It’s Thursday night at the tea shop, and the women’s knitting group has gathered at three of the small tables, which they have pushed together. One of the women has brought cupcakes to share. She’s testing them out for some kind of upcoming event, maybe a wedding. She has brought vanilla and chocolate cupcakes to sample with different colors and flavors of icing.
I watch her spread strawberry icing on white cupcakes. The pink color is lovely, especially against the fancy teal wrapper that she is holding up to the cupcake to check the effect.
This attention to detail is why they are knitters and I am not. Every Thursday, they sit for hours, talking pleasantly, showing each other pictures in knitting books, creating adorable fuzzy sweaters with intricate textures and embellishments. They show off their work to one another proudly. It’s an amazing amount of effort to put into something that you could buy at the store for forty dollars. Just like the cupcakes: the careful planning, the sampling, the color-coordination, all for something that will be admired for a moment and then gobbled up, distractedly, to become just a bunch of junky, non-nutritious calories in someone’s stomach.
Cupcakes are a precious kind of food. Adults like them for the same reasons that children like candy: they are self-contained and aesthetically pleasing. The visual contrast between cake, frosting, and wrapper provides the grown-up version of the tiers in a candy-corn or one of those giant striped lollipops that I once spent a month eating when I was five. The particular pink and teal combination being sampled by the knitting ladies appeals directly to that aspect of my six-year-old psyche that allowed me to spend a full half-hour staring at a plastic My Little Pony doll—purple, with a turquoise mane and tail—sighing to myself, “You are so cute.” The knitters are cooing over the cupcakes in the same way: “So pretty,” they say.
The flavors are just as carefully crafted for maximum grown-up fetishizing. The combinations at the trendy cupcake bakeries—lemon-rose, chocolate-chili, strawberry-mint—make us eager to try all of them. And we can, because this is not a cake, which provides a whole lot of one flavor, and is portioned out in little slices at events like weddings so that we are not allowed to go back for more—but a cupcake, a teeny single portion, so that we can get two or three, maybe some for later, especially since we can purchase them individually.
On this particular day at the tea shop, I have not been eating sweets for a month, which makes the cupcakes more appealing but also more egregiously unnecessary. As someone who sees food in a fairly perfunctory way, it’s difficult enough to fathom why someone would spend hours preparing a carefully layered lasagna when they could just dump a pile of noodles, vegetables, and cheese haphazardly onto a plate with the same end result. To expend so much energy on food with no nutritional value seems pornographically decadent, a flagrant disregard for the mores of my own subculture of healthy eaters. I take a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in watching them spread the frosting, peel off the wrappers, so reckless and debauched, seizing the day, because we could all be shot dead by takeover robbers in an hour and I would have squandered my final moments staring greedily while I sipped my sterile green tea.
Physically, these women are very different from me. I always notice it. Their bodies are soft and supple and padded. They don’t look like they spend a lot of time running sprints or lifting heavy things, although they might do these things. Sitting amongst their balls of yarn and padded knitting bags and colorful cupcakes, they look as soft and comforting as the fuzzy sweaters and scarves that pour from their needles onto their laps.
However, despite our differences, I feel a strong connection to the knitters. Maybe it’s because I see them every week, or maybe it’s because they, like me, choose to spend endless hours at a tea shop working on an artistic undertaking that will probably go largely unnoticed and unappreciated. I know in my heart that I am also a knitter, a cupcake maker, pouring my diligent effort into something that hardly matters to anyone but me. Then again, maybe that’s what we all do: spend our entire lives creating intricate little worlds that only matter to ourselves.
Thanks to Adam Caldwell for the illustration.