Girl Meets Cake and Other Life Lessons

The Germans have a word... objektophilie...that describes a pronounced emotional desire to develop a significant relationship with a particular inanimate object. The most extreme example of objektophilie I am familiar with is an American woman who married…yes, married…the Eiffel Tower.

The second most extreme example is me and my devotion to a particular cake...Alma Etheridge Wilson’s Roanoke Sixteen Layer Chocolate Fudge Cake, a baked beauty featured on the cover of the Martha Stewart Living annual recipe collection for 2002.

It was a classic tale of Girl Meets Cake. I dreamt about that cake. I fantasized about that cake. I carried a picture of that cake in my wallet and showed it to my friends and colleagues. Unlike Erika Eiffel (Google her if you don’t believe me), I drew the line at holding a commitment ceremony. I did, however, hope that one day someone would cherish me enough to bake That Cake for me. Why I did not, as a modern self-sufficient woman, bake Alma Etheridge Wilson’s Roanoke Sixteen Layer Chocolate Fudge Cake for myself is a story for another time—a cautionary tale, really, involving old flour (and by old I mean it could have been enrolled in pre-K) and an ill-fated sugar and Sweet ’N Low swap.

Someone did, years after I first laid eyes upon it, bake Alma Etheridge Wilson’s Roanoke Sixteen Layer Chocolate Fudge Cake for me. For the 43rd anniversary of my birth. It stood tall and proud on a Jadeite platter with boiled chocolate icing draped over its shoulders. I still, these many moons later, marvel over its lovely layers, as numerous as the rings of an ancient tree.

Please excuse the blatant anthropomorphism, but That Cake was a thing of beauty. It was a work of art.

As a liberal arts major and a lifelong student of the humanities, I have been academically trained to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us in literature, in music, in painting and sculpture, in architecture. And as a person with a particular interest in food, I suppose you can say I have specialized—delighting in classic and modern depictions of food in the arts almost as much as I delight in food itself.

One of my favorite artists is Wayne Thiebaud, an American painter best known for his colorful depictions of hot dogs, ice cream cones, pies and, yes, cakes. He applies his paint as thickly and as artfully as a baker applies frosting. And I am simply gobsmacked by the hyper-realistic food paintings of self-taught Dutch painter Tjalf Sparnaay—a partially consumed sandwich, fries with a side of mayonnaise, a peeled lemon, fried eggs.

I also adore food in film. Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman and Big Night are the cream of the crop on my list of great foodie flicks. Big Night is the tale of two brothers and their last-ditch attempt to save their Italian restaurant from foreclosure. Primo is a prickly culinary genius who rarely leaves the security of the restaurant’s kitchen. Secondo is the businessman and host—smooth, dapper, vigilantly tending the front of the house, which is absent of clientele, save one regular who pays for his meals with paintings.

On the surface, Big Night is simply a film about a failing restaurant. But beneath the red wine and risotto, the movie explores serious themes—brotherly love, family ties and the clash between Old World traditions and New World directions.

Food does that; it helps us tell stories.

The shelves of bookstores—big box and independent alike—are laden with novels and memoirs in which food holds center stage. “They line up, in their pretty covers,” writes Bee Wilson in an essay about food and literature, “like tarts in a patisserie.”

In Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, Bich Minh Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who immigrated to the midwestern United States as an 8-month-old child, writes of being seduced by Kraft macaroni and cheese, Pringles and Doritos. She preferred Tollhouse cookies to sticky rice cakes and other traditional specialties prepared by her Buddhist grandmother. While food is a central character, Nguyen’s story is really about an immigrant’s struggle with identity, her rapacious hunger for “being American” symbolized by the food she eats.

That’s one story; there are so many others. Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone. Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything.

And while this fascination with food may appear to be a contemporary phenomenon, I harken back to Homer’s Odyssey. The classicists among you will recall that food, at Homer’s hand, was a temptation—a constant test for the hungry, weary and homesick men accompanying Odysseus on his journey. Despite warnings from Circe, the goddess of magic, Odysseus’s crew kills and feasts upon cattle belonging to Helios, the sun god. Clearly peeved, Helios orders up a plate of retribution, compelling the almighty Zeus to shatter Odysseus’s ship with one of this trademark lightening bolts.

Whether as simple entertainment or powerful symbolism, food has long been featured in the arts and humanities. I would argue that food has become an art form in and of itself.

Food is certainly a visual art. Think of the care we put into the plating and presentation of our everyday repasts, from simple herb garnishes to elaborate swirls and drizzles. Websites like Tastespotting and Foodgawker are devoted entirely to food photography. And the molecular gastronomy movement has taught us to harness the principles of physics and chemistry to transform basic ingredients into striking modernist cuisine. Why brew a cup of Joe when you can serve a saffron crème anglaise with coffee air? Would you like a side of oak moss vapor with your potato foam gnocchi? Science is the medium, but beauty is the goal.

Food is also a performance art. A few years ago, after trekking five days through the mountain villages of Nepal, my travel companions and I indulged in a 22-course meal representing the best of Nepalese cuisine. After dining on rice and warm fruit salad for the better part of a week, this resplendent display of culinary artistry in the heart of Kathmandu appeared as a mirage...an epic meal opening with an assortment of hors d’oeuvres typically served during religious ceremonies, reaching its crescendo with mutton cubes marinated with Nepali spices and closing with an emulsion of five nectars.

As I sat on my tuffet, as stuffed as a French farmer’s goose, I thought to myself...this was an incredible performance in both delivery and consumption, a dining experience not unlike listening to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a five hour and 15 minute operatic opus. Lovely. Stirring. But a struggle.

The classic struggles in literature and the arts are relatively high-minded: man versus God, man versus nature and man versus self. As a contemporary culture, we have expanded those struggles to include Man v. Food. You may recognize this as the title of a televised series that involves Adam Richman battling extraordinarily large servings of food, but it applies to a whole category of food entertainment that we as a nation eagerly wolf down—Chopped, Iron Chef, Cupcake Wars, Nathan’s Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, Food Network’s mind-boggling line up of sugar showdowns.

We no longer simply consume food; we celebrate it. The New York Times published an opinion piece by essayist and cultural commentator William Deresiewicz about how food has replaced art as high culture, the set of cultural products that we as a society hold in the highest esteem. We gather around food much like the generations before us gathered around art. But despite his observations about the centrality of food to modern social discourse and standing, Deresiewicz draws the line at food as art.
“A good risotto is a fine thing,” writes Deresiewicz, “but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way or force you to take an inventory of your soul.”

And it is here my path diverges from the one trod upon by Mr. Deresiewicz.

For years, I longed for Alma Etheridge Wilson’s Roanoke Sixteen Layer Chocolate Fudge Cake. But what I really desired was something much more than a combination of flour, butter, sugar and eggs. I longed for—as Elvis Costello croons—peace, love and understanding. That was what That Cake represented. It symbolized everything I had looked for my entire life. And when That Cake was lovingly presented to me on that Jadeite platter, I knew I had found it. And my soul sang.

If that isn’t art, I don’t know what is.

Deb Barshafsky earned the Le Cordon Bleu Master of Arts in Gastronomy from the University of Adelaide. But she’s not a food snob. Really, she’s not.

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