Leslie Miller: Let Me Eat Cake: A Celebration of Flour, Sugar, Butter, Eggs, Vanilla, Baking Soda, and a Pinch of Salt
Excerpt from Let Me Eat Cake: A Celebration of Flour, Sugar, Butter, Eggs, Vanilla, Baking Soda, and a Pinch of Salt, Simon & Schuster, 2009.One morning, I was driving to the University of Baltimore, planning a lecture for my two composition classes about punctuation, not thinking at all about, you know, it, when I stopped at a traffic light behind a truck bearing a blue and gold logo and phone number. I stared at it for a few minutes, contemplating commas, before I realized what it said: Capitol Cake Co., 1-800-EAT CAKE. A cake company -- in Baltimore -- that I don't know about? And because I am, in addition to a cake junkie, a chronic chronicler, I took the truck's picture.
Before I discovered the truck, I hadn't noticed the brand name of the unglamorously packaged one-dollar pound cakes stacked in a freestanding display at the end of the bread aisle at Shoppers food market: Capitol Cake Company. The three Cs have been around since 1922, when Harry A. Kunkel (a cake name if ever there was one) and Edward J. Leonard realized their snack cake dream, just as Tastykake's Philip J. Baur and Herbert C. Morris did before them in 1914, and Little Debbie's O. D. McKee would do in 1960. (Whether initials are a requirement or a coincidence, I'm in!) But Capitol's Shirley Jean fruitcake, named for Harry Kunkel's daughter-in-law, would boldly go where no other cake -- not even those of the imaginary Betty Crocker -- had gone before: to the moon. Literally and not once, mind you, but several times.
"It's Out of This World," says the CCC Web site, quotation marks and all. The Web page displays photographs from a 1999 Hubble mission of the space shuttle Discovery (STS-103). Right there, on the dashboard, with a view of home out the window, sits the pink-and-green-wrapped traditional Christmas treat. Another photo shows the package by the joystick, "drivin' the bus." The last picture shows a smiling Commander Curt Brown with the fruitcake by his face. Each caption calls the snack "Old Fruity," a name I'd not be too keen on were I Shirley Jean.
An astronaut picked up the fruitcake at a Florida convenience store just before his 1994 Christmas mission. It's not clear whether he bought it to eat the traditional holiday treat while not home for Christmas, or whether it would simply provide the comic relief of a fruitcake in space. But, like most fruitcakes, it remained uneaten. At some point in the trip, the astronauts on the mission signed it. And then it went up again the following Christmas. Eventually, the package became so full of signatures that it was retired. It's now on display at the Cake -- Cape Canaveral museum.
By the time Ted Kunkel, the founder's grandson, heard about his product's space exploration, it already had orbited the moon a few times, and NASA was on the phone wondering where they could get another one to continue the tradition.
I'm a bit of a fruitcake myself. There aren't too many things I'd rather have on my plate than something sweet and bready, preferably with frosting. Even the much-maligned fruitcake could make my heart flutter, though I confess that I haven't actually bought or baked one. My passion has taken me far beyond my own taste buds and deep into the moist white underbelly of the cake world, visiting pastry chefs, collecting trivia, and frequently tasting. Like a good cake, the folklore and history, the traditions and secret ingredients, beg to be celebrated and shared. (As long as I get the piece with the most frosting.)
Cake has an ancient and rich tradition, but it has never been more popular -- as a hobby, a spectator sport, and a curiosity -- than it is right now in the United States. Martha Stewart Living has a Cake of the Month; the Food Network hosts regular cake competitions, and two East Coast chefs -- Duff Goldman and Warren Brown -- have had their own weekly cake series, Sugar Rush and Ace of Cakes; decorating classes, in both the blue states and the red ones, are full; and books like Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible and Anne Byrn's The Cake Mix Doctor sell like hotcakes.
Where did cake come from, and where, besides the moon, is it going? Who's using it, and who's abusing it? Who's credited with its rise, and who's going to make it fall? It's time we heard cake's story and learned who bakes it best.
Put on some elastic-waist pants and grab a fork.