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EXPLODING space matter birthed galaxies. Mud-dwelling amoebae evolved into flagellated organisms. Amniotic-drenched kittens tumbled from the flexed hind legs of cats. Duly, life slogs from life. The word placenta recoiled, too, from an omphalos. Its etymological birth is rooted in Latin, meaning flat cake, and in the Greek word plakoenta, referring to a flat surface. At altar, the ancient Romans offered placenta, a thin, sweet cake having nothing to do with bloody afterbirth, as a sacrifice to their pantheon of gods. Among the beseeched was Ceres, a goddess whose lordly realms included motherly love and agriculture, fertility and rites for the dead. Made of layered honey, cheeses, bay leaves, and pastry, placenta preceded the modern conception of cake. More like a cross between pizza and baklava, placenta was fashioned with intent, offered in earnest, and consumed consciously and rarely.

• • •

I’m nearly eight months pregnant. A humid one hundred degrees marks the typical start to another Indiana summer. Numbly, I arrange plastic utensils on the table where the catered food will soon go, manipulate the dyed carnations in their foam-filled containers. They won’t stop looking fake and pitiful despite my efforts. Everything and everyone sweats: the gallon of Countrytime lemonade on the table, my father’s round stomach as he aligns rows of folding chairs, even the fetus I’m growing. Lucky, I think as I jab another stem into green foam, at least you get a continuous bath. I never speak to my future son directly, out loud, like the mothers to-be do in movies. I tried once and felt foolish. Maybe it’s a sign that I’m not cut out for this, I wonder to myself. A selfish part of me wishes I’d go into labor, ending every insufferable part of this day. But, no. Sacrifice: that is the order of motherhood.

My mother and aunts, who are at once the creators and the coordinators of chaos, have tasked me with picking up the cake for the memorial service scheduled for later today in my parents’ pole barn. I do what they expect of me as quietly as possible, which isn’t even necessary because they only hear themselves speak.

“Make sure you get a receipt,” my mom says, “so you can submit it to the estate for reimbursement.”

“To the estate? For cake?” I ask. The woman in memoriam died three months ago, so the immediacy of death has waned. The plucking of Gram’s existence from ours, dulled. Somehow, it has taken this long for her five children to pull together a formal memorial.

“What? People do it all the time,” my mom replies. As a probate paralegal, she would know. But with respect to my Gram’s estate, which as far as I can tell extends to the contents of seven bins and boxes, it seems absurd.

• • •

In Medieval Europe, desserts were a novelty largely limited to the upper class and royalty. Honey commonly provided sweetness, and nuts were added for texture and flavor in several European regions. Knowledge about this time period’s cakes comes from surviving recipe books and instruction manuals. Measurements of ingredients were precise. Cooking was a long and delicate process; stone fires required stoking and achieving consistent heating throughout a single dish was difficult.

• • •

Before Gram went into the ICU, before hospice, before her faded eyes looked past the nurses and died, my mother was barely speaking to her. She’d been tersely calling Gram “Mother,” not “Mama,” which is what she calls her now that she’s gone, and what she will probably call her for the rest of her own life. Before, she rolled her eyes, barely listening to Gram’s catalogue of ailments. Ignored her requests for help around her tiny, subsidized apartment. Ignored her imploring for company once she was in the nursing home. Said to me, “I’ve put in more than my fair share. I bought her new furniture when she had that apartment. She ruined it with her chain smoking. I bring her that special yogurt she likes. Do my sisters do that? Does Pat do that?” At that point, I was to say, “No, you do it all. They ought to take on more of your great burden.” But instead, I said nothing because the cost of a few yogurts and a loveseat didn’t seem an unreasonable currency for the result: continued dignity, small comfort.

I don’t blame my mom entirely for her lack of sympathy—Gram had tried to have her arrested a few months back. My mother had stored Gram’s purse at her house rather than risk leaving it in a hospital cubby for what ended up being a two-week hospital stay. Gram called the police to report that my mother had stolen it, despite the fact that she was her power of attorney and paid Gram’s bills while she was hospitalized. Case workers and police officers scrutinized and questioned her. But in the purse, she found that Gram had stashed the rubber tourniquet tubing that she’d stolen from the hospital when the nurses weren’t looking. This confirmed what she already knew was true.

Before I leave to get the cake, I see my mother write on Facebook, “Here’s a picture of my dear Mama.” Then, she says to someone on the phone, “Are you coming to Mama’s memorial?” At fifty years old, she is a small child again, grasping for the safety of her mother’s thighs.

• • •

In the 1700s, bakers began omitting yeast from their cake recipes. They gathered eggs in the early daylight hours, and later beat them into the batter with their well-trained hands. Conical corsets mirrored conical-shaped cake towers, or perhaps the other way around. Liqueurs were baked into hoop-bound cake forms by women sporting panniers beneath their frocks. There was the sense that the layering of both cakes and women’s clothing went on forever, compressing their innards into a tiny infinity. 

While leavening agents and the shape of cakes were changing in the eighteenth century, the social circumstances of eating them were not. Trade vessels bearing spices offered a complexity of flavor for those who could afford to buy them. Lard and sweetmeats added savory notes to cakes served at ceremonies, weddings, and religious holiday celebrations.

• • •

Before Gram went loopy in conversations and began dozing off mid-bite at lunch, we did regular things. We splashed poolside and shared the joy of watching Patrick Swayze dance on TV. There was the pleasant routine of feeding chickens and gathering eggs. We spent time assessing their different textures and colors and weights. Flecked brown, smooth white, a touch of green—all of them splendid little miracles. We made cherry cheesecake from scratch with my mother watching us from the doorway, smiling a little, pretending she wasn’t trying to watch the how of it, though I saw her recording the steps in her mind: flour, butter, forks, fingers. But she must have forgotten, because she never did show me how to make a crust, let alone a whole cheesecake. I had to figure that out on my own, later, when I had my own kitchen. Like a sorcerer, I’d closed my eyes and envisioned Gram’s process, laid my hands across a carton of eggs waiting for them to speak to me, then turned to the Internet to fill the gaps in my memory.

By my best accounting, my grandmother was overwhelmed as a mother of five, and she was busy drifting into and out of a slew of marriages. A certain detachment from her primary role seemed a mechanism for survival, perhaps her only one. Of course, it left irreparable marks on each of her children. From the perspective of a generation removed, I can see how it happened: in moments. In the moment, for example, that you choose not to teach your daughter to make a crust from scratch because there’s too much to do already, too many mouths to feed in quick succession, and not enough time to teach any of them how they will later feed their own children—let alone themselves. (When that time does come, they’ll do the best they can with canned potatoes and precooked meats, fast food, and Chef Boyardee.) It happens in the moment you realize that, instead of proper food, your eight-year-old daughter only knows how to make a good highball. (Go easy on the ginger ale, extra ice.) In another moment, you discover that your adult daughter cannot bake a cake and must, instead, dump boxed powders into a bowl for her own daughter’s birthday, which stings a little. Your granddaughter learns to crack the egg, lick the bowl, and nothing more.

The aged reliably refocus their energy and intentions near the end of life, quietly wishing they’d realized sooner that all the previous moments had been important. That the weight of the sum of those moments had always been moving at a slow velocity toward a singular reckoning. The heavy ones anchor you too soon in a chair, from which a certified nursing assistant spoon-feeds you; the lighter ones keep you afloat for another season of watching pussy willows bud.

The sum of my mother’s moments has yet to be reconciled; the weight of my own is even further away. The weight of dumping boxed powder versus the value of personal instruction remains unmeasured, as does the weight of self versus other and of too much versus not enough.

• • •

Baking soda, made of the chemical compound sodium bicarbonate, was first employed by the ancient Egyptians in preserving their dead for the journey to the afterlife. Fast forward several thousand years to the Industrial Revolution, where together, baking soda and baking powder simplified cake baking. Flour was bleached, refined. Thinned. These innovations resulted in cakes that were accessible to the everyman in his everyday life, made by his everyday wife. Thus, competition in the boxed-cake market began.

• • •

Many meetings happen with respect to Gram. When she was alive and careening toward death, they met with doctors and psychiatrists and caseworkers about her care at the nursing home, about what it would take to commit her against her will, about which of them she could live with. (None, as it turned out.) The private meetings, ones without doctors, were about the morphine addiction she’d developed in response to her post-polio pain. About the horror of finding used needles and burned-up spoons hidden in the plastic cubbies that rolled around Gram’s bathroom floor to make room for her walker. About the doped-up twenty-two-year-old she met outside of a grocery store who started living on her couch and stealing her social security and eating her key lime yogurts—a meeting whose details I can’t help but try to conjure in my mind. Did Gram approached him or he her? Did she use slang in her corralling of the disaffected? How had she acquired this particular vernacular? What did the words shoot up sound like in my grandmother’s dentured mouth? Like marbles? Silk? Putty? How did they stick against her teeth, and did she redden with shame or was she brazen and unafraid? How, exactly, did a nearly eighty-year-old woman entangle herself in such a situation?

Now the meetings are about planning Gram’s memorial, about catering, about the division of seven bins and boxes, about who speaks first. About cake.

In the grocery store parking lot, I sit in the air conditioning of my car for longer than is environmentally responsible. I look at my face in the mirror and dab it with powder. I apply lip gloss that is too pink for my skin tone. Finally, I emerge from the car and plunge into the heat, feeling huge and unwieldy in my pregnant body. I look left and right, not for cars, but for familiar faces. I’ll be mortified if I see anyone I went to high school with, mainly because I’m popping into the grocery store on a Friday, eight months pregnant, as if I’m just running an errand in the middle of an aimless day and don’t have a job, which is not the case. As if I do this all the time. As if it’s my grocery store. But it’s not. I don’t live here anymore.

I weave my way through loaves of bread and rows of green, red, and yellow condiments, careful not to look up at anyone, and arrive breathlessly at the bakery department.

“I’m picking up a cake for Williams,” I say to the bakery attendant, who looks a little too young to know me. I lean on the glass countertop, a small measure of relief.

“All right. There are two, actually.” He retrieves them from a rolling cart and presents them to me. “Just take these up to the register when you’re ready to pay.” He gives me a hand-written receipt.

“Thanks,” I say. There’s an assortment of remainder donuts in the glass case below my forearms. “Can I have a cream puff, too? Or whatever those are called,” I say, pointing down at the mounds of curlicue pastry and white fluff.

He smiles at me affectionately and reddens, which I think is because I’m enormously pregnant and adding donuts to my cake order. But that’s not why I’m buying it. Gram always kept fresh cream puffs at her house when I visited as a kid. They weren’t my favorite, but they were hers, and right now that’s good enough for me. “Sure,” he says, stifling a laugh.

“You know what they say about a pregnant woman’s appetite.” I wink at him, which is not something I would normally do and might constitute harassment. I want to stop talking and sit down.

“Um,” he says. “Yeah. Oh, I need you to check the cakes to make sure everything’s the way you ordered it.”

I pop open the box of the first cake. The frosting is white with accents in Gram’s favorite color, orange. The words HONORED and LOVED are scrawled above and below the frosting screen print of a young Donna, as if the all-caps somehow make the words truer, the embodiment of redemption. They remind me of one of the last things she told me. “There’s a lot they don’t tell you about getting old. Your own children won’t take you in after everything you’ve done for them. In the end, you’ll be alone.” I told her she could live with me, but she declined. “Just knowing you mean it is enough,” she said. I think for a minute about licking off the HONORED and the D in LOVED, and then asking the bakery boy to write TOUGH instead. That would be more accurate. But tough love is more complex when the subject is your elderly mother, or grandmother. And nobody writes books about how to manage that.

In the second box is another cake with another frosting-printed picture and another all-caps message that reads DONNA-MITE. I sigh. “Yeah, this looks about right.”

“Great. Enjoy your cream puff,” he says, with a laugh.

As I approach the check-out area, I carefully select a line whose cashier I’m certain won’t know me. I pay and waddle out to my car.

“Fuck this cake,” I say, looking right at it as if it can hear me. Something about seeing her face in edible sugar doesn’t sit right with me. First, it’s not the face I knew. The face I knew was aged and lovely, framed in bleach-blonde hair. I do not know this smooth-smiling woman with dark hair. I’ve heard only rumors about the secrets it holds.  If, when refreshments are served, I’m offered my Gram’s young-self face, I may throw up. How could I possibly eat a dead woman’s cake face? Second, the more I think about the practice of writing words with frosting onto cakes, the more it seems like something only crazy people would do. 

I take the cream puff out of its bag and eat the whole thing. With my mouth full of homage, I say again with gusto, “Fuck. This. Cake.”

• • •

As unionization swept the North American business landscape, women entered the workforce and dual income became a necessity for many families rather than a rarity. Disposable income and block chunks of weekend leisure time redefined western culture. Families began going out for meals more frequently and the restaurant industry boomed. A diverse range of desserts created from both creative and commercial mindsets offered restaurant-goers many après-meal selections. Cake tradeshows held in city conference centers further commercialize the cake industry, inviting private shop owners and chain restaurant marketers alike to invest in the offerings.

• • •

Four sisters gather around a nondescript kitchen table to discuss their mother’s memorial proceedings.

Maureen: Kathy will speak first. She’s good at that kind of thing.

Kathleen: D’you guys want me to?

Maureen: Well, do you want to?

Kathleen: I don’t mind, if that’s what you’re asking.

Colleen: Do you or don’t you?

Kathleen: Yes.

Colleen: Yes you mind? Or yes you’ll do it?

Kathleen: I’ll do it. I want to do it.

Colleen: After you, it’ll be Maury.

Kathleen: But what about Colleen? Shouldn’t she go next? She’s the oldest.

Carleen: Then I’ll be last. I’m always last. How about I go first—

Colleen: No, Car. Kathy goes first, then oldest to youngest.

Carleen: Youngest to oldest. I’m tired of being left out of everything. There’ll be nothing left to say by the time it’s my turn.

Maureen: What about Patrick?

Kathleen: What about him? He’s not here.

Maureen: Well, should we get him on speaker or something?

Colleen: No, not for a memorial. You don’t do that. Jesus, Maury.

Maureen: Well, excuse me for wanting to include our only brother.

Kathleen: I don’t appreciate you taking the Lord’s name in vain, Colleen.

Colleen: I’m fucking Buddhist, Kathleen.

“Here’s the cake,” I say once they quiet down. I set the boxes in front of them on the table.

My mother pops open their tops, and she and her sisters peer into the frosting like it’s a wishing well. When they aren’t talking, their faces are mostly the same: all lips and eyes with just a suggestion in the brow of being maybe-or-maybe-not-of-the-same-paternity. After they’ve stopped crying, my mom holds out her hand. “Did you get the receipt?”

I take it out of my pocket and hand it to her, my breath catching with the strain of a false contraction.

• • •

In 2009, a reality TV show called Cake Boss premieres on cable. Its documentary approach zooms in on the day-to-day business of running a cake bakery. Based in Hoboken, New Jersey, the show stars Italian-American Buddy Valastro. His team of bakers and staff, most of whom are related to Valastro by blood or marriage, creates monstrous cakes in the shape of craps tables, football fields, New York City, animals, cars—you name it—that often stretch the length of a kitchen table or more. In his kitchen, Valastro’s big personality and a string of catastrophes among the staff keep viewers engaged.

• • •

The whole time the speeches are going, four given live and one speaker-phoned in (after all, my mother will have her way), I think about the boy from the grocery store who laughed about the cream puff. After an hour, I feel like I’m going to faint and they’re still talking, so I stand out in the yard and watch the scene from there. I sit in the grass, take my shoes off, and turn the hose on to a slow flow to cool my legs.

They’ve got everyone who knew Gram that’s still alive seated in rows of folding chairs in the barn. I watch sweat rings form on their backs. Drops of it roll down the red slopes of bald, speckled heads. Ladies fan themselves and wipe sweat from their brows. My dad’s drop-down golf net is pinned up and secured above them, hanging over their heads like a trapeze act’s safety net. A slideshow happens. Then, music. People grow restless, and none of the sisters seem to notice or care. With the hose still going and my feet almost numb from the cold, I stare into the cornfield that surrounds my parents’ property until I can hear it—the far off rustling of barely-moving leaves and tassels that make a sh-sh sound. For a moment, it’s the loveliest sound I’ve ever heard. Like a sea-weary sailor to a siren, I’m ready drown myself in it.

The corn stops making noise as the second hour of speech-giving passes, and I shift my attention to my cell phone. I look up cream puff in the Urban Dictionary. There are a couple of possible uses, both involving the precise deposit of male gametes onto the female body. That little bastard, I think, no wonder he was laughing.

I feel terrible about the people sitting in their drenched clothes in the barn. I half-expect one of them to pass out any moment, when they’re finally released from the speeches and welcomed to start eating face-cake. I go into the house to lie down in the air conditioning, put a pillow over my face, and scream. I forget that the baby can hear me.

• • •

Cake pops, gaining popularity as a wedding cake alternative and birthday party fare in the twenty-first century, are made by scooping dollops of batter into form pans, inserting cardboard lollipop-style sticks into each pop before baking, and then coating the cooled “cakes” in candy frosting. The finished product can be eaten in a single bite—by literally popping them into one’s mouth. With over 107 million search results for recipes on Google, the trendy desserts promise to stick around for a while.

• • •

A few weeks after the memorial, my son is born via emergency C-section. The first thought I have is, We should be dead. Two hundred years ago, we would have been dead. A hundred years ago, dead. Instead of giving him to me, they hold him up to my face like a caught fish and then take him away. Hours later, I wake up in a room, alone and without a baby, trying and failing to remember his tiny face. With my eyes out of focus, I register my husband, who’s asleep somewhere near me. The smell of blood, singed skin, sweat, and must fill my nose, which is all wrong because I should be smelling my son’s head. I’ve read that the top of a baby’s head gives off pheromones that drive the instincts for motherly love. But no one is smelling my baby’s head—its scent is evaporating into nothing. Alarms sound throughout my body, warning me that his entire future may crumble if I don’t smell his head immediately. Unable to move my lower half, I lean over to hit the nurse button, one, twice, three times, until a woman appears in the doorway. Before it’s explained to me why on earth I have not yet seen the child that was cut out of my stomach, a hospital representative stands in front of me with a clipboard.

“And would you like the photographer to take pictures of the baby?” she asks.

“What? No.”

“And would you like a birthday cake delivered to your room? We have chocolate or vanilla. No, out of vanilla today. Just chocolate.” She yawns and poises her pen over the clipboard.

“A birthday cake? No, it’s five in the morning. I want to see my baby.” I try not to curse at her because she’s just doing her job.

She finally leaves.

When they roll him in, I try to nurse him, but his mouth is lazy. Already, his innate sense to search blindly for his mother with his mouth has waned, nature’s reflexes having been disrupted by the surgery and the hospital staff. Already, I fail him. What he manages to eat, he throws up. Again and again. I’m assured by two doctors that this is normal, but I know it is not and ask for a third. I can tell by their eyes that I’m a nuisance, that they’d rather be sleeping, but what else can I do? There is nothing to pray to; there is no matriarch to whom I can defer; there are no ceremonies to perform. There is only me and him and the whisper of instinct.


Raised in the rural Midwest, Angela Palm earned a BA in English Literature and a BS in Criminal Justice at Saint Joseph's College. She owns Ink + Lead Literary Services and co-founded the Renegade Writers' Collective, a writing center in Burlington, Vermont, in 2013. Her second book, an essay collection titled Riverine, is out now from Graywolf Press. Angela is the editor of a book featuring work by Vermont writers, called Please Do Not Remove (Wind Ridge Books, 2014). Part celebration of vintage library ephemera and part literary eclecticism, each piece in the anthology is inspired by used library check out cards.

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BT #001 © 2013 Angela Palm. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, November 2013.


the devolution
of cake

by angela palm