Today I bought some ingredients to make a cake. Not a box of cake mix, but actual ingredients. I’m not a scratch snob – I’m sure cake mix tastes fine – but I am cheap. I can’t stand to pay Betty Crocker all that mark-up for mixed-together flour, sugar and fake flavoring. I wish I didn’t know what the mark-up was – I’d buy the damn box, bake my cake, eat a piece by the light over the kitchen sink – my favorite place to eat and reflect. But I do know (about the mark-up, I mean) and the knowledge brings with it a sense of responsibility.
A career in marketing can really make shopping and cooking inconvenient.
Where I am from, cakes come in two shapes: bundt, and sheet. Frosting is something you mix up yourself with powdered sugar, Crisco figuring prominently in the recipe.
Bundts are a company shape, and this cake is about comfort – that’s the sheet shape. I’m making an old family recipe, Aunt Regina’s chocolate malt cake. It’s very similar to a Texas sheet cake, except for the frosting, which is malted chocolate and tastes a little bit like Christmas fudge.
At the store, I passed through the bakery. They make custom birthday cakes, and also have any number of pre-fab cakes that you can have hurriedly inscribed with a name and message. Once, I bought a double layer marble cake emblazoned “Happy Retirement, Ralph” in neon blue frosting. It was marked down to $3.79, and I was a bit tipsy, it must be said. It seemed like a good idea. And it was, right up until the blue vomiting (or should I say, ralphing) episode.
As a kid, I’d always wanted a cake like that – the smooth, symmetrical perfection of store bought that glowed insanely white under the store’s fluorescent lights. What I always got, of course, was home made. And not just home made, but single story sheet cakes – no fancy pants double decker round cakes for my family, no sir. Not even for my eleventh birthday, which was very special because it was the only birthday party I’ve ever had.
Like a fool, I thought my parents were like me – that they’d want to impress my friends with a fancy cake. I prayed for a tall snowy affair with piles of pink and purple frosting flowers so sweet they burned the tongue. But no. My birthday cake was plain and workmanlike: a simple brown rectangle with uneven chocolate frosting. It did not suggest fun so much as meatloaf.
We were poor, but I’m pretty sure that the antipathy toward round cakes was more of a class issue than an affordability one. It all costs the same when you make it yourself – and mom never, ever made a round cake, though she had two round cake pans. I know, because she set them out for ten cents apiece at the garage sale she held when they moved. Those dented beauties are resting comfortably now in the dark recesses of my cupboard. No, I’m not making a round cake – but I could, if I wanted. And I will. Someday.
I thought my fate was sealed with that cake. I’d never get in with the popular girls. I’d never be a cheerleader. They’d see that plain cake and write me off as a loser. I was so focused on the cake, I didn’t really see how our poverty would be evident to the guests in far more noticeable ways. They could see it in unfinished basement where the party was set up, in the rough concrete floor with the visible sewer drain and the drop ceiling. They could see it in the flimsiness of the paper streamers and plates and cups and the way their bright colors gleamed under the bare light bulbs, bright as blood in a dungeon.
They could see it in my clothes – my older brother’s hand-me-downs. They could see it in the games with their metal and wood parts worn smooth by many hands; games with stern grandfather names like horseshoes and washers and jarts. Games born in sepia tones, plastic and color a foreign language.
But I didn’t care about any of those things – mostly because, living there, I simply didn’t see them. I only cared about the cake.
Most of all I remember that gloriously flat brown cake. No one saw the shape, except me. All they saw was chocolate, and lots of it. What the cake lacked in style, it more than made up for in substance, because mom made two. And let us cut our own huge, jagged pieces. And didn’t yell when we strapped skate wheels onto our shoes (remember those?) and played roller derby, still holding jagged chunks of chocolate cake that we smashed into each other’s faces as we rolled round and round the basement.
Ladonna fell and skinned both knees. Bernadette Rosencrantz threw up, and my best friend Lisa slapped a girl who called my neighbor Jan a Mormon (Jan was a Mormon, but I agreed with her reaction – it was all in the tone).
When the party was over, dad got the hose and sprayed the vomit and blood and chocolate cake right into the concrete drain.
It was the best birthday I ever had.