By 1796 the United States of America had a Constitution, fifteen states, a snappy flag, and a growing political divide. It certainly wasn’t everything a young republic would need, but it was a start and the gaps would be recognized and filled in over the next many years by an industrious, inventive, and fiercely determined population. Perhaps more than anything else, what a new nation needs is an identity, the building blocks of a shared, unique culture.
And also cupcakes.
It would be another thirty-two years before Noah Webster’s thoroughly American dictionary made its way into the world to assert ‘Merican standards over an inherited language, but before that, in 1796, another American stepped up to fill in an important cultural gap.
That’s when Amelia Simmons, about whom little is known beyond her self-identification as “an American orphan,” compiled and published what’s believed to be the first American cookbook. Up until that point, cooks in the US with access to unique local ingredients like maize, turkey, and “pompkin,” had to settle for English cookbooks full of English recipes for pies and puddings that sadly aren’t at all what their names imply to the modern American palate.
In her book, American Cookery (plus a subtitle that’s almost longer than the book) Simmons includes many traditional English dishes and cooking methods. She also includes several with an American twist, like squash and pumpkin puddings, Indian slapjacks, corn cakes, roasted turkey with cranberries, and “A nice Indian Pudding.”
And also cupcakes.
Though she didn’t coin the term (that didn’t happen until 1828 in a cookbook compiled by Eliza Leslie), Simmons did include recipes for both “soft cakes in little pans,” and “a light cake to bake in a little pan,” possibly the earliest written references to the cupcake.
I bring up the cupcakes because yesterday was National Chocolate Cupcake Day here in the US. If you forgot to celebrate, don’t worry. National (plain ol’) Cupcake Day is still coming up on December 15. I actually didn’t celebrate, or at least not in the traditional way, which I assume is to eat a chocolate cupcake.
It’s not that I don’t like chocolate cupcakes. I think if you’ve read this blog for very long, you’ve probably seen plenty of evidence that I do. Still, when I saw the “holiday” was coming up, I began to wonder if a cupcake is itself really a thing to celebrate. I suppose I always thought of this compact little treat as celebratory rather than celebration-worthy.
Cupcakes are for birthdays and baby showers and blogiversaries. They express congratulations when someone wins the lottery, or snags first place in the national juggling championship, or finally lands that book deal. At this point in our history there are entire cookbooks containing nothing but cupcake recipes and bakeries dedicated to making nothing but these most celebratory little cakes. And if you have a few staple ingredients in your pantry, a coffee cup, and a microwave, the Internet will be happy to tell you how to solve that late night cupcake craving without changing out of your pajamas.
Cupcakes are for just about anything, really, which makes a day for celebrating them seem a little over-the-top to me, and a day dedicated to just one flavor of them downright silly.
So what I decided to do instead is to make National Chocolate Cupcake Day a holiday in which I don’t eat a cupcake. I spent the day remembering the time when this dessert was an occasional treat that meant something truly special, and even served to fill a cultural gap in a burgeoning nation. I reflected back on a time when a great cupcake was a little harder to come by and I could fit into my skinny pants.
It was a good day. In fact, I’m thinking I may abstain from eating cupcakes for a while, at least until I can fit into those skinny pants again. Or I get a book deal. Then I’d really have something to celebrate.