Ancestral Dish: CAKE! Edition

Can  cake be considered an Ancestral Dish? Somehow it doesn’t seem — serious enough. Yet what other food screams family ritual like cake? So I’m going to say it qualifies.

As a child, I looked forward to July and August — the Birthday Big Time, with two family birthdays in each month. To that I can now add my oldest child, another August baby. Five summer birthdays. Cake Central, here we come!

Cake has gone glitzy lately. My kids and I love to gape occasionally at Cupcake Wars or Cake Boss (starring Hoboken’s own Buddy Valastro). Who isn’t in awe of those monumental cakes? But at the same time, they’re so … unapproachable. Fondant looks gorgeous, but is hardly the sort of icing you’d claw your siblings aside to lick from the bowl.

Cake has been the exclamation point on my tribe’s rites of passage, secular and spiritual. You can’t really have an official First Holy Communion or baptism without a sheet cake. Not to mention the ritual of immortalizing the cake in a snapshot before it’s devoured: Look! Here it was! Wasn’t it GREAT?

This month I made myself a fabulous birthday cake, mmm yes I did. It got me to thinking about other cakes my family has shared and fought over from decade to decade. A pictorial history awaits!

But before I start, I must say this:

The best part of cake is sneaking downstairs in the dead of night after everyone’s gone to bed and snatching the last slice from under the cake dome. Quietly. With a tall glass of cold milk on the side.

Cake No. 1: This is a bridal shower given for my mother by her future sisters-in-law, in 1953. A corsage is required to make things official, along with the cake. I love that wide circular cake. For some reason, you don’t see big circles these days as much as you do rectangular sheets.

Cake No. 2: My eleventh birthday cake, upon which I believe I collaborated with my older sister. We neglected to get the all-important Cake Snapshot before the family fell upon it. Note the glass milk bottles on the table, kids. That stuff is 20th century, that is.

Cake No. 3: Another shower cake. This one was for a baby shower my co-workers gave me when I was pregnant with my oldest. It was a lovely party, but I have to confess, the baby figure on the cake scared me a little.

Cake No. 4: Life then segued into a series of cakes that reflected kids’ obsessions. This train cake was for my older daughter, Nora, during her Thomas the Tank Engine toddlerhood. It is not really a cake per se, but an artfully arranged collection of cookies, wafers, licorice and frosting. Take that, Cake Boss.

Cake No. 5: Kid Obsession No. 2: Earlier this year my younger daughter fell in love with la belle France and decided upon a Parisian-themed birthday party, despite the fact that neither of us really knows French. I served pommes frites, among other things. And I put a French word on the birthday cake.

Cake No. 6: For my own birthday a couple of weeks ago, I was determined to make myself a Devil Dog cake — a giant-sized version of a treat commonly available in the northeastern U.S. that was the Platonic ideal of snack cakes in my childhood. Two rich devil’s-food layers plus one batch of marshmallow frosting later, I had my dream.

As is often the case with cakes and dreams, it did not last long. But there’s always next year.


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