C is for cake. Eight years after the birth of Jesus, in his exile in Tomis, beyond the waters of the Danube, in the furthest corner of the Kingdom of Thrace, Ovid celebrates a lonely birthday. ‘Behold,’ he laments in the Tristia, ‘the God of my birth comes on his day uselessly – what was the point of my being born?’ But amid the wailing and the self-pity he provides a checklist of the usual birthday treats that are sorely missing. Special clothes (a white robe), prayers, incense… and cake.
At the palace of Versailles in the 1770s, Marie Antoinette wafts around her ersatz farm, Le Petit Trianon. The walls are rumoured to be plastered in gold, with diamonds twinkling like stars. She wears silk and velvet, jewels and rare feathers. Outside the walls, peasants are starving, without enough wheat to bake bread. The Queen of France, hearing of their plight, responds: ‘let them eat cake.’
Cut forward to 1861 and Miss Havisham, skeletal and wax-like from years spent indoors, rattles around Satis House. The clocks stand still at twenty to nine. She wears a mouldering wedding dress and one white shoe. A feast is laid out on the rickety table: a lavish wedding breakfast. The centrepiece is a cake.
For centuries, cake has been used to mark and to commemorate special occasions: birthdays, Christmas, a wedding, a Christening. Each type of cake has its own particular traditions: a rich, boozy fruit cake at Christmas contains a lucky penny; the top tier of a wedding cake is frozen, to be eaten at a first anniversary or a child’s Christening. Birthday cakes in childhood have cheap, brightly coloured candles which invariably drip wax onto the icing. We all remember puffing out our cheeks, pushing the last breath from our lungs in an effort to blow out that final guttering candle.
Cake used to be a treat, something to be made and eaten together. Then came Hummingbird, with their irresistible red velvet, and everything changed. Cake became the snack of choice for the foodie set. Every shop was launched with cutesy cupcakes with pastel-coloured icing. Every office leaving drinks had a Colin the Caterpillar. Every deli and coffee shop had multiple varieties, arranged on dainty glass towers.
Then came the cake-pop: cupcakes on sticks. Cake mania took a firmer hold. Now we are all slaves to watching The Great British Bake Off; even Mrs Cameron, then first lady, appeared on a celebrity edition. It used to be said that everyone had a book inside them; now it seems that everyone has a baking book inside them. A cursory search on Amazon turns up nearly 10,000 results, with more coming out weekly. Baking is homespun and retro, the Boden of food.
From Proust’s madeleine to the Queen of Heart’s jam tarts, cakes have always figured largely in literature. And in life, they play a part in our memories. Call me old fashioned, but perhaps it might be time to return to eating them only on high days and holidays, as an occasional boon rather than a daily indulgence. Nothing is more hollow and saccharine than a supermarket sponge, but nothing lovelier than a homemade effort, slaved over by a loved one for a party. So cream that butter, whip those eggs and by all means melt that chocolate. But save it, savour it and go sparingly. Cake isn’t for life, just for Christmas.
For more entries from the Dictionary of Food, click here.