The Icing Is Off the Cupcake Craze

Cupcake haters, your day has come! The icing is coming off America's cupcake craze. Wring your hands in delirious pleasure and laugh, oh, laugh. 

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Is there a more widely, vocally despised food than the prissy, expensive, full-of-itself gourmet cupcake? Maybe. Maybe liver, or mushy green beans, or rotten bananas. Maybe a second-hand sandwich long-forgotten in your tote bag and starting to turn green around the edges, which means it's really a science project. But anything found in nature can't really compare to the cupcake in terms of attracting the love of some—cupcake followings abound—and the resentment and deep dislike of many others.

Cupcake haters, your day has come! The icing is coming off America's cupcake craze. Wring your hands in delirious pleasure and laugh, oh, laugh. Emily Maltby and Sarah Needleman write in The Wall Street Journal of, in particular, the cupcake seller Crumbs. Crumbs is no longer at the top of the cupcake: "After trading at more than $13 a share in mid-2011, Crumbs has sunk to $1.70. It dropped 34 percent last Friday, in the wake of Crumbs saying that sales for the full year would be down by 22 percent from earlier projections, and the stock slipped further this week." Even less sweet: Crumbs "warned that it now expects 2013 sales to reach about $57 million, sharply off its previous estimate of $73 million." This has caused at least one person to pronounce the novelty of cupcakes "worn off." 

The thing with cupcakes, though, is that they didn't start out bad. Maybe they don't quite deserve the ire they've attracted. As made by your mother and brought to your kindergarten on your 6th birthday, they were quite a treat. As purchased after school at the town bakery and enjoyed while walking home, perhaps with a friend, they were sweet and delicious, and provided a pleasant sugar hit. They were cute, and better than buying and chowing a whole cake, for various reasons, including simple portability. But suddenly—and, yes, we can probably blame Carrie Bradshaw in part for this—in the early aughts cupcakes were everywhere, acting all "artisanal" and special despite their near universality, and in the weirdest of hybrid flavors, like milkshake or peanut butter and jelly or saffron risotto. Everyone wanted cupcakes! You know what happened:

"The dessert became a cultural and economic phenomenon over the last decade, with gourmet cupcake shops proliferating across the country, selling increasingly elaborate and expensive concoctions," write Malthy and Needleman. Cupcake shops like Crumbs and Magnolia Bakery were making cupcake-cash hand over fist, selling cupcakes for $4 or more a pop. 'Twas a rare event in America that didn't spark the phrases, "Who's bringing the cupcakes?" "Ya got the cupcakes?" "Gotta have cupcakes!"

And as would follow, there was backlash. (Magnolia is still profitable, reports the Journal, but less than half of Magnolia's sales are cupcakes.) As another source pronounced, cupcake-fervor is "a short-term trend and we're starting to see a real saturation." Plus you can make your own cupcakes. Oh yeah. You can make your own cupcakes.

And so it goes, this tale as old as time. Cupcakes got too big for their britches, and so did cupcake purveyors, who increasingly glommed on to the trend and tried to own cupcakes for themselves. More and more cupcake shops were born, devoted increasingly to producing cupcakes, and new cupcakes, those itsy-bitsy tiny mini ones, for instance, were born, too. Sometimes cupcakes received an added accessory, a bit of decor; sometimes they were all about accessories. They were fancified. There were cupcake clubs. For what point? Who knows. Wherever you went, whatever you did, cupcakes would be there, staring up you, asking you to eat them, and you would, but you would feel used.

Cupcakes—did they even taste good anymore? It became difficult to say, to tell where the cupcake stopped and the hatred began. The sugar tasted off, now, somehow, the frosting too cloying, the cake part of the cupcake so dry it stuck to the roof of our mouth. Cupcakes needed to be taken down a notch. In a world of too many cupcakes, we found ourselves despising cupcakes.

I submit that no food has been more subject to overfancification, gentrification, over-saturation, and of course to the twee whims of our time, as has the cupcake. Yet at its core it's just a small, round, personal piece of cake. Cake made in a cup. That's all. If someday we could begin to think of it that way, if someday a cupcake would just be a cupcake, and not a cupcake that's trying to be so much more, perhaps things would be different. 

Alas, poor Cupcake. Make way for the macaron. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.