A State of Cupcake Hermitry


Courtney Telloian

            It never would have happened to me if I wasn't such a perfectionist control junkie with a childlike affinity for brightly colored edibles. I don't follow trends for their own sake. And I'm certainly not going to eat all of those cupcakes by myself.

             It was for these supposed reasons that I found myself happily awake before five o'clock AM, humming along with the hot water that gurgled down the drain and lathering up the last measuring cup, the pesky no-good third cup measure that you only need once and still have to clean. I looked over my shoulder mid hum- the little golden cakes were rising perfectly. They'd be ready to frost by nine, and then I'd have maybe seven or eight hours until the picnic.

             My latest passion was baking. And not baking just anything indiscriminately as if all baked goods were equal. Meringues might be bland and tarts might be for tarts, but cupcakes were small, delicious, and versatile. People loved to eat them. And the greatest part was that I could make any flavor or combination of flavors anyone could possibly imagine. Papaya and lime with a coconut filling? Yes. Chocolate tarragon? You got it. In a moment of extreme hubris, I even considered myself to be the Willy Wonka of cupcakes. I would decorate them with swirls, with sparkly sugar covered candy drops, with fresh fruit cut up into intricate little shapes. My inner five-year-old, who had tried to eat bouncy balls on more than one occasion, could finally be at peace.

             As much as I loved baking miniature cakes, I refused to keep them hanging around the house. I was a teenager at the time. I was vain as hell, and interpreted that banal proverb “A moment on your lips, a lifetime on your hips” nearly completely literally. Once, whilst gnawing on their second triple strawberry cupcake without even an attempt at delicacy, someone asked invasively, “How are you not fat?” I looked at them and shrugged my shoulders. My honest answer would have been, “Why else do you think I'm here?” But I could never bring myself to be overtly rude. Passive aggression has always been more of my style. I was not at that particular gathering for the talking, the games, or the laughs (and that is a separate story). I needed baking for the sense of order and control it gave me. For me to be able to do this frequently, there had to be a place where I could dispose of my creations in a constructive way. These potlucks and youth group meetings and dances and birthdays were my soft option garbage disposals. As my obsession became more intense, my stays at these social gatherings became increasingly short. I eventually reached a point at which I would “stop, drop, and run:” simply pack the cakes on a disposable tray, make a beeline to the food table, and leave. Cupcakes may have been my number one hobby at the time, but isolation was a close second. If I was in a particularly social mood, I'd wait until a GBTBG (“great big tall buff guy”) came over and picked one up. I never got over watching GBTBGs nibble on the sugared pansies I'd place on top of the ganache and cocoa cakes.

             My anonymity was more than a tool to protect my alone time. Sometimes I would circulate and listen to people's comments as they munched on my desserts, unaware of who had brought them. The only negative encounter is one I'll forever remember with a strange sense of disgruntled triumph. I found some quince at the grocery store, and decided to whip up my very own quince paste and go from there. I soon found myself with chocolate-topped quince and shortbread cupcakes, and they resonated with me on a nearly spiritual level. I don't know why, but I especially identified with these little guys. They were sour and bitter and sweet in a very strange but addictive way, and I wanted them to know that they weren't alone, that they too would find their niche in this world. I had to remind myself more than once that they were food.

             I brought them to youth group. At a certain point, an acquaintance whom I had felt a pointed ambivalence toward for years took one and walked away with it. I had heard through the grapevine that she was taking chef’s training courses at a vocational school, but remained doubtful of her expertise when I saw the photos she posted on Facebook. Immediately, I was on her tail. I started to smile, about to make eye contact when she took a bite, and grimaced. Held it up to her face and stared at it. Then she headed over to the corner with the garbage can in it and I'd already moved on. Later that evening, I was standing in a semicircle with her and one of her friends, chatting. Suddenly, she changed the subject. “Okay, so I have no idea who brought those cupcakes, but They. Were. Nasty. I don't even know what those were.”

             For some odd reason, the corners of my mouth were twitching upwards. I had to restrain myself from giggling. We all murmured agreeably and conversation moved on. To this day, I regret not looking her in the eyes and saying, “Oh, I brought those! They're made with quince. That's the second deadliest food allergy in the world, did you know that?” I wasn't even unhappy that someone didn’t love them for once, and yet, I imagined her with hives as I drifted off to sleep that night. Was my ego perhaps a little sore? Sure, but she still probably didn’t know what quince even was. And she was going to be a chef.

             The next morning, I was up bright and early for another round. My excitement with this hobby couldn't seem to wait for my morning alarm to go off, so I'd wake up at six, five, four to start the process. That's how I found myself piping gingerbread icing onto some lemon cakes at six o’clock AM on a frosty winter morning, waiting for the sun to come up.

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