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Cupcakes and Capitalism

Oh, aren’t cupcakes a wonderful thing? Your very own CAKE. And if you have one of those smaller cupcakes (“minis”) you can have more than one. Especially if it’s got a foot of icing on top. Don’t you love those?

I recently attended the annual “Bootcamp” for copywriters writers put on by American Writers & Artists, Inc. in Delray Beach, FL. AWAI does a fantastic job with the entire conference (this was my third attendance), but the end is always a great one. This time, it was over the top.

After the awards banquet on Saturday (10/27) there was a dessert reception. And in addition to a beautiful tiered cake celebrating their 15th year in business, we were treated to these amazing and incredibly beautiful. . .cupcakes.

Delicious. . .just pick one!

Ahhh. . .I picked this one, with peanut butter icing:

This delicious item has lots of creamy peanut butter icing on top.

It was a tough choice, believe me. One of my fellow attendees got one that was white cake and a creamy top that was dipped in the chocolate that hardens. I had a tiny bite of that from a spoon. And THEN I had a small slice of that cake. . .making sure I had a healthy dinner with lots of green stuff that night.

I don’t do this every day. I knew I’d regret it if I passed. I call this sort of thing “The Bootcamp Bulge.”

Cupcakes, after years of being the bane of school bake sales and church socials, have become “hot” in the last few years. Martha Stewart published an entire book of cupcakes, including a picture of cupcake tier that can stand in as a wedding cake, or be served instead of sliced cake. I also attended a wedding a couple of years ago that was done rather quickly, and my suggestion of cupcakes was heeded. They didn’t even stack them, they were served right out of the huge boxes. The happy couple didn’t care about that part, they just wanted to be married–and everyone had a cupcake, no cutting and less mess than a whole cake.

I was sort of “engaged” at one point recently, and decided that my “wedding cake” would consist of cupcakes and we would have a giant one for the cake-cutting. However, since there is no longer a groom, there was no wedding. (That’s OK–I’ve had enough of them, and better things to do.)

Why do we in America suddenly elevate something ordinary to an elite status? Who picks the idea and runs with it? Something as lowly as the cupcake, long considered lowbrow and below the standards of elegant dining, now finds itself in exclusive shops and perfectly chic and elegantly dressed for any occasion. How did this happen?

Simple. Capitalism.

Say what?

Yes, Capitalism, the thing we studied in high school that is now under fire. It’s not my intent to start a debate on it, but only to point out that cupcakes are what they are because someone had an idea. And it worked. And it took off. Now everyone loves cupcakes and bakers are happy and making money.

Last year, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham’s book Of Thee I Zing  took on current American culture, and what’s wrong with it. The byline is “America’s Cultural Decline from Muffin Tops to Body Shots.”

Mostly, I agreed with the book, and I consider myself a fan, but on page 104, she took on. . .cupcakes.

What’s wrong with cupcakes, for heaven’s sake?

Ms. Ingraham’s beef (pardon the pun) is that the cupcakes you get from Georgetown Cupcakes, Sprinkles, and other high-end places is that they’re roughly the same thing you get at home with a box of Duncan Hines, and that it’s ridiculous standing in line outside a shop for over an hour to get a cupcake–at $3 to $5 each. Well, that’s technically true, but with a “boutique” cupcake, you’re buying a) the cupcake already made, b) fancier than the average person would make at home, c), the artistry of the person who made it, i.e., labor, and d) only one, which is likely what you wanted anyway.

Someone realized that maybe one cupcake would be a good idea. Make it fancier than a Duncan Hines cupcake made with frosting from a can. Make it bigger, make it better, see what happens, and they started a business. And it grew. The idea spread. And now there are cupcake shops all over the country. Like the one in Delray Beach, FL, Cupcake Couture, who made the fabulous beauties pictured above.

Disclosure: although I have had the occasional high-end cupcake, if I’m going to make them for an activity, I make them from scratch. Frosting included. It’s just the way I am. Butter is always better than hydrogenated anything.

Capitalism is simply this: I make a cupcake, and you want to buy it. If you don’t, maybe your friend wants a cupcake. I sell your friend a cupcake. Your friend is happy, because he or she got a cupcake that is as amazing to look at as it is to eat. (That peanut butter number sure was.) I have made a profit from my work, including labor as well as parts/supplies (ingredients, in this case.) Why is this a bad thing?

Most of what we complain and hear about is what gets called “corporatism,” or the misbehavior of folks in companies. Enron is a big deal here in Houston, and well, they messed it up for everyone else.

Capitalism is the same whether it’s me baking a cupcake and selling it to someone individually, or a car company building and selling cars. Capitalism is what allows Sophie and Katherine to start their own business and do well enough to be given a TV show. (Disclosure: I have never seen this TV show, but I am not knocking it.) The TV show increases their business, and they do well enough to make a bigger profit.

Why is that bad?

A lady here in Houston many years ago found herself gluten intolerant, when there were limited options for folks with that problem. She founded a company called Gluten Free Houston.  She started off small, and now stocks not only local grocery and health food stores, but her gluten-free buns are sold at Astros games, and gluten free pizza crusts are available at local California Pizza Kitchens. She now ships nationwide.

That’s capitalism. She found a niche and started a business to help other gluten intolerant folks.

Here’s another example: Erin McKenna, owner of BabycakesNYC, found herself having issues with food allergies after scarfing down baked goods of all kinds as a teenager. Over time, she began experimenting and working with nonstandard ingredients to create allergy-free vegan baked goods and treats. The result is nothing short of amazing: she now has four locations, the NYC flagship store, two in the Los Angeles area, and one at Walt Disney World in Florida. Additionally, two books add to the number of fans, including me. I’ve not been to any of the bakeries, but if ever I am able to visit them, I will. I’ll have to be happy with using the cookbooks until then. From the site:

BabyCakes offers all-natural, organic and delicious alternatives free from the common allergens: wheat, gluten, dairy, casein and eggs. Rest assured, all sweeteners have been chosen responsibly and used sparingly. White sugar will never be found in our bakery, nor will we ever use toxic chemical sweeteners. Instead, most products are sweetened with agave nectar—a natural syrup from a cactus which is low on the glycemia index and often a safe alternative to most non-insulin dependant diabetics. Occasionally, unprocessed and unrefined sugar is used in certain goods, although sparingly.

Erin McKenna found a different niche–people who have allergies and can’t have the usual cupcakes, muffins and cakes, and turned it into a business that provides her and her employees a good living. Make no mistake–not everyone who is a fan of Babycakes has gluten or other allergies, me included. Babycakes treats are a healthier option than something from a “regular” bakery, and that’s why I love baking from those books. The waffles and maple-flavored agave syrup from her second book are FANTASTIC, and will hold up against anything out of a yellow box and a plastic bottle.

That’s capitalism, folks, and a lot of gluten-free vegan cupcakes. There is NOTHING wrong with Ms. McKenna doing something she loves and making a living–not to mention a profit–with it. She makes a lot of people happy, too.

Look at it this way: I am babysitting a cat named Jezebel. She prowls around, sharpens her claws on a little thingy I bought at Petsmart, eats a meat-based diet, has whiskers, paws, sharp senses, and a tail that’s an extension of her spine, used to keep her balance.

A mighty tiger (my favorite animal) prowls around, sharpens his claws on a tree trunk, eats a meat based diet, has whiskers, paws, sharp senses, and a tail that’s an extension of his spine, used to keep his balance.

Size doesn’t matter. They are essentially the same animal. One is just bigger than the other. Both are equally fierce when confronted.

Same thing with capitalism: whether it’s a guy with a taco van, a cupcake shop, or a company selling cars, an oil company, or whatever. . .it’s the same animal. It’s ALL capitalism, no matter how you, um, slice it. Whether it’s a guy fixing computers out of his garage for extra money or Apple Computers, it’s all capitalism, too. Some folks don’t seem to get this.

Cupcakes are just one delicious part of it.

Sure, you can do what Laura Ingraham says and buy a boxed mix. You can do what Martha Stewart & Co. do, bake them from scratch. That’s your choice under the free-market, or “Laissez Faire” system. This is not a bad idea. It’s worked well all this time, even with the problems that have come with it. Best part: anybody can do it!

Be a capitalist, that is, not just bake cupcakes.

Now I’ll leave y’all with some pictures of delicious cupcakes from Central Market, taken just this afternoon, who started making them this way after they became popular. Enjoy some tasty capitalism!

Central Market always has a variety of delicious cupcakes.

Ahhhh. . .such deliciousness.

Orange Cranberry cupcake. Very seasonal

A Cranberry-Orange cupcake. Very seasonal.

Love the raspberry!

Oh, yeah. . .more tasty cupcakes. Ifi the raspberry ones had chocolate cake, I would move someone out of my way to get to it!

Isn't he cute?

How about this cross-eyed cutie?

And here's his brother! And here's the whole family.

His brother and the rest of the family.

One more gratuitous cupcake picture

Yum. Take your pick, or two and split each with someone else.

I love capitalism. Don’t you?

Happy Dining!

Welcome to my blog! (Introduction to Heat Cage Kitchen)

Well, here I go, writing about something I know best: food. No kidding. I mean, who doesn’t these days, right? Since Food Network and Cooking Channel are likely the only clean channels left on TV, it’s safe to let kids watch it, so they want to start cooking. That’s a good thing.

What’s in a name? More importantly, what’s NOT in a name. Specifically, someone else’s. There are countless Amys, Tygers, and other taken names that I had to come up with something unique. Heat Cage Kitchen. It’s hot, and it can be a cage. But it’s a kitchen.

My mother would never let me cook when I was a kid, but when she started working in about 1976, I started sneaking it. No kidding, I would “get away” with cooking when I could. Of course, I read Seventeen magazine in those days, and they actually had some pretty good recipes in it. Eventually I got to cook now and again, but that doesn’t mean I had an appreciative audience.

One brother, who will not be named, said when he saw my tempura-style fish bites (from the latest issue) with some kind of sauce, “I think I’ll make me a popcorn sandwich.”  I asked the other brother to go to the grocery on his bike and get a small bottle of vinegar, which cost about twenty four cents. He nagged me for years about that “debt.” However, after I finished the cooking, everyone begrudgingly admitted that it was a pretty good meal, we just needed to make more of it. I don’t know where to find that recipe, I guess it was somewhere between 1977 and 1979. Check your local library and let me know if you find it, if you’re interested.

BTW, I  have made dinner for the same brother who demanded that repayment after he married and had a family. Twice. He was in town visiting and I opened Martha Stewart Quick Cook Menus book out and assembled what I thought would be a delicious meal. Twice. Also included was a garden soup from MSL that I was told made my then-teenage niece hurl. I thought it was pretty good, and I made quite a bit of it, according to the recipe. After that, however, I garnered a reputation for being a precarious cook, and stuck to desserts at the holidays. My Auntie L still talks about the apple cake I made from the November 1996 MSL, right on the front cover.

So today I receive this apron as a slightly belated birthday gift. From the same brother. Who writes songs about my cooking skills, or lack thereof. One day I’ll post the lyrics.

Gift from the brother who swears I can't cook

Really. . .I can cook. Early kitchen disasters never leave the minds of the fast-food junkies.

I first heard of Martha Stewart about 1986 or 1987, when she did her first campaign with Kmart. “. . .with lifestyle expert Martha Stewart.” Who?

About 1994, I started to see her more on TV. In 1996, I watched a full show, and bought one of her magazines. It was the 1995/1996 holiday issue with the cranberry wreath on the front. I still have it (somewhere.) Shortly thereafter, I subscribed and still get it. I’ve made countless recipes from MSL, from Everyday Food, and other magazines. I have a wall shelf full of cookbooks, some of them autographed (but not by Martha.)  I even have a few copies of Donna Hay’s magazine from Australia, and I admit to making one of the delicious cakes from the first one.

I got married in 1996 for the last time (I hope.) While I was only married for a little over 4 years, I did my best to make high-quality gourmet meals for my, uh, “husband.” He constantly complained that he was afraid to come home for fear of what I’d made from the current MSL. Oh, well. One day I made sure he found another home, but that’s another story. Since then I’ve cooked for a number of others (and a few men), and am often asked to bring something special to an activity.

Once again I will be making the turkey for our Thanksgiving open-house, hosted by a vegetarian. No kidding. Long story. Despite that, everyone drives miles for my turkey. Why? I know how to make the best turkey you’ve ever eaten. Only Martha Stewart makes better, because I learned from her. And the Barefoot Contessa. And Tyler Florence. And one or two others. Tip: brining a turkey makes it unbelievably tender and delicious. A little extra work, and it’s worth it.

I can’t say how often I will be posting, but will try to write at least a couple of times a week. If not, email me and remind me to DO something.

Note that I’m not an expert, a chef, a critic, or a well-known anything. I’m just me. Comments are welcome, just keep it polite and nice, OK? Lest you will be banished and your digits will rot off after I cast an evil spell.

Welcome to Heat Cage Kitchen!