The icing on the cake

April 30, 2012

Google Alerts drew my attention to an article last week on Cambodia that got me thinking, and I thought I’d share the essence of it (- I won’t link to it: it was on a website I loathe, and I refuse to drive traffic to it. It was also abysmally written.).

It was about a new charity enterprise in Phnom Penh; a café that caters to Westerners while offering training and employment to local women. Now, there are plenty of places doing that sort of thing here in Phnom Penh. Restaurants like Romdeng and Friends are famous for taking the desperately needy and teaching them a useful trade which tourists can feel good about. They do an excellent job.

But this new café offers a slightly more esoteric skill for local women: cupcake decoration. Yes, this café (“an unexpected urban oasis in which your eyes and taste buds can feast on world class, magically-decorated cupcakes, cakes and cookies”) offers 12-week training sessions after which the women “receive a Hospitality Certificate with a specialty in Cake Decorating”. Then, “over the next year or two”, somewhere unspecified, “the women become world class cake decorating and sugar-craft professionals”.

So here’s my problem: there’s absolutely no doubt that Cambodia desperately needs education and training, and than any employment is better than none. But ‘sugar-craft professionals’? Is that really what this country needs? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on doctors, nurses, engineers and teachers?

Or have I got this wrong? Is this a good and valid way of trying to empower this country?

I don’t much care for cupcakes. As The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker put it recently: “Cupcakes used to be known as fairy cakes, until something happened a few years ago. I don’t know what the thing was, because I wasn’t paying attention. All I know is that suddenly middle-class tosspoles everywhere were holding artisan cupcakes aloft and looking at them and pointing and making cooing sounds and going on and bloody on about how much they loved them. I wouldn’t mind, but cupcakes are bullshit. And everyone knows it. A cupcake is just a muffin with clown puke topping … Actual slices of cake are infinitely superior, as are moist chocolate brownies, warm chocolate-chip cookies and virtually any other dessert you can think of. Cupcakes are for people who can’t handle reality.”

I’m sure most rational people would agree that cupcakes are a fad. So are they something we should be training people to decorate, to pin their future on? A few years ago we might have been teaching them to be Tamagotchi programmers, or Rubik’s Cube mechanics, after all.

The café was founded by “a mother of two from Brisbane, Australia, who found she could use her passion for cake decorating to provide economic opportunity for vulnerable women in Cambodia … with the affirmation and encouragement of her church”. I’m sure she’s great, and cares deeply about what she’s doing here.

But the sheer obnoxiousness of a bunch of self-righteous religious Queensland housefraus deciding that what Cambodia really needs is savagely overpriced cupcakes, notable for their “whimsical and sophisticated design” rather than just having a bake sale and sending the proceeds to a proper charity, makes me shake my head in sorrow.  But I’m willing to be corrected. Anyone who has any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

And on the subject of Cambodian women, I came across the following video the other day, made, I think, by the country’s Ministry for Women. It’s utterly sweet, and well worth three minutes of anyone’s time. If this doesn’t make you smile, you’ve probably got icing for brains.

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6 Responses to “The icing on the cake”

  1. Nicola said

    I think you have let your personal feelings about cupcakes get in the way of what could be a very worthwhile venture, which embodies the Ministry of Women’s video. The question is not whether you or I like cupcakes (i prefer a Victoria Sponge any day – you get icing in the middle and on the top!) but whether Cambodians are going to fall in love with cupcakes or are there enough cupcake loving tourists to support a new cupcake industry.? If the answer to either of these is yes then this charity should be seen as just as worthy as any other job that empowers women to provide for their families.

    You belittle the cupcake as a passing fad but I think you should check out your facts; the first cupcake was recorded in 1796 and was popularised in the US in the 19th century – hardly a passing fad. The latest nostalgia craze for cupcakes is hardly a rubik’s cube or tamagothci fad, Magnolia Bakery was started in 1996 and the first cupcake blog was started in 2004. The love of cupcakes has spawned an industry across the Western world. which may, just may be starting to spread to Cambodia.

    I suggest, when your leg is better, you pop along to Bloom cafe and purchase a red velvet cupcake for blossom!

  2. Catherine Klingel said

    I loved the video and happen to agree with you on the matter of cupcakes…pie is always better! Hope you are healing as I imagine you are since your sense of outrage is very much in tact. Give Blossom a huge hug for me. Catherine

  3. Mark said

    Completely agree about bloody cupcakes, Rupert. With so many skills needed in Cambodia, this lady’s time and effort would be better used elsewhere to give the women universal and lasting skills.

    We’ve heard your cupcake propaganda before, Nicola. If I don’t get a ‘proper’ cake when we come to stay in a few weeks, I am going to provoke Richard into a weekend-long argument about something completely pointless and trivial (OK, that’s going to happen anyway, but I will still be cross!).

    Great video. I love the way Cambodians are able to mix naivety with seriousness in a way the doesn’t turn out cheesy.

    Hope the leg is getting better. Mark & Jo.

  4. There is a Filipino lady who lives in my home town and has been there for over 5 years. She does domestic work for a private family and has a very limited social life outside of her job. She has sent all of her savings back home with which her family has been able to buy 5 properties that they rent out, put her three sons through higher education and bought a small travel agency business.

    Being in a similar trade I know what it feels like to have people look down their nose at me as being somehow morally deficient for ‘doing the work of a prole.’ Whilst the story of the Filipino lady is somewhat reverse colonialism, I think we should never denigrate a profession that enables people and communities to escape from poverty.

    I guess the issue with the cupcake training scheme is, as Nicola says; how sustainable is it? As we are seeing in the UK today with the majority our most educated graduates working in high finance, a diverse approach is not a bad idea…. just don’t make high end cupcakes for a banker – it will only encourage them!

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