The Cupcake Strategy for Surviving High School
One of my favorite artifacts of my early relationship with my now-husband is a Facebook post he left me in February of 2008. It was the spring of our senior year in high school. He was an 18-year-old, Birkenstock-wearing, slightly overconfident soccer player who had probably spoken a grand total of 22 words to me in the five years we had been going to school together.
Thanks again for the cupcakes. They were honestly the best.
Even then, at the height of my high school’s Facebook obsession, he was more or less silent on social media, so his digital plug for my baking came as a total surprise — honestly.
But let me back up a bit.
Earlier that year, my best friend and I had gotten into the routine of toting homemade baked goods through the hallways, sharing them with anyone who asked. It wasn’t our intention to use our kitchen skills to start conversations with the “coolest” guys at school. It became clear pretty quickly, though, that only the most self-assured of our classmates would actually take us up on the offer. And in the way of almost every stereotypical high-school movie you’ve ever seen, the majority of our fellow students with that much confidence were the athletic boys.
It’s amazing how much attention you attract in a high school hallway at 8 a.m. when you have half a dozen heavily frosted green cupcakes in hand.
My friend and I were both nice girls who flew under the radar socially. Both involved in lots of extra-curricular activities, we were well-liked and friendly with people across different groups.
It was easy enough for us to smile and wave at pretty much anyone we met in the hallways, but we preferred hanging out with each other or with our families when we weren’t at school. Both of us had grown up baking, counting stirs with wooden spoons and sneaking licks of raw brownie batter, and as high-school homebodies, we turned it into a social activity.
The pantry at her house was usually stocked with whatever ingredients we might need. And even though we both prided ourselves on having perfected more complex recipes, we tended, during this period, toward simple boxed mixes that we would tweak to make them extra special.
Food coloring was used without restraint, and every concoction was a deep shade of green, blue, or purple. We also mixed just about anything that can be mixed into cupcake batter — crumbled cookies, candy chunks, cookie dough, balls of icing.
Our hands were busy, which helped channel the seemingly world-ending anxiety brought on by college applications and Advanced Placement classes. Baking together brought us even closer, and so did the finished product. Nothing is better than eating hot cookies moments after they come out of the oven — unless you’re doing it with your best friend (and a teenager’s metabolism).
One of our cupcake projects yielded more than we could eat, even with the help of our younger siblings. My friend decided that the best solution would be to bring the leftovers to school and hand them out to our classmates. We split the cupcakes into two Tupperwares, and each agreed to carry one through the halls the following day until they had all been polished off.
It’s hard to be intimidated by someone whose fingers are clumsily covered in starchy frosting — and it’s easier to strike up a polite rapport with them over a shared love of sugar.
It’s amazing how much attention you attract in a high school hallway at 8 a.m. when you have half a dozen heavily frosted green cupcakes in hand. People who I would only barely call polite acquaintances were quick to smile at me a bit bigger, as if just the sight of an inherently fun dessert like a cupcake suddenly made up for the fact that they had been dragged out of bed and into our prison of learning.
By the end of that day, I think we’d had a hand in fueling members of the soccer, baseball, and lacrosse teams. I realized that the boys who I was usually so shy around were actually a lot less intimidating than I’d made them out to be. It’s hard to be intimidated by someone whose fingers are clumsily covered in starchy frosting — and it’s easier to strike up a polite rapport with them over a shared love of sugar.
My friend and I were so amused by the situation that we decided to do it again — and again after that. About once a week, you could find us carrying our baking overflow through the halls in increasingly larger Tupperwares, often passing helpings off to gangly boys in practice jerseys as they hurried to catch the bus to a game.
I had so little experience with dating or romance at this point in my life, and our endeavor hardly registered with me as something even remotely flirtatious. Instead, it was the first time I really understood the way food can be a gateway between people.
For my community of dessert-craving, socially awkward high schoolers, it was simple cupcakes, yellow and Funfetti mixes whipped up straight from the box, pumped full of food dye, and slathered in canned frosting. The messy, over-sweet snacks that my friend and I had made mostly because we were bored were breaking down the nerves that had been keeping me an arm’s length from so many people throughout my adolescent life.
At the beginning, most of my interactions with these new friends were more or less transactional; soon, they become more complimentary; and within a few weeks, our conversations turned from baked goods to homework, college applications, and weekend plans.
It was the first time I really understood the way food can be a gateway between people.
While I was still baking and packing up my Tupperware often, I was gaining enough confidence to jump into conversations even when I didn’t have a container of sweets acting as a buffer between me and the other person. Simply by sharing my love of baking and putting myself a few steps beyond my comfort zone, I had managed to vastly widen my social circle.
My now-husband was part of that wider circle. In the nine years since he shyly posted on my Facebook to thank me for sharing a treat with him, food — especially of the dessert variety — has continued to inform our love story.
I still bake for him regularly. Although I try for more elevated recipes these days, there’s something about the taste of cupcakes mixed from a box or cookies sliced from a refrigerated roll that always reminds me of the sweetness that comes from sharing love through even the most simple kinds of food, and from using it to find connection with other people.