Jan 16

Let’s See if I Can Tape This All Together

What do cupcakes and chocolate have in common? I guess that’s pretty obvious, but Scotch Tape?

In September 2009 Scientific American devoted an entire issue to “Origins” and I’ve chosen three of my favorites to link together here.

First up: cupcakes: where and when were they invented, and whence the name?


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The point of this “Origins” blurb is that the cupcake is probably an American invention, first noted in 1826, and was likely a variant of the British “pound cake.” I’m not much of a baker, so I used my mathematical propensities to come up with a likely explanation for the names of these two cakes. A pound cake, I reasoned, weighed a pound, and I remember my mother’s folk wisdom, which she drummed into me when I was young and learning about such things in the world, “A pint is a pound, the world round,” she would chant whenever I asked her how many ounces were in a cup or a pint or a quart. As it turns out, things are a lot more complicated than that, but my childhood understanding that a pint of water weighed about a pound, and both contained 16 ounces, made it easier for me to do conversions.

So, when I read that the American cupcake is a downsized version of the British pound cake, and being familiar with the traditional shape of the cupcake, I immediately fantasized that cupcakes must have been baked in small cups, unlike the pound cake, which must have been baked in pint-sized mugs.


In this miraculous Age of the Interwebs, I was able to discover that the origin of the name “pound cake” came from its simple proportions: one pound each of flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. This recipe became popular in the early 1700s, perhaps because it was an easy one to remember. A cake of any size, made with these same ingredients in equal proportions, is called a pound cake.

Although my intuition about the origin of the cupcake name seems to have more support among food historians than the explanation given in the SciAm version, there seems to be some disagreement as to when the name first appeared. Some sources have 1828, instead of the 1826 mentioned here. In any case, the 1796 date is often cited as the date of the first known recipe, published under the name “a light cake to bake in small cups” — a recipe which gives the lie to the idea that it is simply a smaller pound cake, both upon inspection and because the author gives a separate recipe for a pound cake. .

_A light Cake to bake in small cups_.

Half a pound sugar, half a pound butter, rubbed into two pounds flour,
one glass wine, one do rose water, two do. emptins, a nutmeg, cinnamon
and currants.

Evidently the “small cups” referred to any cups that happened to be available, not to the 8-ounce standard measure of a “cup” or “glass” that came to be used later. Metal baking trays came later still, and the paper holders we are familiar with did not come into widespread use until the 1950s.

Early cupcake recipes often followed the “1234” formula, which also makes it clear that they were not a smaller version of the pound cake. “Quarter cakes” these were sometimes called, not because of their size, but because of their four ingredients: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs.

In my excursions through the history of cakes, I noticed (not for the first time) that many older references used the word “receipts” in the same way we now use “recipe” — these words have related etymologies.

In the Middle Ages, a doctor’s instructions for taking a drug would begin with the Latin word recipe, literally, “take!” Recipe is a form used in commands of the verb recipere, meaning “to take” or “to receive.” The verb receive itself comes from Latin recipere, but through French—as does the word receipt, which was once commonly used to mean “recipe.” From its use as a name for a drug prescription, recipe extended its meaning to cover instructions for making other things we consume, such as prepared food.

The “recipe” in a drug prescription is now universally abbreviated to “Rx” — I imagine that most people don’t know what it stands for.

I wonder if my mother ever knew that the British Empire used the Imperial Pint of 20 ounces. There were still 8 pints in a gallon, making the Imperial Gallon 25% more voluminous than the American version. Also, as I discovered in my trips to Canada back in the day, 25% more expensive. MPG were better, though.

I trusted my mother’s keen sense of practicality when it came to dealing with life’s pragmatic challenges. I remember chatting with her one time in the early 1970s, about 10 years after I had left Stockbridge to move to Springfield. I can’t fix the exact date, but I know it was after the moon landing in 1969, and before she moved out of our old house in South Lee, eventually to become the first resident of the new housing project for the elderly in Stockbridge named Heaton Court, after a brief stay in an apartment near the end of Park Street, the street where we had lived in my early childhood.

There was no television set in our home for most of my growing-up years. It remained that way until my mother won a small black-and-white set in a charity raffle conducted by the Elm Street Market. I suspected that Mike Abdulla might have put in the fix for her, probably knowing that we were one of few families in town without a TV. But perhaps is was just a stroke of good luck. In any case, it became a fixture in the house, though in my teenage years I spent less and less time at home, so didn’t really watch it much.

On that day I remember, I looked at the TV set, and that set me to thinking about how our family had made a tardy move into that era. I used to watch TV at friends’ houses, although my mother placed a strict limit of 2 hours on Saturday and 1 hour per day during the week. I had to choose carefully. The first time I ever saw a TV show was in the Rinsma’s house on Yale Court. We were invited over to watch their new set. The screen was probably 8 or 10 inches on the diagonal, set inside a huge cabinet, and it was hard to see, what with all the people crowded into the living room. The show we were eager to see was live, as were most shows in those early days. Finally, the time arrived, and Ed Sullivan came beaming into our midst.

While pondering that, I remembered many of my mother’s stories of her youth. She had told me that when she lived on Hawthorne Road in Stockbridge in the late 1920s, there were still more people using a horse and buggy to get around than were driving automobiles. She also told me about the early days of radio, and of the trolley cars that used to ply the Berkshires. We would take the train from Stockbridge to Pittsfield once a year to visit Santa Claus at England Brothers Department Store on North Street. That was where I saw and rode, for the first time, an escalator and an elevator!

When I was young, and we were living on Park Street, we had an ice box. It was an exciting day when our first refrigerator was delivered. For years after that, though, my mother would refer to it as an ice box. “Mom!” we would object, “it’s not an ice box, it’s a fridge!” Similarly, she called aluminum foil “tinfoil” because that’s what it had been when she was growing up.

Breaking out of my reverie, I wanted to know what my mother thought of all those changes. “Mom,” I said, “you’ve seen a lot of new technology during your lifetime. You’ve seen automobiles come into common use, you’ve witnessed the advent of television, you know that I work with computers that didn’t exist just a few years ago, and now you’ve seen a man walk on the moon. This must all seem rather astounding to you. I’m just wondering, of all these marvels, and with all the other new things you’ve seen, which one would you say has made the most difference in your life?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, she answered

Yes, that’s right, she said, “Scotch Tape!”

I would never have guessed that. I could see how she might say mimeograph machines, or color film, or something fairly prosaic, given her penchant for down-to-earth results, but Scotch Tape?! That took the cake.

And we can take the cake into the realm of chocolate. My friends Joe and Roxanne have recently experimented with several dietary changes, and have rejected most of them, but have decided to stick with being gluten-free. Needless to say, this has become quite trendy of late, with an article I read not long ago asserting that one-third of Americans are trying to cut back on or eliminate gluten from their diet. I had no intention of being a trend-setter when I moved away from eating gluten about 15 years ago. I had been very sick for quite some time before I figured out the cause.

In my early days of being gluten-free, obtaining bread, pasta, and other basics was next to impossible. Mostly, they were available only in health-food stores, and what was on offer was often unappealing in terms of taste or texture. As more people have discovered that going to a gluten-free diet makes them feel better, demand has increased to the point that almost every restaurant has identified which items on the menu are gluten-free, and supermarkets have special gluten-free sections.

Joe had a milestone birthday last September, and Roxanne secretly made a chocolate cake for him to bring and share with our hiking group. The cake was a big hit, with everyone (me included) exclaiming, “This is gluten-free?” in disbelief.

Joe, being the cook of the family, has shared with me many tips on brands to try of bread, pancake mix, and the like. I’ve been a little hesitant to get into chocolate cake production, however, since I think substituting sugar for gluten is probably not the way to a healthy lifestyle. Chocolate, however, now that’s a different story! At a recent party at their house, chocolate cupcakes were on offer. I begged to be able to take one home, and I was presented with not one, but three, as well as some chocolate chip cookies.

This short piece extols the health benefits of chocolate. The cupcake version comes with a fair amount of sugar, I suppose (I don’t really want to know!). Everything in moderation, I’m told.

Also, I note,

Chocolate may also be good for the mind: a recent study in Norway found that elderly men consuming chocolate, wine, or tea — all flavonoid-rich foods — performed better on cognitive tests.

I don’t know what their definition of “elderly” was, but I’m not taking any chances! Excuse me; I need to go get another cup of coffee.

1 comment

  1. Roxanne

    Wow…I never would have thought that you would actually be able to tie this all together, but you did. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey from cupcakes to scotch tape, to chocolate. I even enjoyed the brief excursions into the world of TV and the Ed Sullivan show. Thanks for a great read.

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