My husband walks through the door with a suspicious amount of spring in his step for the middle of the week, a plastic supermarket bag tucked under his arm, and an I’m-up-to-something grin on his face. “Appy af irtday,” he blurts out the half-birthday greeting we typically reserve for our kids on what I now realize must be my af irtday. He then reveals the contents of the bag. Half a garishly colored supermarket birthday cake. Yellow cake with thick white icing dyed an unnatural shade of orange. Atop this halved culinary masterpiece sits half a bunch balloons drawn with frosting. I look down at the gift and can’t help but fall a little bit more in love with the man I married. Such is the magic of a supermarket occasion cake.
Save for the flour and sugar poured into it, there is nothing particularly refined about a mass-produced sheet cake. There are countless better looking and more sophisticated desserts out there. Still, I would trade them all for a sheet cake. Not the fancy kind from pretty bakeries with tiled floors, marble countertops, and custom glass cases. But the ones baked in industrial sized pans by employees who wear plastic gloves as they mix that exquisite frosting in oversized buckets. Cakes not created with texture or flavor combinations in mind, but instead constructed for the lofty purpose of holding up as much dense frosting as possible. These grocery store creations remain my perfect taste bud time machine. Crude, overly sweetened tributes to what childhood could be — should be. A time where everyone got the same sized piece of cake on a paper plate. A time when occasionally you scored a corner piece or, better yet, a flower. A time when candles came with wishes.
Before they were sold on the periphery of Safeways, birthday cakes were mainly for the wealthy in the Western World. The industrial revolution changed all that, which is why we are able to walk into Costco and purchase what I believe to be a near perfect example of the art form. Maybe the availaibilty is part of the appeal. More likely it’s the frosting. Thick, sugary, dense frosting that cannot be replicated beyond the checkout counter.
An important note about frosting: Many turn up their palates at the very idea of a supermarket cake. Still others specifically claim not to like the icing. Pay them — and their dark ganache-laden souls — no mind. They are suspicious folk. I question their values system, their moral integrity and their commitment to social justice. But they do serve one admirable purpose on the sheet cake food chain. These poor misguided cake eaters will scrape the frosting off their very own piece and then plop it down on yours. Clearly they do not know what they do. They do not understand that the taste of childhood is can be purchased at most chain grocery stores. They do not understand that they are scarping off magic.
Although I have tried, I can’t recall my first piece of sheet cake or even the first one presented to me. Like the oceans and clouds, I imagine they have always been around, a part of my culinary scenery. When I was growing up in a time and place before Pinterest boards, the choices were either a homemade cake or a store-bought one that either came from the supermarket or Carvel. Ice cream wasn’t my thing back then and homemade not an option. My mother was and remains a horrific and uninterested cook. She has ruined brownies from a boxed mix. For a short time my dad took up baking, a hobby that resulted in some gorgeous layered chocolate creations but that was long after my love affair with sheet cake was cemented. My heart already belonged to another.
I am not alone. My friend Emily and I have bonded over what we have dubbed “the food of the gods.” We have long conversations about our devotion to them, the proper consistency required for the best possible frosting, and the proper sheet cake flavor combination. (Yellow cake, white icing, for the record.) We have debated the merits of Giant cake versus Costco cake. And, we have mused about the ideal cake to frosting ratio. When Emily joined the online dating world, her profile included a line about her adoration for the sheet cake. “I wanted people to know that my commitment to sheet cake was not just a phase,” she told me. “And that any partner needs to be just as into sheet cake as I am.”
Happily, her profile helped her find that right partner. Another man, like my husband, who understands that sheet cakes indeed are the food of the gods, half birthdays and, it seems, the food of true love.