Sunday, September 25, 2011

In Re: Banana Cake

For far back as you can remember, a glorious procession of cakes and puddings had their origins in the secret reaches of your mother’s kitchen, emerging like the Botticelli Venus for birthdays, family dinners, and spontaneous festivity.  In time, you came to realize that you were the beneficiary of a fierce competition between your mother and her closest set of friends, guinea pig to the cake, icing, or pudding that would once again set “the girls” scrambling to their own laurels for recipes of greater worth.

The family joke was that when the request for a particular recipe came, your mother, under the guise of producing her creations ad lib and ad hoc, would deliberately neglect a vital ingredient.  This would allow her added one-up of her competition.  “I don’t understand it.  That recipe always works for me.”

To her credit, she never attempted pies, generous in her devotion to the pies, breads, and pastries of her close group.  But let the subject turn to the cake, the pudding, or the cookie, and her eyes glinted with the mischief of a true, accomplished baker.  From this cornucopia came a cake that has always been your favorite.  The banana cake with chocolate frosting has seen you through many a birthday, many a high point in your life, many a time when some extraordinary solace was necessary.  She has been gone for almost fifteen years, but her banana cake lives on, its fluffy, flecked yellow insides, its thick swirls of chocolate icing luring you to raise the forkful to your lips, then close your eyes to indulge.

You were not surprised at all when asked your preference of cake for your recent birthday.  “Banana,” you said, knowing it would be “other” banana, nevertheless nostalgic as you bit into it, tasting the double joy of what was and the present moment.  Your eyes nearly teared up over the luxurious wonder of it; you had had noting approximating a banana cake since 1995, at about which time Fate had caught up with your mother, causing her to forget perhaps even more than one of the ingredients.

Icons are like that; they shimmer in memory, as inviting and tempting as The Sirens were to Odysseus and his men.  When you happen on an idea for a story or an essay, the equivalent of your mother’s splendid banana cake begins its journey through your memory to the point where you are off by yourself, a tall glass of the coldest possible milk close to hand along with a dish, a spatula, and a napkin to catch such crumbs and icing as may find their way to your shirt.

You set forth, filled with the confidence you can evoke this particular banana cake, cause editors to slather over the result, as though judges at a contest, identifying Ann Lowenkopf’s banana cake in a double bind test.  You adore that cake.  Although you foreswear attempts to describe it, you do work to some degree at evoking it to the point where the reader will stop you one day and say the equivalent of, “Man, your Mama sure knew how to bake a chocolate cake.”  It is an impossible goal.  You know that going in.  As you consign draft after draft into being, you are reminded of your father’s jokes about your mother leaving out ingredients.  You rack your brain for clues to dimensions you may have left out, scurry to blend them in.

With grateful thanks, you accept the equivalent you got for your birthday, when someone asked you what cake of all possible types of cake you wanted.  Reality and imagination have made the equation work to the most wondrous point of all, your absolute gratitude at having this particular banana cake, this particular icon, to strive for and the modest presence of technique you have to essay it.

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