In Praise of Cake

By  |  April 15, 2020

Good Taste


Early on in my experience of staying home to help flatten the curve, I stumbled across a well-known Carl Richards sketch of a Venn diagram. In one circle, the words: Things That Matter. In the other: Things You Can Control. The intersection of the two is what we should focus on.

I’ve tried to keep that principle in mind during these weeks of anxiety about, well, everything: the threat of illness, overburdened hospitals, the well-being of my grandmother on lockdown in her room at an assisted living facility, my own capacity to simultaneously work from home and parent a toddler. Not to mention: my friends who have lost their jobs and the artists and organizations whose livelihoods and business models are newly threatened in this pandemic. 

A line from Wendy Brenner’s essay, “Strange Beads,” published in the Oxford American in 2013, keeps looping in my mind: There is so much!!

(Brenner was writing about the improbable haul of a seller’s jewelry on eBay, but in my mind, I’ve transmuted the sentiment so it applies to this moment’s endless pile-on of worries. There is so much.)

How to deal? How to cope? Think about the Things That Matter. Think about the Things You Can Control. For me, and for many people I know, the work of planning and preparing meals has occupied the middle of that Venn diagram. My extended family’s group text is now filled with pictures of my sister’s empanadas and my mother’s duck gumbo; my friend recently hosted a “virtual bake-together” on Zoom. We can’t share a meal in person, but we can swap recipes and surprise each other with treats, like the bags of locally made marshmallows I’ve taken to ordering for friends around the country just because.

To be clear, I’ve also turned to the easiest, toddler-friendly standbys (that would be you, frozen-spinach quesadillas) more times than I count. Three meals a day, seven days a week. There is so much. And nobody feels that truth more than families experiencing food insecurity—another cause for anxiety and fury and a reason to give generously to the organizations on the frontlines of feeding our neighbors.

When the pandemic upended our work and personal lives at the Oxford American, we were in various stages of launching a number of new digital initiatives, including a series of themed newsletters written by editors and inspired by our ongoing project of surfacing gems from the magazine’s archive. Now that we’re all spending so much time in the kitchen (and longing to dine with those we love most), we have decided to press on with our newsletter centered on food and cooking.

In Good TasteOA contributors write about what’s on their tables and on their minds. We’ll share classics from the magazine’s archive for your contemplation and distraction and even canvass our writers and readers for favorite recipes.

In this first installment, I am pleased to highlight an essay and recipe from Diane Roberts, who has been writing for the Oxford American for more than twenty years. She became a contributing editor in our twenty-fifth issue in January 1999.

Back then, she said she planned to use her position as a contributing editor to “cause a little trouble” and “complicate the South.” She has been doing just that ever since, writing essays on subjects such as her efforts to “quit Faulkner” (the subject of her first book); college football (“like a bad boyfriend”); pre-Disney Florida tourist attractions; the radical life and literature of Lillian Smithher complex relationship with her sorority; and much more—always with her brilliant critical observations and wicked sense of humor.

For the OA’s Spring 2010 Southern Food issue, guest edited by our dear Local Fare columnist John T. Edge, Roberts represented the “cakeists” among us.

For nearly every Easter of my life, I’ve eaten my mother’s Easter cake around her table. This year, I missed that tradition—though a beautiful pound cake, “yellow as a daffodil,” made with simple ingredients I already had on hand, did just fine. Perhaps it will brighten your table, too.


In these difficult times, we hope you take comfort, joy, and pleasure in reading and cooking at home, and continuing to connect over food—even if only virtually.


 

People of the Cake
By Diane Roberts

We are people of the Cake. A baby is born and welcomed with cake; there’s cake for anniversaries, cake for graduating high school or college; cake for passing the bar or the CPA exam, cake for winning Second Runner-Up in the Miss Peanut pageant; cake for getting out of prison, cake for visiting kinfolk, cake for Christmas and Easter and the Fourth of July; cake when you marry, when you’re sick, when you die.

 

Bible Cake
By Chris Offutt

My approach to cooking is one of passionate intensity that traditionally involves a great deal of what used to be called “blue” language, or plain old-fashioned cussing. My current kitchen project will be a trial, since I intend to follow a recipe for “Bible Cake.” It seems crucial that no matter how much flour swirls in the air, how many eggshell fragments enter the batter, and how poorly my preparation goes, I shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.

 

Strange Beads
By Wendy Brenner

The pain in my midsection felt like a dull routine by the time I came across the Vintage brass Made in India red and white mother of pearl bracelet, a pretty little scallop-edged bangle that caught my eye as I was idly scrolling around on eBay. There was something charismatic about it, winking out from its dark tiny cell of a thumbnail photo. It seemed to appeal to me personally, like a particular kitten or puppy at the pound who makes eye contact. It gave me déjà vu, reminded me of some dim, distant place I couldn’t quite identify. 

 


This year, the OA’s first-ever food issue turns fifteen! Even better, it’s now on sale


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Eliza Borné is the editor of the Oxford American.