Thursday, August 5, 2010

Shortcuts Help Us Try: Duncan Hines

Last week, I happily attended an event at the Cupcake Cafe in Chelsea. I almost never eschew an invitation for free food, and cupcakes for breakfast seemed an indulgence one definitely deserves during the doldrums of summer.

The event was the live judging of Duncan Hines' Red Carpet Cupcake Challenge in which a panel of distinguished judges, including Cupcake Cafe owner Ann Warren and a collection of foodie editors such as Betsy Andrews from Saveur, munched away at finalist cupcake concoctions based on the baking mix, among them Devilly Good Chocolate Peanut Buter Truffle Cupcakes and Elegant Pina Colada Cupcakes.

I wrote about packaged-goods marketing for more than a decade and I am, as a result, often a skeptic. But Duncan Hines is my go-to birthday party cake mix, the one I rely on as my base when I nervously try (often in vain) to recreate Pokemon's Pikachu or an inchworm, or a campfire or, last year, badly, a block of Legos.

So it was with mixed emotions that I put the question to the cupcake queen, Ann Warren, whose detailed, flowery cupcakes crept up around her fabulous bakery amongst those of the packaged-mix contest entries.

"Is it weird to have Duncan Hines here?" I said.

She shrugged. "It's fun," she said, wiping at the crumbs around her mouth from doing the hard work of judging, "and, you know, a lot of people use Duncan Hines and then do these elaborate other things, with all these other ingredients, it's amazing."

She was on to something, I knew from my personal experience. Sometimes you need a starting point, a base you can trust and then build upon. Starting from scratch, trusting only yourself, is hard, sometimes so hard we do nothing at all. I have to remind myself sometimes and remember to remind others, if they are so in need, that it is not always crucial to reinvent the wheel. That others who have come before us, like traveling salesman, food critic and book author from the '40s Duncan Hines, sometimes have great ideas that we can get behind to make our lives a little easier.

While we don't want to get too complacent, while reliance on convenience foods has, as we've seen, created a too-strong taste for unnecessary salt and sugar, for processed flavors, in moderation these things can be good, especially if they get us to do things like bake. Baking, I'd argue, is a metaphor for giving, for love, even from a box. It is a joyous event, a community builder, if you will, if, in fact, you share said baking with the world.

During the school year, many times a month, I can be seen walking down the block with baked goods for one or another fundraiser, to feed visiting authors or my kids' classmates and teachers and faculty. The plates on which I place these baked goods--cupcakes from a Duncan Hines base topped with my own simple buttermilk frosting (butter, powdered sugar and a little milk, a little vanilla or chocolate if I so choose) or banana bread or oatmeal cookies with some chocolate chips thrown in--are well known in the office of PS107, they always keep them for me.

So I give out a big gold star to inventor Duncan Hines and to the contest entrants who took the time and energy to give it their best, to bake their way to fame, or at least try. The winner, Katie Rousonelos, whose Red Velvet "Red Carpet Glamour" recipe will make it to the Emmy's, held her face in her hands and cried as the Duncan Hines' folks finally reached her via Skype.  It was awesome. Sometimes, most of the time, trying pays off. At the very least, you can say you tried, and that definitely counts for something.

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