Cupcake Obsession: In Search of Eternal Childhood

At the Johnny Cupcakes stores in Los Angeles, Boston, and Hull, Mass., you can buy cupcake-emblazoned T shirts. You can buy MAKE CUPCAKES NOT WAR stickers. You can buy skull-and-crossbones-style earrings, with cupcakes instead of skulls. What you can't buy are cupcakes. Johnny Cupcakes is selling the idea of cupcakes—cupcakes as hip postmodern signifier. You might say it's selling cupcakism.

To be a cupcakist is to put your faith in the church of cute and sweet, to believe that childhood is a magical land accessible via a palm-size serving of sugar and fat (and the occasional sprinkle). Blogs like Cupcakes Take the Cake and Everything Cupcakes feature cupcake art, such as a group of the cakes smooshed together and iced to resemble Van Gogh's Starry Night. The suggestion is clear: anything worth doing can be done with cupcakes.

"The taste of a cupcake is worth more than diamonds," says the musician Pharrell Williams, who included a diamond-encrusted sculpture of a cupcake in a collaboration with artist Takashi Murakami called The Simple Things. Cutesy-named bakeries cook up high concepts (mango cupcakes with margarita custard) that resemble traditional cupcakes only in that they're served in pleated paper cups. In addition to Johnny Cupcakes, the nonedible-cupcake retail industry includes cupcake greeting cards, decorative wrappers (not suitable for baking, they're meant to enrobe your cupcake once it's frosted), cupcake-shaped candles, and knitted cupcakes. For $25 you can buy white carnation blooms arranged in a wrapper-shaped vase from 1-800-FLOWERS.

Of course, once enough people declare that they're symbolically what they eat, the backlash begins. "Now you need two inches of buttercream. It has to be pink, or green, or baby blue. It has to be piped. It has to reach yearningly skywards," columnist Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian earlier this year. "The modern cupcake looks like a child's dream, a death-row [meal]." Anti-cupcake graffiti (the iconic dome-topped silhouette X'd out) has appeared on stop signs and walls. Economists consider the proliferation of cupcake stores as a bourgeois anachronism: a throwback to the time (in long-ago 2007) when people would overpay for the privilege of buying a status symbol—and then eat it. "The Cupcake Bubble," NEWSWEEK's Daniel Gross recently called it. In that sense, cupcakes are the new coffee, specifically "fair trade" coffee that is conspicuously grown and processed to promote sustainability in developing countries. (The new cupcake? Bacon. Unlike cupcakists, who seem to long for eternal childhood, baconists want the world to know they're not afraid to live fast and die young, most likely of coronary heart disease.)

Much anti-cupcakist wrath is justified. Margarita mix has no business in a dessert. Baked goods are food, not postimpressionist paintings, and belong on a plate, not a wall. Still, you have to wonder if the cupcake haters aren't guilty of the same misplaced fanaticism as their sugar-happy foes. Yes, dry, overfrosted cupcakes are terrible, but so is dry, overfrosted cake, and you don't see any anti-cake graffiti. There's something pathetic about creating a world view around a child's treat—pro or con. Let's look beyond the hype, and return cupcakes to their appropriate status—as a snack food, not a lifestyle choice. Baconists, you're next.