“…cakes are a window into our soul and a way to better understand ourselves.”
– Anne Byrn
My first cake was topped with a wax brown bear holding three balloons. It saw me snatch cake in great handfuls, shoving it in my mouth as fast as my 1-year-old hands could carry it. I bet it was chocolate. My mom still has the wax bear on a kitchen shelf. It collects dust and watches us ominously, wishing to be acknowledged and used just one more time.
I have used it only one other time, for my own son’s first birthday. I brushed off the dust and wondered why I was so intent on adding this silly little memory to his cake. A link between my past and his present is a link to both our pasts today. That bear watched him devour as much cake as his belly would hold, his cheeks—and the table—covered in chocolate.
After my son’s birthday, the bear returned to the shelf and the dust, here he has been watching new memories.
Growing up, my best friend, Laura, and I made cakes every weekend. We used a Disney cookbook to get our recipes and dreamed of making the carousel cake. We never did get the animal crackers required to top that cake. The book collects dust in my cabinet now, handed down from my mom as a great memory of my past. Laura and I laughed over it together just a month ago as we made chocolate cake from a recipe we found on Pinterest—it’s a monthly habit, not a weekend playdate, now that we both have lives and children of our own.
As kids, we had no clue what we were doing. Recipes were simple, and we still messed up. Too much cocoa makes a cake bitter. Leaving out the baking powder gives it no rise. And who knew adding hot water to a cold glass would shatter it? We’ll never forget now.
I wish that my husband and I had met over cake. How amazing would it be if we both reached for the same piece with a giant frosting rose or were members of two households both intent on our cakes, mortal enemies with the other cake-eaters? My family would be the chocolate people, and he would have to be the vanilla even though I don’t think he even likes vanilla. Maybe that’s why it was so easy to turn him. We would be the Romeo and Juliet of cakes. It would be a beautiful love story.
But we met at church as I desperately tried to like coffee because I was 19 and a mom and getting divorced. And those are all adult things—momming, divorce and coffee. It was practically a requirement. I had to love it. So, I mixed a tiny bit into my hot chocolate, called it coffee, and sat at my table where my future husband told me, “Your son has beautiful eyes.” Then he made him cry with a pop of his pacifier, and I vowed to always hate him, that jerk.
Except I love him.
We fought for marriage over angel food cake made by our pre-marriage mentors. They used to be Amish, which is a story all in itself. They left the practice behind, but brought the recipe with them. It is written out on old Post-It notes in my cabinet, collecting dust and awaiting the next birthday it’s requested. For a long time, it was the only thing I could make that was any good. My husband did all the cooking in the beginning, giving me “the most important jobs” like adding foil to the pan where he’d cook the chicken.
Angel food cake insists on its own way and is best served naked, devoid of all additions. It is fickle and moody. Room temperature ingredients. White sugar only. Sifted cake flour, not regular. It requires 12 egg whites. No yolks. Divorce of two halves of a whole. Ironic that we discussed our future marriage over this divorce-loving cake. Devil’s food is easier. But isn’t the wrong way always easier? Maybe not, since the wrong way ended in divorce for me, and divorce is never easy.
At my first wedding, we had grocery store cake topped with a curly “congratulations,” and we shoved it into each other’s faces. I pushed that cake into any open place I could reach. I didn’t care where it went, just that I won. He had more cake on him than I did, but we both had to leave to clean ourselves up. I took a friend with me, and we wiped it up together. There was cake in my nose, and I had to blow it free in a paper towel that left my nose raw and red. We spent the next year fighting, arguing, pushing each other away. It was the cake over and over again. But this time, there were no winners.
So, at my second wedding, everything had to be different. “Don’t push cake in my face,” I pleaded. Our moms both backed me up. “Keep it nice,” they said. When it came time for the cake, I gave him a look that said, “Go ahead and try. I will make you regret this decision forever if you don’t do things my way.” Because even though I was different, I wasn’t that different, apparently. I still had to have my own way. I still needed to die on every hill.
He didn’t do it. I still remember and smile when I look at our cake topper, the little bride and groom alongside the tiny ring bearer that is my son, collecting dust in the dining room cabinet.
I made cake when the rooster died. And again when my grandma died. Because “death cake” is a thing in my house now. Sometimes you just need cake to get through the hard things in life.
I remember when we found him lying cold and still on the edge of our backyard. I imagine he told his girls to go ahead into the coop without him, that he’d be along in a moment. And as the romantic music swelled, they turned their backs, and he lay down in the grass, too old to carry on with life. He looked perfectly perfect when we found him. He could have been sleeping. That cake needed extra frosting on top, because the loss of that rooster was extra in every way.
I won’t even talk about my grandma. Her cake was special, just like she was.
I was 36 before I found my favorite cake. It’s such a mom thing to do, I think, putting off my own needs and interests so I can focus on everyone else? But I’m not even that good at putting others first. The other day, a friend asked on Facebook what the keys to happiness were. She posted a list of options, and we were told to pick our top five. “Taking care of yourself first” was my number one. In the comments, someone said it was the most selfish one there. I didn’t change my answer. Because I didn’t want to be a liar. I took a bite of my chocolate cake topped with cookie dough frosting, secretly relishing the fact that I could eat it while the kids were at school. Maybe I could finish the pan. I would be like Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings,” calling the cake “my precious” and declaring it “mine.”
Cake brings out my most greedy and lustful self.
I wonder if the bear knew what it was getting me into all those years ago?
Kristi Stokes is a junior English major at Penn State Harrisburg.