaried’ and feeling contained, like we don’t need to do, eat or prove anything more than what is unwrapped in this little wrapper of joy and sugar.”

Self-realization through cupcakes can take many forms. In the event of an identity crisis, one can consult “Cupcakes for Every Personality,” a guide created for the Georgetown Cupcake sisters’ 2010 appearance on “Oprah.”

Serious souls are vanilla. The adventurous are peanut butter fudge. Spunky types are lemon berry.

Practical folk are carrot. You creatives are pumpkin spice.

Nonsense? More than one commentator has quipped, “Sometimes a cupcake is just a cupcake.” It has a nice ring to it.

Then again, so does the cash register.

Consumers are seduced. As Georgetown Cupcake’s Katherine Kallinis says, “This is what love looks like in a baked good.”

Related:

All-American cupcakes, or how we got the shot

Adleman, a Washington freelance writer, will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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