dumb cake: traditional English love divination in
which a cake is baked in complete silence,
using bitter ingredients
On the eve of June 23, Ann St-Agnes baked a cake. Midsummer sun and heat had radiated through her kitchen all day. It melted to a buttery softness inside the house, but out on the street it stung hands that touched car door handles, withered tree leaves and stank the tar out of sidewalk cracks. Neighbours would lift a collective eyebrow over Ann’s decision to light the oven at this very moment, now that interiors had a fighting chance at cooling down. But the neighbours could keep on speculating about a house they’d never visited just as they’d done for the past nine years.
Tomorrow, however, there would be a visitor—not a neighbour but a man just one off from a complete stranger. Three days before, in the more temperate region of the grocer’s produce section, over baskets of fruit and berries, Ann had allowed herself an introduction. His bone-brown wrists had flashed into her field of vision, smooth eels that moved through the bananas after the greenest possible bunch. He dropped it into his cart, pushed on, and bumped a wheel against Ann’s shin less than an inch later. She lifted her foot to rub the bruise and he apologized, genuine and distracted, every knob and angle of his features pronounced. The sleek wrists resting over the bar of his shopping cart had the same effect as exaggerated cleavage, drawing her gaze back to them with reluctance.
To interrogate Ann about their first few moments of conversation would yield a puzzled, empty expression and no information. She couldn’t recollect how they’d managed their way past the mutual indifference of fellow shoppers, but they’d somehow wound up grasping the same point of the world in that moment, and shared it. Maybe they talked about the sodden cucumbers in the last aisle—lift them, and hear their insides sloshing while nothing but their waxed skins held them together. Possibly they lifted the hem of Ann’s skirt and inspected the shinbone that pinched out pain. There may have been a moment where Ann even complimented him on his wrists, though more likely than not she’d said arms. Wrists would have narrowed the comment to a sensuousness she wasn’t ready to admit.
What she could be sure about: they’d confessed desire to continue their reciprocal assessment by fumbling out a date, time and place. Thankfully she remembered those details, if not the way they’d been decided or how they’d been rendered in speech or expression. Ann was fairly certain the invitation and acceptance hadn’t been smooth, but it hadn’t been so awkward that they parted with a degree of dread about the 24th. She looked forward to it immediately, and set off down the aisle with her cart, already considering ingredients for the type of cake she had in mind for him.
Now she had everything set out on the kitchen counter and tapped each ingredient once. She’d designed it perfectly in her head after skimming the most old-fashioned cookbook she owned. For structure: flour, sugar, shortening, butter, salt, baking powder and a half-dozen eggs. For character: vanilla, orange peel, brandy-soaked currants, walnuts and raisins (sultanas, Ann thought to herself, wanting to say it aloud the way they did back home, but keeping her lips pressed white). For armour: almond icing, glazed to a snowy white crisp.
The doorbell buzzed. Its cranky burr must have struggled through the humid air because it sounded weaker than usual to Ann. She hopped back from the counter and nearly let go of her measuring cup. The delivery boy’s head and shoulders marked an outline against the gauze that covered her kitchen window. His shadow waited, patient in the subsiding heat outside, while Ann stood next to her counter and matched his endurance. She looked away from the window and mentally recounted her ingredients.
At this stage in the process, it was best not to opt back into the world of Hello and Please sign here. She silently waited for him to leave. The delivery boy returned to his car with empty hands. Later that day she would discover the deposit: on the front stoop of the house sat a pot of stunted sunflowers in which was nestled a small white card: Happy you invited me over. Call me if I can bring anything. John.
She spun ingredients together and exercised with the giant mixing bowl brought over from Herefordshire. It was as shiny and red as Ann’s flushed hot face as she whipped the batter with a wooden spoon. Nowadays, in this country, the only place you could find such an enormous ceramic dish new was at a restaurant supply outlet, and even then, only if you were lucky. You had to want to prepare meals measured for a throng.
When Ann and John agreed to supper at her place, her epicurean instincts had nearly derailed the cake. Ideas rollicked in her head as she walked the grocery store aisles and mentally sorted feast ingredients. Lamb’s lettuce with Romano and kalamatas; shrimp-stuffed mushrooms in tarragon crème; pan-seared duck with shaved beet and apple risotto; lemon and persimmons sorbet. She would have loved to go hard, show off, pressure him into being impressed. She rarely got the chance to practice her cooking skills on others but she wouldn’t risk affronting John with a garish display.
Instead, chestnut soup, then a roast with cabbage and potatoes, then her cake. She would feed him nothing more outlandish than parsley sprigs and dill. These days, Ann loved the thriving, progressive red of cactus fruit flesh, brought to life with a squeeze of lime, but it was too unfamiliar to serve as an offering to someone she barely knew and wanted to know better. Alien texture, exotic origin, a vulgar, suggestive hue—cactus fruit was right out. Cake reassured, and it had subtle innovations of its own if you’d been instructed in the method.
Into her icing Ann splashed white vinegar. She knew just how much she could use before its sting would rise out of the sweetness and bite the palate. Frost a cake with vinegar-laced icing, and get a better glaze consistency in the end. Baking was strange that way. Who would imagine, on tasting the dessert, that there was nearly too much vinegar stirred into the icing. It was the same with the cake batter itself, into which Ann secreted more than the usual dash of salt, to help give it rise. The unpleasant conjuring up the pleasant. Chemistry, and maybe something more.
Later that evening, Ann sat out on the back step and peeled roasted chestnuts, just the way her mother had back home, years gone in the past. Their sticky-silky outsides fell away easily, comforting in her fingers. Not cactus fruit, but to be fair the nuts had their own mark of presence with their pungent emissions rising up from the bowl, bragging of generations’ worth of fare for hungry mouths, and not just in Herefordshire.
Inside, the finished cake roosted on its pedestal. Almond nibs stuck up from the glaze like bird beaks iced shut, and from the depth of the cake a few raisins peeped outward through sugary cataracts. On finishing, she thought it was probably her most notable effort of the year, and left the kitchen with her chestnuts and paring knife before she was tempted to break into the dessert for a taste, and ruin it.
Ann walked back and forth in front of the mirror, circling a little at times like the carol dancers back home during festival. Her legs were draped in wide black gabardine trousers, cut so long she needed shoes on her feet to hitch the cuffs off the ground. Her torso was wrapped in a fitted, white broadcloth shirt with trailing sleeves. She knew the outfit worked superficially and loved how it tailored up her figure, but it was too much like the cactus fruit, too bold, too now and devoutly individual. What was needed this evening, for John, was something a little more accustomed.
The trousers and blouse came off. Barefoot, Ann walked out of the bedroom in easygoing green, wearing one of her favourite summer dresses. Downstairs the table was laid out for two, the cake pedestal as centerpiece between four white candles placed equidistant from one another as if they were lighted map-points. It was nearly eight o’clock, and the candlelight would soon be the most prominent illumination in the house. On a little occasion table in the room’s corner sat John’s sunflowers.
He arrived at her door on time, which didn’t surprise her. He wore short sleeves, keeping cool and offering up his carved brown wrists. He handed her a bottle of wine and a basket of red currants. Ann remembered she’d made a passing comment, back at the grocery store, about how hard fresh currants were to find in town, even though they were in season. She thanked him with a smile and led him inside. She found it difficult to work her tongue back to life now that she had company, but after a few false starts, returned conversation.
Now they sat over supper, over the main course. After the chestnut soup, (which John had never eaten before tonight, and which Ann feared had jarred him a little), their struggling dialogue crumpled into a dry little pile of odd words riding on decayed puffs of air as they exited her mouth. She watched his fork explore the chunks of cabbage and potato.
“My mum called it bubble and squeak,” she forced out. “Traditional Sunday dinner back home.”
They smiled weakly at one another. John tucked into his serving—amenable or a perfect actor, Ann couldn’t tell. At least there was the cake, glossy and inviting on the pedestal just inches from John’s flexing wrist. Things would pick up when they arrived at dessert.
It seemed her prediction materialized, at first. John’s face lit up behind a whorl of steam that rose from his coffee cup. He watched her hands split the cake open and caught her eye with a surprised wink when he saw the raisins and dried currants glistening inside. He made a sound, Whew, using just his breath, and took the plate from Ann with a new liveliness. She sat next to him with her own piece and sampled.
At first, fragile crispness as her teeth gently fractured the glaze. Sugary lace on her tongue that dissolved and left a mellow sweet. The cake itself was silken in her mouth, and a bit of orange zest flipped its sunburned caramel flavour over her palate. John gazed at her, chewing, pointing and nodding at the cake on his plate, enraptured. He swallowed and words formed in the void between bites.
“That…it’s like…I love the…it’s really unusual in the best possible way,” he concluded.
Ann smiled. Short messages managed their way out, data about ingredients and recipe source. The dialogue livened in spurts, threatened to ail, returned a few times, then petered out as they finished their pieces of cake. For a few minutes they had nearly shared in the world again, as they had at the store the other day—tonight, without the distracting anticipation of a first time/next time, they missed finding the hold they needed and sat like miscommunicating strangers at the table, pinned to their seats by the last bit of coffee that demanded to be drained from their bowls.
She offered John a second piece of cake, but coffee finished off with a hasty swig, he declined and rose apologetically from his chair. Small talk was now nearly impossible. She walked behind him stiffly as they headed through the dim house, missed opportunity coochie-dancing in the background somewhere. At the door there were thanks but there were no new plans.
Ann stood in the dark kitchen, listening as he stepped down the front walk and started his car. He drove away immediately, not allowing for any pauses where optimism might have gestated. There was nothing left to do but clean up.
On her first trip back into the quiet dining room, the remaining cake still had presence under the ice-white glaze. It was only a quarter gone, and would be her breakfast and her mid-afternoon snack the next day. She paused table-side and gazed down at it, disappointment griming her inside. Useless, she thought. But for one last meager ritual.
She lifted the pastry knife and cut one more piece out of the cake, placed it on a napkin and studied it. Mum’s rule was an old one. God knew how long it had been around, and where it had come from exactly: carve his initials into the icing, wrap it up and place it under one’s pillow. Maybe odds could have been beaten, last night, if she’d slept on the cake before John had come through her door, but Ann couldn’t imagine serving guests a second-hand dessert.
For a minute, as the four candles began to sputter around the cake pedestal, light-shots picking at the cake crumbs with invisible beaks, Ann had it in her mind she would do it anyway. Then her head jerked once, and she moved into the kitchen, butted up the lid on the garbage bin, and let the piece, sporting JC, fall in.
© 2007 by Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published in Ottawa Arts Review, Winter 2007.)