I don’t know how I ended up at the Michigan Renaissance Festival, but once I heard bagpipes and a cannon go off, I felt right at home.
“Is there a quiet reading corner for people who get overwhelmed?” said A, as we braved the crowd piling into the festival grounds. It was Scottish Highlands week. I lost count of the number of kilts, but two of them were on dogs (unfortunately neither of them were the actual Scottish Wolfhound but he looked like he was having a wonderful time in his element nonetheless) and one was on a guy who was also dressed as a bear.
I was nervous about bringing Lumi, but my sweet little anxiety fluffball who used to be so hesitant and skittish with strangers fit right into festival life. And everyone wanted to pet her! I couldn’t get five feet without being stopped—at one point Lumi had four kids with painted faces and princess costumes petting her, and she was basking in the love of her public like a movie star. She happily watched the joust and a bird show and even stopped for a drink at the Puppy’s Pub.
A tried her hand at archery and throwing knives, spears, stars, and axes. She passed on the opportunity to throw actual tomatoes at the jesters, because “I just don’t like wasting tomatoes.”
I started fading after about hour 5 of Celtic music and vendors saying “We take Master Card and Lady Visa!” (It was funny the first fifty times). I’d enjoyed our adventure, but didn’t feel the need to return.
Until I saw the sign for the Cupcake Crusade.
“Hmm, there’s a cupcake contest the last week of the festival,” I said.
A guy in chain mail pulled a wagon full of kids past us, and Lumi tried in vain to share their open bag of chips.
“First prize is $200 and a season pass, a sweatshirt and a tankard, second prize is the pass, sweatshirt and a tankard, third is the sweatshirt and tankard,” said A. “What’s a tankard? Like a tank top?”
“No, it’s that tall mug they have in the gift shop,” I said.
A slammed down her ice cream waffle.
“YOU GOTTA GET THAT TANKARD!” she said.
“We could just buy one in the gift shop,” I said.
“Anyone can do that!” said A. “And we’ll have a season pass for next year! We can bring your mom to the bird show for free!”
“I’m not going to win,” I said. “I don’t even make cupcakes.”
“You’ll win,” said A, like she was commanding an army. “You watch Bake-Off all the time! Your cupcakes will be the best! THE BEST!”
“That’s magical thinking!”
“That’s the only kind of thinking I have!”
Needless to say, as soon as we got home, I got to work. Even though I have actual real work that demands my actual real attention, all I could think about were cupcakes.
I needed 12 cupcakes in 3 flavors, that would be judged on both taste and design. I don’t know how the people on Bake-Off select their recipes without freaking out: should I go for savory flavors to stand out? Or classic sweet flavors that might be boring? Should I try fruit fillings? Or nuts? OR BOTH? Did you know they sell fancy cupcake wrappers on Amazon with filigree designs? Should I buy those and go with a tribute to Art Nouveau in cupcake form? Or something a little less niche, like a design inspired by my favorite World Showcase pavilions at Epcot?
(Yes, these are all real ideas that I had. I know this because I made a spreadsheet of ideas when I should have been doing something else).
I wisely tabled my salute to silent film and chose two recipes inspired by the flavors of the fair—but then I got three hours of sleep because I couldn’t stop going over my options for the third spot. Could I pull off an ice cream waffle cupcake? Or something that would evoke both archery and roasted almonds? (Real ideas!)
Around 3 AM, it hit me—unicorns. The final piece in the thematic puzzle. There was a unicorn grilled cheese at this thing, how could I lose?
The mental gymnastics portion was complete. Now it was time for baking gymnastics. My test batches went well, thanks to the spreadsheet I made for ingredients, but when it was time to bake for the big day, my first batch of rainbows was a little less than fabulous, so I had to try again.
I baked 58 cupcakes in 24 hours. I became an assembly line of one person. To entertain myself while I worked, I imagined explaining my flavors to Mary Berry, and my imaginary Mary Berry was very supportive, especially once I cracked open a Guinness.
I called my first flavor “GOT Guinness?” because children of the ’90s will never, ever escape “Got milk?” jokes. I found the recipe here and it worked really well. I don’t know anything about beer or Guinness but A told me to buy Guinness Stout in a can, not a bottle, so that’s what I did. I had to simmer it on the stove with the butter and cocoa powder, which felt very dangerous, especially because I kept confusing the dials on my stove and almost setting myself on fire.
I forged my swords from the finest Valyrian aluminum foil while watching British Bake-Off and took solace in watching fellow gays struggle with math under pressure.
I dubbed my next flavor “Kettle Corn Cupcakes” even though the recipe was for caramel corn cupcakes (I’M CREATIVE). I picked out liners with vertical stripes so they’d look like old-fashioned popcorn bags. I also bought real vanilla beans (they are expensive!) and learned how to scrape out the seeds, which made me feel extremely cool and like I could forage for sustenance in a jungle, which I could not.
Next were my “Rainbow Unicorns”—because I overcomplicate things, I tried to get ahead of my own brain by finding a simple recipe that seemed foolproof. Maybe it was too simple? I’m also not good at piping. I don’t have the intrinsic hand strength to pull it off. Especially at 10:30 at night. I was so tired.
I finally put my cupcakes to bed around 11:30, after triple-checking that I had, indeed, selected my 12 best cupcakes to go to the big show (that’s 4 of each flavor if I have 3 flavors, right? RIGHT?). I set them up verrrry carefully in my best cake carrying case, then picked out 9 understudies for my other carrying case as back-ups in case someone got smushed or crumbled under pressure. The rest of the 58 (well, more like 54 at this point, I got hungry) were frosted and staged in plastic containers ready to be given out to friends and family. That’s what baking is all about, isn’t it? Sharing good things with the people you love?
(No! It’s about VICTORY TANKARDS).
I had been baking and decorating since 9:30 in the morning. I set my alarm for 6 AM (on a WEEKEND) and tried to sleep quickly, which did not work.
Lumi was so excited to return to the Renaissance Festival, even though it was raining and she had to share the back of the car with about 40 cupcakes.
I somehow managed to park, get my ticket, turn in Lumi’s dog registration, trek through the entire mud-soaked festival in the pouring rain with my dog and my cupcake carrying case and find the “Crystal Palace” where this thing was going down.
I had no idea where I was going but I forged ahead and tried not to slip in the mud. I heard two ladies behind me say, “Is it this way? That girl has cupcakes and she’s going this way.”
I yelled “FOLLOW ME!” and led a cupcake charge up a very small incline, and turned in my cupcakes in with SIX MINUTES to spare.
I sank into a chair and waited for the judging to start. Stella and her super-extroverted new boyfriend joined me, already on their first mead of the day.
“You got this, buddy!” said Stella, rubbing my shoulders like she was my coach. “Dude, you are tense.”
The judging portion was fun and light and everyone was having a good time, which is the most important thing, but I was a nervous wreck and just wanted to leave—they really do need a quiet corner for people who get overwhelmed.
I couldn’t even check out the other contenders—some of them looked so professional with their piping and decorations, they put my little swords to shame.
Still, the MC held up one of my Iron Thrones to show off to the crowd.
“That’s a good sign!” said Stella.
Stella is the most optimistic person I know. We’ve had a lot of dark moments together through decades of friendship, eleven of which were with the same piano teacher, but she’s never lost that buoyant streak of “Everything will be great even though it’s scientifically impossible.”
As the judges finished eating all 81 contending cupcakes (there were 27 people and we each made 3 flavors, so that’s right, isn’t it?) and started filling out their score sheets, the MC went around and asked for their early favorites.
“I loved the kettle corn one,” said one judge.
“THAT’S YOU!” screamed Stella’s new boyfriend.
Most of what he says, he screams. That’s fine, just not a communication style I endorse.
“I saw that judge lick her fingers!” said Stella. “She was eating one of yours! She didn’t do that with any of the others!”
But one person made cupcake teacups with chocolate handles, another made a castle centerpiece with sugar cubes, and someone else did Shakespeare themed flavors (GENIUS! Why didn’t I think of that?).
In the end, I didn’t make it to the next round. Stella sweet-talked her way into seeing my score sheet and she said that I was close—and that the judge who liked my kettle corn cupcakes wanted the recipe. That’s quite a compliment—it’s not a tankard, but I’ll take it.
I’d been so nervous that I hadn’t eaten anything, so we broke into my carrying case of understudy cupcakes.
“Dude, these really are good,” said Stella.
“You’re not even supposed to have gluten,” I said.
“I know,” she said, through a mouthful of Guinness cupcake. “It’s worth it.”
Stella’s new boyfriend grabbed my shoulders and screamed, “Your cupcakes are TITS!”
I gave one of my spare containers to Stella to take home and bid them farewell. Lumi and I watched a fencing competition and walked through a tiny maze of fairy houses, and several people wearing elf ears swooned over her.
Later, after a much-needed nap, I took my other container of spares to my parents’ house, and told my parents, my sister and my sister’s boyfriend Steve the entire story of my brush with cupcake immortality.
“Their taste buds must have been damaged!” said my mom. “At least it was a good experience for your first bake-off.”
“I’m proud of my little guys,” I said. “Stella’s new boyfriend said they were, and I quote, ‘Tits.'”
“They were what?” said my dad.
“TITS!” said Steve.
“Oh, youth,” said my sister, who is one year older than this dude. “So, how was Stella’s new boyfriend?”
“He’s very nice,” I said. “He was very supportive. He’s just really extroverted.”
“Is he more or less annoying than Steve?” said my sister.
Steve was sitting right next to her. He just shrugged and took another bite of cupcake.