Once Just a Sweet Birthday Treat, the Cupcake Becomes a Cause

Pastry chefs Kate Fiore, left, Lisa Scruggs and Yasmine Sandhu gather in the kitchen of Buzz, which carries a wide variety of cupcakes.
Pastry chefs Kate Fiore, left, Lisa Scruggs and Yasmine Sandhu gather in the kitchen of Buzz, which carries a wide variety of cupcakes. (Photos By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006

Once a cupcake wasn't something to think about. It was just what your mom brought to school for your birthday. But this year, as schools across the country begin enforcing new federally mandated "wellness policies," many are banning the little treats. And parents are fighting back.

When the principal at George Mason Elementary School in Alexandria explained to the PTA earlier this year that cupcakes were out, a furor erupted.

"A lot of people are really angry," said Karen Epperson, a George Mason parent. "They think this is really stupid."

Mind you, Epperson said, it's not the kids who are upset. Kids are not the ones who are so devoted to cupcakes.

At the same time they're being booted from classrooms, cupcakes have become the latest hipster chic food. Entire blogs are dedicated to cupcake culture. Expensive Johnny Cupcakes "Make Cupcakes Not War" T-shirts are in demand. Cupcakes were raved about on "Sex in the City" and rapped about on "Saturday Night Live."

Just last week, the bakery, coffee shop and dessert lounge Buzz, decorated with flattened cupcake liners, opened in Alexandria, joining a growing number of high-end cupcake-specialty bakeries from Magnolia in New York to Citizen Cupcake in San Francisco.

Why on earth does this little four-ounce treat -- a 19th-century accident of history that was created when a baker poured leftover cake batter into cups -- carry such heavy emotional weight? When Texas tried to ban cupcakes in schools last year, the furor was so deafening that legislators passed the "Safe Cupcake Amendment" to protect the right of parents to tote cupcakes to school. After the vote, one lawmaker remarked, "We didn't realize how important cupcakes were."

A cupcake, it would seem, is classic Americana, up there with hot dogs and apple pie. It's a comfort food, as common as meatloaf and as friendly as mashed potatoes.

But, mostly, cupcakes are about memory.

Derek Bush is a 30-year-old man. Yet the other day at Buzz, he was as excited as a little kid as he carefully chose a red velvet, a chocolate chip and two vanilla cupcakes with bright pink and green frosting.

Cupcakes are "really retro right now," he said. They say "it's a special occasion." They look pretty. It's cool to have one all to yourself. And they make him happy -- like when his mom made devil's-food cupcakes with chocolate cream cheese frosting for his birthday. He shrugged. "They just remind me of simple pleasures and my happy childhood."

The cupcake-as-symbol-of-childhood is powerful: It's wrapped in the cultural definition of what it means to be a good mother, something that's a moving target in this society, said Kathryn Oths, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama who studies food and culture.

"I don't have children. But I guarantee that if I did, I'd make them cupcakes for their birthdays," she said. "It's just ingrained in us as the proper thing to do."

So when that cultural norm is threatened by cupcake bans, she argued, people feel compelled to rally to its defense.

"Think about it. Banning cupcakes is almost like an assault on the national identity," Oths said. "It comes at a time when there are fears of terrorism and the immigration brouhaha that they're 'watering down' our traditional American culture -- meaning middle-class white America -- that's slipping out of our grasp."

The reason school districts are writing wellness policies is because childhood is so much different today from when boomer parents were young.

Every day, we're told: More children are dangerously overweight. More children are diabetic. More children have life-threatening allergies to everything from peanuts to wheat to milk. More children sit around watching TV and playing video games. And, as many schools know, every classroom is divided between the cupcake-haves, the ones whose mothers dutifully lug in trays of them, and the cupcake-have-nots, whose mothers can't afford to or don't know that it's expected.

Epperson used to tutor a child from an immigrant family who was saving every penny she could find in order to buy her own cupcake mix. She wanted her mom to bring the treat so she could fit in. "That broke my heart," Epperson said.

While several school districts have outright outlawed cupcakes, candy or anything home-baked, others are just trying to limit them. Technically, Alexandria's wellness policy bans only the use of food as a reward or punishment. Principals at some schools, such as George Mason, took that to mean birthday cupcakes as well.

"We don't want to say no to school celebrations, but we want to think of ways to encourage more healthy snacks," said Becky Domokos-Bays, director of food and nutrition services for the system. "There are alternatives."

Melynda Wilcox, George Mason's PTA president, was never a cupcake mom. One year, she brought plastic leis and tropical fruit to school and had the kids make birthday kebabs. Another year, she brought in freshly baked bread with jam.

Still, her school's cupcake ban has been hard.

"I'm torn," she said. "I see the desirability of the health goals. But I feel for parents who think we don't offer things just for fun anymore at school."

Oddly enough, once cupcakes were banned at school, she found herself baking them at home. For the first time in her life.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company