Monday, January 26, 2009
It all started when I was six at Radford’s Baker—the sugary yeasty smell of it, the bright lights, the rows of pastries and cookies and the best-of-all cupcakes. My mother brought home doughnuts every Sunday morning. For me, she brought a cupcake.
I’m grown up now and it’s a January morning in Iowa. It’s five degrees outside but I’m warm in my dining room looking at a cupcake. Vanilla, white frosting, sprinkles.
The best cupcakes were always vanilla with white frosting and sprinkles—jimmies—the color of spring, pink and yellow and baby blue and orange. Soft, light cake. I bite and there’s the sudden gritty taste of sugar, that painful sweetness, the crunch of frosting and jimmies and underneath, lush and tender cake in my mouth. Eating cupcakes is an explosion of sweet.
Today there are a dozen cupcakes in my kitchen. My husband Josh got them at Johnson’s Bakery, a heavenly local oasis of sugar and light and cake, for a very grown up party we had last night. I made grown up desserts, rich complicated cheesecake, no-nonsense apple crisp, healthy fruit salad. We had a case of champagne and two dozen slender glass flutes to drink it from. We had 25 grown up people who ate all the cheesecake and apple crisp and who drank a lot of the wine and champagne.
In my thirties, divorced and an eternity away from Radfords and my sweet six year old self, I mostly baked my own cupcakes, a sure sign then of stress or despair. I took them to my neighbor, Denise, who had her own troubles but passed the cupcakes along to her kids. In those days, I leaned heavily towards chocolate with white frosting. I also happened to be dating a cupcake—what my friends and I called the solid, red-haired, adorable and absolutely unsuitable man I stuck with because I loved his parents and because he was, well, a cupcake. The comfort of any sort of cupcake is hard to resist.
The party cupcakes were a last-minute decision on my part. At dinner, the night before the party, I announced I’d better make some—no doubt a small sign of panic about entertaining twenty-five people as well as a sign of the usual creeping despair. Josh said no, it was easier if he went and bought some. A man who, for whatever reason, brings me cupcakes! Dreams do come true. At the party, the cupcakes perched on a fine china plate, gorgeous in their frosted finery, dolled and jimmied up, party cakes, festive dollops of sweetness.
No one wanted them.
I love them.
And so across my life cupcakes evolved into not so much a desire for their taste as a desire for the small, self-contained, intimate and immediate comfort they brought, their antidote to despair, a way back to a reinvented and eternally springtime childhood—a safe place of sweets, of anticipation, of being held in the arms of comfort. Cupcakes conjure up a sensory spectrum of memories—the hungry smell of baking, the enduring warmth of a kitchen in the winter, the velvety texture of cake, the strong, safe feeling of a man’s arms.
Cupcakes are time apart, small solaces, a sacrament of peace. Cupcakes and tea, cupcakes and hot baths, cupcakes and a good book, cupcakes and rainy afternoons and snowy nighttimes. Cupcakes are hope and prayers, comfort and love.
thanks to jeannine marie luke for the cupcake art