Saturday, April 30, 2011

mangez la gâteau! mangi la torta! coma el pastel! eat cake!

Wayne Thiebaud, Cake Window (Seven Cakes), 1970-76
The guests at the royal wedding ended up eating fruit cake. Not most people's first choice, but certainly historically significant and appropriate. Our Neolithic ancestors ground up grains, added water, and cooked these 'oatcakes' on a hot stone. The ancient Egyptians, followed by the Greeks, also made cakes...which basically were fruit cakes: dense, bready creations made of dried fruits, honey, and nuts. The Romans, who often seem to have an odd re-interpretation of things, had two versions of cake. One was more floury and was usually made as an offering to the gods. The other was called a 'placenta'.... seriously, I kid not. In fact, as it turns out this cheesecake-like pastry's name is responsible for our word placenta. The wacked-out 16th century Italian anatomist, Realdo Colombo, coined the phrase 'placenta uterina.' He must have thought there was some similarity in form.... or else he wanted to make sure we never ate birthday cake again. Anyway, you can get a recipe for the original Greek-style cake at Gourmet's website.

Even though the Brits are perhaps most associated with fruitcake, they were -- ironically -- the ones who first diverged the path of history away from these lead frisbees ("a geological homemade cake" said Dickens) and towards our more familiar and enjoyable cakes with frosting. Chaucer mentioned the serving of these cakes to the wealthy at special occasions. Perhaps that's why people started to care about how they tasted. And looked!

William and Catherine's wedding cake, 8 tiers, made by Fiona Cairns
Cake does more than just taste good. It has powerful evocative qualities. For Proust, it was the taste of his madeleine dipped in tea that carried him back to moments from his childhood when he drank tea at his aunt's: day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded inthe fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me... I had now ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself...

And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane... from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. (Marcel Proust, "Overture," Swann's Way, Book One, Remembrance of Things Past, 1913)

 It is not just a nostalgic sort of reminiscing in which Proust is partaking, but the ecstatic experience of 'pure time' or 'extra-temporal' moments wherein past overlaps present... and indeed shapes the future. For later, Proust would step on two uneven paving stones and remark that "as at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all disquietude about the future, all intellectual doubt, were dissipated." Rather than bogging him down with the weight of time and the past, memory -- for Proust -- could free him from time altogether and had the potential to connect him to a simultaneity that suggested universal time and shared experience.

Time circles upon itself; moments transport and transcend; the prosaic familiar can bring epiphanies... perhaps like the smooth circularity, buttery transcendence, and moist mouth-watering ecstasy of cake itself.

And so to return to princesses and cake. "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!" ("Let them eat cake!") supposedly uttered Marie Antoinette during an alleged famine in the 1770s. However, the quote is impossible to trace back to Ms. Marie, nor were there any dire famines during Louis XVI's reign. There were two significant bread shortages... and in fact, it was of bread and not cake that the misattributed quote speaks. Most historians are pretty confident that Marie never spoke the callous, insensitive phrase... as her letters during the Flour Wars suggest great concern for the commoners of her country. However, there are a small few who believe it is possible... with the caveat that we don't correctly understand what she was suggesting. Brioche now means a lovely buttery golden bun with a similar sweetness and flakiness to a croissant. But back in the day of Uncle Louis, brioche referred to the water and flour paste that was leftover in the bottom of pans of professional bakers after removing the breads and pastries. These boulangers would scrape out this brioche and leave it for starving beggars... a clever thrift much like the Seinfeld episode with Elaine and her muffin tops... and bottoms. So, if Marie really said it, perhaps she was being extremely practical... and much more compassionate that is usually assumed.

Regardless, the phrase became tied to Marie for more symbolic reasons. As fervor built towards the oncoming French Revolution, French anti-monarchists forced much of their general dissatisfaction with the tyrannical government upon Marie... and personified her to be a frivolous, extravagant, unfeeling narcissist. She, and her cakey comment, became symbolic of all that was wrong with France at the time.

Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006)
Cake often takes on symbolic resonance. For Proust. For the French. And for Wayne Thiebaud, the artist who has so canonized the plastic commerciality, the repetition of slices and memories, the frosted poetry of the cake and all that it has become symbolic of -- abundance, longing, desire, nostalgia, and contemplation through the palpable.

His paint functions literally as frosting, its thick buttery quality becoming the thick butter of the very cake of our reality. He invites us to re-stimulate our senses, and thereby our memories. To taste the cake, to taste the birthday party when we were ten. Like Proust's tea-soaked madeleine, Thiebaud's paint-viscous canvases become the landscape of all our realities... sensory, mnemonic, and chimerical.
A pie has all kinds of marvelous complex associations. The whiteness of meringue became for me of great poetic preoccupation: it's like snow, like frost, like the concept of purity and, from a painter's standpoint, white both absorbs and reflects like, it's composed of all colors...

But the, I know you wonder -- why a pie instead of a snow bank. Well, pie [and cake] has other implications: the idea of 'Pie in the Sky', the old American preoccupation with Mom and Apple Pie, pie throwing contests, pie eating contests, pie throwing in Chaplin films. One makes a pie out of ordinary stuff, like raisins, squash or apples and gift wraps it, in a sense, with a crust. It's very magical, very special. (Wayne Thiebaud quoted in LeGrace Benson, David Shearer, & Wayne Thiebaud, "An Interview with Wayne Thiebaud," Leonardo, vol. 2, no. 1 (Jan . 1969), 66)
Thiebaud turned cakes into icons, painted to create microcosmic worlds of remembrance and possibility with the allusion onto canvas of much that exists abstractly in the corners of our minds. And he somehow presaged our current sugar-coated engrossment with cakey sensuality.

Cupcake Wars on the Food Network
Duff from Ace of Cakes

Finished cake from Ultimate Cake Off on TLC
Starry Night cake from Gateaux, Inc. of Minneapolis (on WE's Amazing Wedding Cakes)
Another Gateaux, Inc. creation (
Rather than burdening cake as being the carrier of our celebratory obligations, let's celebrate cake itself tomorrow. Bake a cake. Eat cake. Feed cake (gently) to a loved one. Blow out some candles (if it so happens to be your birthday.) Indulge, imagine, reminisce, commemorate, compete, and rebel. Savor the taste and be transported. Fill your home with the scent of cake baking and with the aura of all it contains... including the faint and fading pastel-tinted plaintive wistfulness that frosts the crumb-covered plates of cake once present, now consumed, forever sublime.


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