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April 8, 2009

On loving the "humble" cupcake

While I like short stories a lot, I do spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to articulate exactly why this is. Perhaps because the form is under-bought and under-read (or merely under-marketed?), and because lately also there have been so many reasons to celebrate it. And perhaps further because I come up against a lot of people who flat out don’t like short stories, so then I start to get a bit zealous about conversion.

I’ve been thinking about short stories even more than usual, ever since coming across Craig Boyko’s cupcake metaphor. “[Liking novels over short stories is] like preferring chocolate cake to chocolate cupcakes. Aren’t they the same thing?” I actually like cupcakes even more than I like short stories, which I don’t bother spending time trying to articulate because it’s obvious. But I do take issue with Boyko’s suggestion that cakes and cupcakes are the same thing. Just like novels and short stories, I love cakes and cupcakes very much, but each in different ways. And I wonder if perhaps an exploration of why exactly I love cupcakes as I do could clarify my relationship with short fiction.

The usefulness of this metaphor occurred to me on Sunday morning as I realized that cupcakes aren’t as dainty as they look. I was watching a small child trying to eat one at the time, which mainly consisted of said child licking frosting off the top. The cupcake was too big to fit in her mouth properly, and a smaller bite would send the cake into a mess of bits and crumbs. Further, how to get the paper peeled off? The cupcake was delectable to look at, but eating it would be a daunting task. The cake’s delicacy does indeed end with the first bite, even for an adult mouth, and the crumbs would fall, anyone would long for the service of a fork instead of clumsy fingers, and would end up unaware of a spot of frosting on the nose.

It is intimidating to consider penetrating anything so pretty. Substance could well be all or nothing. The frosting might be the highlight, or even decorative sprinkles. What if the cake is too dense, or undercooked? Perhaps cupcakes are best admired from afar.

A slice of cake, of course, is a less troubling prospect. They’re usually sloppier-looking affairs to begin with, and the damage is done as soon as a knife is pressed through its layers. (I hate cutting cake, the pressure, plus I have no eye for symmetry). You’re handed a slab of slice, with a plate and fork even, the cake’s strata submitted for examination. You don’t like jam filling, for example? Well, just eat around it, and no one will be any the wiser. Cake is certainly a safer bet.

So why then do I love cupcakes as I do? Well, however intimidating, I do admire the prettiness, the containment, the same way as a child who once had a dollhouse, I get a kick out of all things minature. The whole cakey universe in a tiny paper wrapper. I also love the aesthetics of their collection, displayed on a pedestal or just on a special plate. That they can be assorted or near-identical, and what a different offering each grouping is.

I like the portion control very very much, but moreso I like that the portion control is just an illusion. I’d feel a bit guilty having a second slice of cake for example, but would think nothing of devouring three cupcakes in a row. Or four, if they were manageable (and I’d always find a way to manage). Unlike a whole cake, which is usually too much or too little, I like that a cupcake’s very essence is that of being just enough. I like that you’re never sure what you’ll get inside it until you’re through. Not knowing what to make of the entire thing until you’re done.

The cupcake’s littleness is really deceiving. How can anything that is “just enough” be little, particularly when you can have two? And they’re bold cakes anyway, cupcakes are, on display, so photogenic. They’re stylish, decorated with edible matching accessories, urban as you like in adorable store windows. But then they can be homey too, when rendered by a different kind of hand. Or cupcake brutalism? I can imagine it.

I suppose one more reason I now love cupcakes as I do is that I’m old enough to eat them properly. It’s taken years of practice and figuring out to get that first bite quite right, and to learn to contain crumbs in my napkin or wrapper. I was once that little child facing a cupcake the size of my head, and that I am no longer means I’ve learned to have my cupcake and eat it too (or that I’ve at least learned how to have my cake and eat it afterwards). It also means that my head has grown, which is something to be pleased about after all this time.

2 thoughts on “On loving the "humble" cupcake”

  1. Britt Gullick says:

    I can’t eat just one slice of cake. The rest of it keeps beckoning me to eat it, even if it is awful. I ususally end up eating just one more slice, right before bed… kind of like that one last chapter… with the rest of it waiting to be devoured in the morning. Preferrably in bed – delicious! (I LOVE short stories, and cupcakes, and cake and novels all equally. But feel less guilty about my consumption of pages than of chocolate. Which is, in my mind, the only kind of cake worth mentioning).

  2. Kerry says:

    I really might like cake better than books, though I could live without cake I think, but not without books. Books are daily sustenance, cakes more once in a while, except there is one left in my fridge right now, and I really have no qualms about finishing the whole thing.

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