We had a birthday party over the weekend, to celebrate an adorable cousin of mine turning three. He is currently in the midst of a Spider-Man phase—he assumed the famed web spinner’s identity last Halloween—and so we were treated to a Spider-Man birthday cake, complete with Marvel figurines and an intricate web design woven into the icing.
How did it taste? Well, it tasted like birthday cake.
Of course, there are many things to which one looks forward at such a festive event—the gathering of family and friends, the merriment, the opening of presents—but somehow it is always the cake that holds the special place in people’s hearts. It is the one component of every party that can be counted upon, should all else fail.
It is curious that this should be true. I cannot say that I have ever met a birthday cake I didn’t like, but by the same token, I equally cannot recall any particular one that stood out from the rest. It is a dependable treat, but also dependably forgettable.
Perhaps this is merely an extension of the tendency of all food and entertainment considerations at well-attended casual social events: Nothing fancy. Something everyone will enjoy, or at least tolerate.
To the extent this is the case, it only serves to illustrate the singular mystery and allure in America of all things cake.
In the course of my life’s culinary adventures—hopefully in yours as well—I have experienced cakes of various sorts that were quite memorable, indeed—some of which inspired behavior of which I am not especially proud, yet don’t particularly regret.
There was that family-and-friends dinner at my brother’s fraternity house the night before his graduation, featuring all-you-can-eat cheesecake topped with fresh berries. OK, it wasn’t technically all-you-can-eat, but, well, some people hadn’t touched theirs and I, having earlier taken advantage of the all-you-can-drink whiskey bar, hated to see these delectable stray slices just lying around, and before I knew what happened my waistline had expanded halfway out the door.
But then that illustrates a fundamental principle of mathematics, which states that the concentration of sugar and saturated fat in a given dessert is inversely proportional to one’s ability to resist eating absurd amounts of it.
Cheesecake is a particularly salient example, being composed of nothing but butter and cream cheese, as is another favorite of mine, carrot cake, with its melt-in-your-mouth consistency that deceives you into thinking the first five or six slices don’t really count.
You will recall the scene in Matilda in which the sadistic school principal, Ms. Trunchbull, punishes the poor fat kid who stole her dessert by forcing him—in front of the whole student body—to consume an entire chocolate cake.
It is a most unique form of torture, turning a boy’s weaknesses against him by blowing them all out of proportion. As we all know from experience, there is nothing quite so unpleasant as becoming violently ill from partaking in one’s guilty pleasures just a little bit too much.
Nonetheless, in re-watching Matilda recently, I promptly added to my mental bucket list, “Consume an entire cake in one sitting,” albeit one not quite as large, and probably without a cringing audience.
It is rather a shame that, according to science, it is more or less impossible to literally die from ecstatically stuffing your face, as it would seem a rather fine way to go, considering some of the alternatives. A nice, sweet conclusion to the story of one’s life, you might say.
That, in a way, points to the broader appeal of cake in all its wondrous forms: In the culinary canon, it is both a metaphorical and literal happy ending. And who doesn’t like a happy ending?