MUFFINS AND CUPCAKES: THE INVASION OF UNITED STATES BAKERY (WITH A PLEA FOR COSMOPOLITAN RESISTANCE)

Jaime: This one is for you…

I’m sure you have noticed the relentless advance of US-inspired bakery in our cities and towns, aided by diverse TV shows (currently, for instance, Cupcake Wars on Divinity). This invasion of muffins, cupcakes and an endless variety of decorated cakes has been quite fast and, as it happens with fashions that take on very quickly, it seems to have left us with the impression that American bakery is already part of our local Spanish culture. Well, it is not, though I assume it is here to stay.

Reconstructing the history of this recent cultural import is by no means easy. (In case you have been on planet Mars in the last decade, you can take a basic tutorial from “Magdalenas, Muffins y Cupcakes: Diferencias” at https://denikatessen.blogspot.com.es/2013/05/magdalenas-muffins-diferencias.html). To satisfy my own curiosity I did a Google search limited by year, beginning in 1996, and although I do know that this is not 100% realiable, the results seem to make a certain sense. Let’s start with the muffins, then move onto the cupcakes.

Muffins seems to be a McDonald’s import, at least this is what a question formulated back on 1/02/2001 in the website El Preguntón (www.ruper.net/El%20Pregunton.htm‎) suggests: “¿Por qué en el McDonald las magdalenas se llaman Muffins y no McDalenas?” The first references to ‘muffins’ I’ve come across go back actually to 2000: an early recipe for honey muffins (10/03/2000, https://jgmoyay.apagada.com/recetas.htm#38), and an article on polidextrose (02/02/2000, www.espatentes.com/pdf/2207816_t3.pdf‎) in which the author considers s/he needs to explain that muffins are “bollos o bizcochos similares a la magdalena.” So… the next step would perhaps ask McDonalds Spain… Funnily, I was under the impression that Starbucks was responsible for the popularisation of muffins, but it landed in Spain in 2002 when McDonalds was already offering muffins –or so it seems.

Now –cupcakes. This is complicated… and for a very peculiar reason it’s easy to detect plenty of rivalry regarding claims as to who opened the first cupcake establishment in Spain. I’ll stake the totally unproven claim that cupcakes were introduced in Spain in 1994, when the first Taste of America shop opened (https://www.tasteofamerica.es/historia). At least I’m reasonably sure that they must have sold already products to bake cupcakes at home. Now, I’ve found at least three likely contenders for the title of first Spanish bakery especialising in American cupcakes: 1) Acaramelada in Madrid (it seems to have opened in November 2000), offering “repostería creativa” (the finished product, courses, materials); 2) Patricia Arribálzaga’s shop (https://www.tartasdecoradasycupcakes.com/), which opened in 2001 and specialised in ‘designer cupcakes’; 3) and Golden Cupcake (https://goldencupcake.com), from León, which announce themselves as “la primera franquicia de repostería creativa” though I should contact them to find out when they started. By the way, the most popular blog in this area seems to be “El rincón de Bea” (https://www.elrincondebea.com/), since 2008.

You may have heard something about cupcakes and the TV series Sex and the City. Yes, correct: Mikel López Iturriaga explains that “Carrie y sus amigas no sólo enseñaron a las americanas que los cupcakes eran cool y te curaban de cualquier tipo de desencuentro con la vida, sino que les hizo vivir la fantasía de que no engordaban.” (“Todo lo que debes saber sobre los ‘cupcakes’”, 21/07/2010, https://blogs.elpais.com/el-comidista/2010/07/moda-cupcakes-magdalenas.html). In particular, Carrie and her posh friends were the clients of Magnolia Bakery (https://www.magnoliabakery.com/). Now, Sexo en Nueva York was first broadcast in Spain by the subscription channel Cosmopolitan in 2000. It seems, then, quite likely that cupcakes, introduced more or less by then, actually came to Spain on the personal initiative of travellers who discovered in situ American bakery. The series may have just confirmed the popularity of cupcakes among middle- and upper-class urban women.

Personally, I don’t like very much neither muffins nor cupcakes –too rich, too cloying. I’m not going to defend ‘magdalenas’ here, which, ironically, are also a cultural import, this time from French baking culture. I simply like much better the very fine local patisserie in Barcelona (think Farga), which seems to me much more elegant in texture and flavour than the US-inspired bakery. As I’m sure you are noticing, I feel actually quite annoyed by this American import because it seems to be yet another colonial surrender to a culture that has already overwhelmed us in excess.

In contrast, I’ll defend the cosmopolitan virtues of another cultural import to Barcelona: the patisseri Ochiai with its Japanese specialities (https://www.ochiaipastisseria.com/). This is run by Takashi Okiai since 1983 (he’s one of those ‘romantic’ migrants few studies of migration seem to notice). One of his star products is the ‘dorayaki,’ “а red bean pancake which consists of two small pancake-like patties made from castella wrapped around a filling of sweet Azuki red bean paste” (Wikipedia explains). All Catalan kids know about ‘dorayaki’ because it’s what the space cat Doraemon eats in the eponynous cartoon TV series.

There’s, as you can see, a great difference between the cosmopolitanism of cultural variety (= the dorayaki) and the invasion backed by US imperialist cultural colonisation (= the muffins and cupcakes).

This post, by the way, is 100% Cultural Studies… I’ll let in other hands the continuation of the work started here, you’re very welcome. It’s been fun!!

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6 thoughts on “MUFFINS AND CUPCAKES: THE INVASION OF UNITED STATES BAKERY (WITH A PLEA FOR COSMOPOLITAN RESISTANCE)

  1. I too have noticed the invasion of cupcakes in local bakeries. However, I think they just represent a tiny fraction of American cuisine. The problem is that most imports from American food culture are unhealthy and tend to stand out because of its size (e.g.: Starbucks coffee) or showiness (e.g.: cupcakes). I for one have learned to eat healthily and to value the importance of locally sourced ingredients thanks to American food coops and blogs. In many cases these are run by young people, who ironically tend to be tarred with the fast food brush usually associated with generations X and Y.

    I doubt we’ll ever see an invasion of pies, which unlike the calorie-dense and nutritionally empty cupcakes are made with real food (inc. fruit and nuts). I guess they are not cute enough, which seems to be what matters even when it comes to food. I particularly love the anticipation factor. Now that Christmas is around the corner—and, in fact, year round if one lives in a big city—there are cherries for sale. However, it is not the time to make cherry cobbler. We should wait until the summer. As pointed out in a NYT article, “[p]ie has also proved its mettle by being neatly adaptable to the local-seasonal ideology of many modern kitchens.” Maybe I’m just a bit of a throwback, but I firmly believe that eating seasonal produce is better for our bodies, for the environment, and definitely for our pockets. But again, not having what one wants when one wants it is not very trendy. So I guess that the humble pie will never sell like cupcakes.

    Oh, this is my favorite international bakery in Barcelona:
    https://www.barcelonareykjavik.com/en/?no_cache=1. A bit pricey, yes, but baked goods (no matter how healthy) are meant to be occasional treats, not diet staples.

    -Sources:
    Pie to Cupcake: Time’s Up: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/dining/17pies.html?_r=0
    The History of Pie: https://visual.ly/history-pie

  2. Hi Sara! Haha… cool post 🙂 Seriously, I don’t understand people’s (especially women’s) fixation with cupcakes and cake-pops. They don’t taste of anything… they’re just sweet! I guess it’s all part of this obsession with cuteness. I was talking to a friend about it once, and she sent me this link:

    https://jezebel.com/5911208/a-cupcake-is-never-just-a-cupcake-the-psycho+sexuality-of-a-twee-treat

    Don’t know how accurate this is hehe… but it’s fun to read nonetheless.

    xxx

  3. Thanks, Auba!
    I’ve read the article in the link you sent me and, yes, I think I’d agree that a cupcake is individualistic, orgasmic, suspiciously vaginal and an essential part of the culture of cuteness…
    Sara

  4. Thanks, Azahara. I totally agree with the need to get back to buying the products for the season – cherries in winter are absurd. And, yes, Reykjavik have wonderful bread and indeed healthy muffins! Everyone seems to agree, from what I read, that cupcakes are enjoyed because they’re cute and that this is connected with femininity – I’d say with a particularly girly version of it!
    Sara

  5. After delaying it a bit… here it goes…
    What a wonderful post and piece of research! The McDonalds’ theory sounds plausible, although I used to believe that muffins were introduced by Starbucks (due to the great emphasis placed on “Starbucks-type-muffins” in many blogs and recipe books) rather than by the fast-food world (which has never been regarded for its desserts…). One of the things that came across my mind while rereading your entry was the “American bakery is already part of our Spanish culture”. In fact, I am not so sure of that process of adoption, since many recipes, store names and so on are written in English! Recurrent terms stand out, such as “… Bakery” or “…’s cupcakes”. These are pronounced even by Spanish speakers being well aware of the English origins, so – so far – I do not consider it settled.
    The idea of cupcakes as a feminine signifier is a very interesting one, and a further fact should be explained: traditional cooking shows are mostly anchored by men, whereas only a few of the shows devoted to these new kinds of food are man-led (and those led by a male anchor are mostly related to the creation of cakes decorated with fondant). Nonetheless, I do disagree in the view of the cupcake as masturbation, or at least, in a single faceted view of the cupcake: of course, it is a pleasure to be enjoyed in solitude… yet… the idea of cupcakes as replacing cakes in celebrations is paramount. Could we consider that cupcakes are cakes already divided and thus represent the capitalist-western need of “having our bit well defined” as opposed to the traditional cake we have to cut into pieces and share?
    I took this idea from the video “History of Cupcakes | Cupcake Baking” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNybxvM9uLM) where it is said “to have cupcakes, bit size cakes”.

    Finally, I would say that I actually dislike cupcakes and muffins and most American-exported bakery for its high content of sugar and weird tastes, yet I don’t deny the artistry of their decorations.

  6. Thank you, Jaime.
    As you know very well, your email message was the inspiration for this post. If you carry on, then you’ll have to find out for you and for me whether Starbucks introduced or, rather, popularised muffins. My guess is that they contributed variety and a much higher quality than McDonalds.
    Bit size cakes as embodiments of individualistic capitalism… yes, I like that!
    And, indeed, I’m looking forward to ‘turrones’ and ‘roscón de Reyes’ for the Christmas holiday!
    Sara

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