I can’t stop thinking about cupcakes. No, not chic ones from the bakery, swathed in caramel buttercream, $3.95 each—I mean real cupcakes, baked at home by Mom and the kids in a classic ritual of American domesticity. This evening, Ashley—she’s one of nine women whose relationships with food are at the center of Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It—is making cupcakes with her two little girls. The family, which includes Ashley’s husband and his brother, as well as a cousin who’s just gotten out of jail and is temporarily sleeping on a couch, lives in a trailer near Raleigh, North Carolina. The household is busy, often frantic, because all the adults work at Wendy’s, in different locations, following unpredictable schedules and accepting every offer of an extra shift. The car is broken, the washing machine is broken, there’s no money to fix either of them, and a horror movie is blaring on the TV, but right now Ashley is focused on baking. The cupcakes are a welcome-home gesture for Chris, the cousin released from jail.
She opens a box of Betty Crocker Rainbow Chip cake mix and pours it into the old plastic ice-cream tub that serves as a mixing bowl. The girls use child-size forks to stir the batter, tasting avidly as they go until it’s all over their hands, faces, and much of the kitchen. As soon as the cupcakes come out of the oven, the girls dig into a container of Betty Crocker frosting—which quickly melts since the cupcakes are still hot—and then shower their creations with pink sprinkles. The scene becomes a melee of excited children, smashed cupcakes, and raucous video games. As for Chris, he refuses the offer of a cupcake and steps outside the trailer to have a beer with a heavy-drinking friend from his old crowd. Ashley’s gesture hasn’t been received as she had planned, but she hopes a sense of the family’s goodwill and support will get through to him.