The clearest example of supply and demand economics that I ever encountered was among a group of third graders in an elementary school cafeteria. Every parent who packs lunch for his or her child knows that a certain amount of food trading is likely to occur. What I don’t think any of us realized is how sophisticated and organized the system is.
My moment of clarity came one afternoon when my daughter made a specific request. “Mommy,” she said, “next time you go to the store, could you get me some mini-Oreos?”
“The little ones are really cute, aren’t they?” I responded, in an attempt to forge another bond of understanding and goodwill. Besides, I have a weakness for tiny things and I was not immune to the cute factor.
“Better things? What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled. “What kind of better things?”
“Well, Stephanie’s mom always gives her chips for lunch. Today she traded me 3 chips for one of my cookies. But she gave 10 chips to Mary yesterday because Mary had the little Oreos and she likes those better. If I have the little Oreos I can trade 3 of them for 10 chips and I’ll still have some Oreos to eat. Or I can trade more of them and get the whole bag.”
Fascinated, I asked for more detail. It turned out that the system of trades and values was much more complex than just Oreos and chips. The hierarchy encompassed different flavors of cookies, taking into account the relative merits of home-baked versus store-bought. In general, store-bought had the edge because quality was more reliable, as were the sizes. Marian, whose father traveled overseas, sometimes brought special Belgian cookies. These were prized for their exoticism and their rarity. My daughter was able to achieve similar success with the puffy little cheese balls we bought occasionally.
For some reason, cake was not a big seller, so if a person happened to prefer cake to tiny cardboard cookie sandwiches, s/he could get quite a large chunk for very little outlay of said cardboard. Otherwise-popular items could be devalued due to undesirable conditions. If the lunch included a banana, for example, the pervasive banana smell would render cookies virtually untradeable.
Homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies — and one mother’s tiny cupcakes — transcended the usual rule. Their perceived desirability was enough to garner the pick of the table, making them the bearer bonds of lunch table currency.
An aside here: both my daughter and I were aware that my baking efforts would hold little value in this elaborate economic hierarchy. I remember once sweating over brownie cupcakes with candy centers for a classroom event. At the end of the day, a mother from another class commented that the cupcakes looked tasty. My daughter responded, “They’re really good. You should take some.” Thrilled to my core at her endorsement, I pursued it when we got to the car. “Honey, you really liked the brownies?” She replied, “No, but if other people eat them we won’t have to take them home.”
Now for the Cupcake Part
Although a more reasonable person probably would have bowed to the inevitable and started buying baked goods when the occasion called for them, I doggedly persisted with my efforts. One Halloween, I spent six (yes, SIX) hours making special cupcakes for the class party. They were mini-chocolate cupcakes, decorated to look like spiders.
First, they had to be baked (the easy part), then frosted with chocolate and covered with chocolate sprinkles to give an appropriately “hairy” look. After that, each of the 60 cupcakes (yes, I deluded myself into thinking people might want more than one) had to be decorated. Two little red candies, carefully placed, for the eyes (120, in case anybody is counting). Then the real fun. Red licorice shoelaces had to be cut into 2″ lengths for legs. (Shall I wait while you get your calculator? That’s right: 480 little legs, each of which had to be inserted separately into the little cupcake “bodies.”)
It was a lot of work, but I figured it was worth it, for the joy I would be bringing to the kids. Apparently, my decorating job was pretty convincing: several children thought the spiders were real and cried when they saw them. On the other hand, one of the fathers – an entomologist – was so excited by the cupcakes that he begged for some to take back to his lab. I have visions of them nestled in cotton and placed behind glass, curious specimens to be studied and classified. Araneus cioccolata exotica.
I’m sure at least one was dissected.
The Ice Cream Cone Cupcakes
I made Ice Cream Cone Cupcakes for my daughter’s class one year and am obliged to confess that my string of baking failures remains unbroken. I have no affinity for baking and nothing I make ever works out as planned. A fundamental reason for this is that I jump in without properly assessing the project. In the case of these cupcakes, I saw a picture of them somewhere and figured: How difficult can it be to make these? All I have to do is make some batter from a mix, pour it into some cones, and bake them. I figured the cones were an equivalent replacement for those little frilled cups, so what was the big deal?
Here’s what went wrong.
First of all, the cones held somewhat more batter than those little paper cups, so the baking times were off. I discovered this when the timer beeped and the cupcakes were still gooey. So then there was this annoying cycle of me putting the cupcakes back into the oven for awhile, lancing them with a skewer (they were too deep for toothpicks, of course) to test doneness. The toothpick thing was just about the only thing I remembered from my Home Ec class.
Second, the batter softened the bottom of the cones, due to the extremely long time it took me to fill them. For this slowness I must blame the perfect storm created by my inexperience and my general lack coordination. The bottoms became so soft that the batter broke through in places. From a conceptual standpoint, the result wasn’t bad — my cupcakes looked eerily like real, melting, ice cream cones. However, since transporting them that way wasn’t possible, what I ended up with was the cone with a frill of globby crumbs at the bottom.
The Star Cupcakes
Not an Unmitigated Disaster
One year, though, I did manage to make cupcakes that came out looking and tasting pretty much as they should. For this I thank my friend Jennie, who is a fabulous baker and who was visiting me at the time. Excited at the prospect of finally producing an edible result, I rushed out and bought tins for making star-shaped cupcakes. The baking went fine and the buttercream frosting (Jennie’s special recipe) spread easily, thanks to her handy tip about freezing the cupcakes before frosting.
Of course, butter-cream icing is a trifle soft for a kid’s party, lacking the slightly crunchy, slightly stiff finish of more traditional birthday frosting. So the cupcakes were a little messy for kids to eat. For days after the party little tracks of butter-cream would suddenly materialize on my rug.
Inevitably, there was one little girl who announced that she did not like the frosting. That’s when I knew I was starting to figure out about kid birthday parties, because I didn’t have my usual panic reaction. Instead, I said, “Well, turn it over and eat it from the back.” And she did.
There were other cupcakes during my daughter’s childhood and not all of them were disasters. Some were at least minimally edible and not too scary. I do remember experimenting with food coloring for the cake part. Unfortunately, those attempts didn’t yield the hoped-for, attractively-hued results. The worst ones were the cupcakes I tried to dye blue. The color was lovely in the mixing bowl. However, when baked, they resembled a blend of dryer lint and mold. I had to throw those out. Even my husband — who is determinedly uncritical of my cooking efforts — refused to eat them.