Cake

“Where there is cake, there is hope. And there is always cake.” —Dean Koontz http://sayingspoint.com/cake-sayings/

“[S]he talks a lot about cake.”

–Jim Gaffigan

The Foundation where I work provided the cake that won a first place award at the 35th annual Carr Center Cake Auction this week.

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The Carr Center is a local organization that helps a whole lot of people. It provides eldercare, for instance, and speech therapy for a wide range of people. People with autism get help there, and kids whose schools went virtual went to the Carr Center and studied online this year, but with guidance and supervision. The Carr Center helps kids learn to read better,–learn to love reading, in fact. The organization quietly does a whole lot of good in the community, and the Cake Auction is its yearly big fund raiser.

Historically, organizations or individuals donated cakes and attached incentives, and then those cakes were displayed at the local mall. For a couple of days, interested folks could go to view the cakes, taking along a list, marking down the most delicious cakes and the most delicious incentives.

Here’s an example: a bank, say, might donate #167, a rich, fudge-frosted double layer chocolate cake, and the top bidder for that confection would also receive, perhaps, one night in a lovely hotel and a gift card for dinner for two at a beloved local restaurant. If that was a treat dear to the viewer’s heart, they’d mark that cake’s number down in their cake-and-incentive-list, and then, when the auction itself opened, they’d call in to bid on number 167.

But other people might want that cake and that incentive package, too, and so the bidding could grow furious, until the allotted fifteen minutes was up and the last bidder won the day. And the cake.

Last year, though,—2020—shut down a whole lot of things, and the Carr Center Cake Auction was one of them. This year, the folks at the Carr Center were determined to bring it back, but, like that whole lot of things, it looked different. This year, the cakes were displayed in the lower level of a local theater, and people viewed them electronically.

The Carr Center adapted. The bakers baked. The donors gathered incentives.

And the event, after a year’s pause, was, to my eyes, anyway, a roaring success.

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There’s a cheetah named after J.W. Straker (Mr. Straker and his wife, Mary Helen, founded the Foundation where I work; they are both deceased now, but their foresight still has great positive community impact) at the Wilds, which is a wonderful, reclaimed, wild-land place in the hills not too far from Zanesville. It’s a place where endangered species are nurtured and their offspring thrive. Visitors can safari though the extensive lands in buses and see white rhinos nudging their babies down to a lake, or watch deer and wild ponies running across their paths, or be surrounded by the cutest animals I have ever seen, baby zebras.

There’s a separate section for the carnivores, and that’s where Preep lives. (“Preep” is the name Mr. Straker’s oldest grandson gave him, when that grandson was a learning-to-talk babe.)

The Wilds also has—away, of course, from any exotic animals—a section called Straker Lake. There are Cabins there, built by Mr. Straker and the Foundation. The cabins house a program called Mighty Oaks Warriors, which helps veterans with PTSD.

When the Mighty Oaks program is not meeting, anyone can rent the cabins at Straker Lake.

So, the incentive we hit on for the Foundation’s first entry in the Cake Auction was a night for up to six in a cabin at Straker Lake. Along with that came six open-air safari tours, and a chance for two especially daring visitors to tour the Wilds by zip line.

To build on the theme, we hoped to have a “Preep” cake.

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Could a cake baker make a cheetah cake? We didn’t want something cartoon-y, but we couldn’t envision exactly what we did want.

Becky Clawson, the Carr Center’s director, gave us the name of a fantastic baker. Shala Aiken made the cake we wanted but couldn’t quite envision, and there’s a picture of her work at the start of this post.

You can see that Shala is a true artist. As donors, we were able to go and view, in a socially distanced kind of way, all the cake offerings…and there were close to 300. I realized, as I slowly walked down cake-filled aisles, that there are amazing bakers and makers in Muskingum County. And I realized there are amazing, community-centered donors, as well.

The morning after the view, the auction began on the radio. I tuned in when I could, and I made sure to listen when our cake was auctioned.

And so, this week, the bony caverns of my mind are filled with cake.

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Why cake? Have you ever thought about that? Couldn’t we just as easily have settled, in our history, on pie instead?

We could have birthday pies and wedding pies, for instance.

We might repeat an oft-quoted line this way: Let them eat pie!

(A little search, by the way, leads me to believe that Marie Antoinette really did not say anything like that. The History Channel’s website cites historian Lady Antonia Fraser. Lady Fraser says that the queen was too smart to say such a callous and inflammatory thing. Moreover, says Lady Fraser, Marie Antoinette was sensitive to the needs of the poor despite her sometimes outlandishly extravagant lifestyle. The queen gave generously to many charities. It’s sad that the quote we all attribute to her may be rooted in historical propaganda.)

But there’s something, it seems, about cake. I look up the history of that sweet confection, and I learn, from foodtimeline.org, that cake has been around in one guise or another since ancient times. It was more bread-y in those far-off days, sweetened with honey, and studded, perhaps, with nuts and dried fruit.

Cakes as birthday treats go way back to those days before the Christian era. Claire Nowak, in “Why Do We Eat Birthday Cake?’ (https://www.rd.com/article/origin-of-birthday-cake/), writes that birthdays were first celebrated in ancient Egypt. It started with the pharaohs; Egyptians considered the day those god-like rulers ascended to their thrones a day of rebirth, and they celebrated with cake.

The Greeks, Nowak tells us, got wind of the cake-to-celebrate-birth custom and appropriated it. More democratic, though, they would celebrate anyone’s birth, not just an august ruler. The Greeks liked their celebrations sweet, and the cakes they used to celebrate birthdays were often in the shape of the moon, a tribute to the goddess Artemis.

To make the moon-cake even more celestial, the Greeks would stud it with lighted candles, and so the tradition of candles on birthday cakes was born.

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My mother decorated cakes beautifully, but when I was very young, she did not believe in cake mixes, which were way too easy and thus entirely suspect. (If anyone could do it, what was the value of a thing?)

So she made her cakes from scratch, and then spent quiet hours making frosting, filling white canvas bags with icing, switching colors, switching decorating tips. She painstakingly crafted beautiful cakes.

But while the cakes themselves were baking, we needed to be soft and quiet. A hefty jump on the kitchen floor, tromping feet, too rough handling of the oven door, even, it seemed, over-loud voices, could flatten the cake.

And of course, flattening happened. I remember one cake that was, I think, for my brother Dennis’s birthday. It was a yellow cake, and it fell to half its hoped-for size. The cake layers were hard, flat, pancakes.

My mother whipped up her frosting and decorated them anyway; we did not waste food. That birthday cake looked like one layer, and it was beautifully wrought, of course.

And it was chewy, but tasted of buttery, sugary, goodness.

After that deflating disappointment, though, my mother slowly changed her stance on cake mixes. By the end of the 1960’s, she was a convert. Her cakes were made from a box, but her frosting was always her own.

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The Romans, now—they were probably responsible for wedding cakes. Marissa Laliberte writes about that in “The Hidden Secrets Behind the History of the Wedding Cake (https://www.rd.com/article/history-of-wedding-cakes/). She relates that, when ancient Roman couples tied the knot, someone would crumble a scone-like cake over the bride’s head. This had something to do with invoking good fortune and spurring a fertile marriage.

The couple’s first shared act would be to nibble on the crumbs.

The Romans took that custom to the British Isles. They were never quite able to bend those unruly people to their will, and they finally, the Romans did, gave up and went home.

The Brits may have given the conquerors the boot, but they kept some of their customs, wedding cakes among them. They took that whole scone idea and kept elaborating on it. A British wedding, for instance, might include a pile of sweet cakes—a tower of them!—and the challenge to bride and groom would be this: could they kiss over the top of the wedding cakes?

The tower turned into tiers when, in, I believe, the 1700’s, a baker’s apprentice in London fell madly in love with the boss’s daughter. To woo her, he created the most incredible cake. It’s said he was inspired by the tiered steeple of St. Brigid’s church, and he built an amazing confection, stacked and frosted, and now imitated at weddings around the world.

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We are pie lovers, of course, but there is something about cake. There is something about the smell of a cake baking (candles are made that evoke that scent). And for most people, talking about cake invokes memories.

My nieces talk about my mother’s chocolate layer cakes, which always had white buttercream frosting between layers. The outside frosting was a rich chocolate buttercream. That cake, for them, says celebration.

For me, it’s German chocolate cake, and it dates back to my high school days,—days I spent, mostly, fighting with my mother. The summer of my freshman year, we had a real rip-snorter a few weeks before my birthday, and Mom informed me that I could just forget a birthday celebration that year.

That would be just fine, I said, because I didn’t want her celebration anyway.

I grieved, though, because of course I wanted a birthday celebration, with people saying, “Hey! We’re so glad you were born!” Stubbornness and pride decreed, though, that there’d be no backing down.

The day before my birthday, some friends invited me to a picnic lunch, and, lo and behold, it turned out to be a birthday party, with laughter and stories and thoughtful gifts, and a lovely German chocolate cake in a small square pan.

I’d never had German chocolate cake before, and I fell in love with the caramelly, coconutty, nutty frosting. I went home loaded with goodies and gifts and the leftover cake, which I generously shared with everyone…even my mother, who might, I realized years later, feeling repentant, have dropped a hint or two among my friends that a birthday celebration was in order.

Since then, German chocolate cake has tasted like salvation to me, salvation and friendship and redemption. If I’m feeling depressed and lumpy, eating a lovely slice of German chocolate cake still opens a doorway and shows me the way out of that slump.

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Cake is part of our cultural consciousness, too.  Remember the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where the Dursleys have squirreled Harry away to a remote cabin on a desolate island, trying to get away from all the invitations to Hogwarts? 

In the film, Harry’s pictured on the floor of the dingy place, drawing a picture of an oval cake in the dust. “Happy birthday, Harry!”is written on the dust-cake, and then he draws little stick candles. When the clock turns midnight and Harry turns, I think, 11, the sad orphan blows the stick candles away.

But then an amazing thing happens. Someone raps on the door. They rap on the door HARD, and when no one answers, they just bust the door down.

It is Rubeus Hagrid, the giant, and he has a little white box with him.

The white box holds Harry’s birthday cake, the first he’s ever had, which Hagrid himself frosted in pink icing. And he painstakingly wrote the words Harry imagined seeing on top of the cake, although his spelling might have needed some polishing.

The Dursleys quake in fear, and that is when things change: the cake signals that Harry’s fortunes have turned. He will enter Hogwarts, and he will encounter grave danger, but he will also see friendship blossom, learn about his parents, encounter wise mentors, and find a home.

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In Mama Mia: Here We Go Again, cake is the comfort food that soothes a broken heart.

When Bill goes off with Donna, Rosie orders cake.

When Sam comes back to find Donna, and bereft, stalks away, ignoring Tanya, Tanya says to Rosie, “WHERE was that cake?”

And the friends sit at a table and fork lovely, comforting cake into their mouths.

One should never treat emotions with food, of course, but, oh, it’s true: cake has the power to make one feel better.

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“Tell me,” I begged the boyos, “about the cakes you remember best.”

There was a long pause.

“Uhhhhhhhh,” Mark said.

Jim added, after a long pause, “I like chocolate cake.”

Maybe specific cake memories are more a girl thing than a guy thing, but I can tell you for sure: the boyos do like cake. There is, in particular, a chocolate sour cream Bundt cake recipe that they endorse. It is made with cake mix and pudding mix (I do not have the purist scruples my mother maintained), and it comes out lovely, every time.

It is easy to make but festive, and it disappears quickly.

Here is where the recipe is found: Double Chocolate Bundt Cake – Taste and Tell (tasteandtellblog.com)

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I am very proud to tell you that Shala’s creation, the Preep cake, won first place on Wednesday at the Cake Auction (see it here: http://www.carrcenter.org/cake-auction.html), and that it, and its incentive, were the object of a nice bidding battle, and they earned a sizable chunk of change for the Carr Center.

And that just reinforces the belief that my musings bring me to: cake is a powerful thing. It helps us mark the passages in our lives. It nurtures and succors us.

Cake stimulates creativity and sheer artistry.

It inspires us to give.

It doesn’t erase reality, of course. There are big things to ponder and big hurdles to overcome.

But, as we ponder, and as we hurdle, it is nice to think there’s a cake waiting, a tender, sweet slice, to reward our efforts, and to urge us on.

2 thoughts on “Cake

  1. And since people didn’t shower very often in the old days, I assume the honeymoon couple awoke to rats nibbling the bride’s head. My favorite cake is one I used to make from scratch. It was a two layer white cake studded with poppyseeds.

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