Friday, February 22, 2013

Cupcake philosophizing

The phrase "C. S. Lewis said..." is almost as ubiquitous among the Believer crowd as "the Bible says..." and just about as annoying.  Some quote him like he's practically posting from Patmos, and, come on, he's a Guy and as imperfect as the rest of us. But a lot of his stuff was quite cool, and this came to mind today.

This is from his Space Trilogy, specifically Perelandra, in which the protagonist of the series, Ransom, visits a yet-unspoiled Eden world. He encounters fruits ("gourds") of exquisite flavor, and many other plants of mystical properties.

And some berries. Here's the Berry passage:
He made his way gingerly towards the coast, but before he reached it, he passed some bushes which carried a rich crop of oval green berries, about three times the size of almonds. ... It turned out to be good to eat. It did not give the rich orgiastic and almost alarming pleasure of the gourds, but rather the specific pleasure of plain food--the delight of munching and being nourished, a "Sober certainty of waking bliss." A man, or at least a man like Ransom, felt he ought to say grace over it; and so he presently did. The gourds would have required an oratorio or a mystical meditation.
But the meal had its unexpected high lights. Every now and then, one struck a berry which had a bright red centre; and these were so savoury, so memorable among a thousand tastes, that he would have begun to look for them and to feed on them only, but that he was once more forbidden by that same inner adviser which had already spoken to him twice since he came to Perelandra.
"Now on earth," thought Ransom, "they'd soon discover how to breed these redhearts, and they'd cost a great deal more than the others." Money, in fact, would provide the means of saying encore in a voice that could not be disobeyed.
A friend brought us these cupcakes yesterday.

Yeah, I have eaten one and its components were great, so I suspect the rest are too, but I think that they are so over-iced it ruins them.

But I'm probably in the minority. The cupcake trend (I'm told it's passé now) and designer pastry craze, when it involves icing, seems to make the cake a mere platform for icing, both for visual artistry, and for the more concentrated sugar-rush that, I guess, people want. To do the chef justice, the cake wasn't a bland shrug-off to carry the icing, it's excellent on its own merits. Just..... way too small. These things are HALF icing, and honestly, interesting, savory cake is what requires, and better demonstrates, more serious chef-y skills.

These are extremist overkill.  And maybe it's just my continuing irritability - everything annoys me - but I feel constantly bombarded by extremist overkill.

Everything is ultra-loud, ultra-bright, and especially, ultra-simple.  Yeah, you guys will rightly dispute my use of "everything."  But I think it's the loud, simple movies full of cathartic explosions and chases and extreme highs and lows for the characters, that become the blockbusters, and drive more studios to want more of them.

Murder mysteries are boring the bleep out of me, with the extreme highs and lows of the detectives.  So many stock detectives, on personal/emotional skids, utter relationship failures but utter invincible battlers against evil, staying low in emotional wastelands, or turing it totally around and Finding The One, yadda yadda.

And TV.  And not just kiddie message-shows ("You vill have lesson pounded in with sledgehammer, jah!") and Disney Channel ("You vill have laffs and pathos..." see above).

I ran into a rerun of the 1980's sitcom Gimme a Break awhile ago and thought how much it showed its age, not from lack of talent or plot, but because of how quiet it was.  At the time it originally ran, it seemed energetic and full of stagey exaggeration.  Compared to now, it's subdued. Some audience laughs were just low ripples the actors talked right over.  There were sometimes actual quiet beats between sentences. The pace was somehow more natural and that seemed languid. The set wasn't the kaleidoscope of riotous color and object clutter that I feel like I see everywhere, even in good shows.

There are some good house building/renovating shows on HGTV, but I have watched the Fake Conflict Factor rise and rise, every episode of some of these shows having to feature obviously coached people having obviously choreographed arguments, calling the project a disaster and the designer -- or each other -- a failure, so it can all finally come together with a gushing "Oh, I can't beLIEVE it,  this is so-o-o great!"

All emotions are extreme.  All experiences are overwhelmingly pain or pleasure.  I think it's getting harder to train our brains to even perceive, much less appreciate, subtlety, nuance, or complex interplay of flavor, or character.

OK, OK, there's plenty left, and it's always been incumbent upon the consumer to seek out and support better craft.  There are classics, there are great shows and books and cuisine, humane, life-affirming stuff.

I'm not saying it's died.  I'm not even saying that it will die out, only that it's being crowded and marginalized by the need to outshout and outsell the competition by offering the more overwhelming sensory experience. This baker clearly can bake great cake, but she has to make a living, and customers want the towering pile of decorative goo.  Money talks in a voice that can't be disobeyed.

And, sugar addict though I am, I don't like the cupcakes.  I love cake.  Bare cake, even, no icing at all, if it's excellent. These, at least, judging by my one, are buried under a stomach-acid-flaming load of pure butter and sugar, and while I'm free to scrape it off, there won't be much left when I do, not like the days when a cupcake was a cake with icing, not icing loaded on a disc of cake.

The market forces craftsmen to assault our senses and us to work harder to escape from it.