Cake is pretty. It’s so pretty that we use it as a decorative icon. Cakes on potholders. Cakes on aprons. Cakes on tea towels. You can buy ceramic cakes, paintings of cakes, cards with pictures of cakes, socks with cake patterns, cakes shaped like socks, and more. You can eat a hat-shaped cake while wearing a cake-shaped hat. I’d think twice before visiting a cake-shaped house, though, especially if your name is either Hansel or Gretel. Cake is a symbol of birthdays, weddings, anniversary parties. Is it a real celebration without cake?
No, seriously. Do we have to eat cake to know we’re having a good time?
I used to order the birthday cakes every month at a large office. There were over 70 employees, so I would get two sheet cakes in different flavors. (Chocolate with chocolate frosting, and “other.”) Three things would happen every month without fail. 1. Some of the half-dozen diabetics would complain that they couldn’t eat the cake, I would offer to buy them beef jerky or whatever else they might like, and they would never offer an alternative. 2. Several people would complain about the two flavors on offer, either due to the cake, the filling, or the frosting. Either they didn’t like the flavor or it wasn’t as good as the flavor they did like. I changed the flavor every month, meaning the winners and the complainers shifted each time. 3. A number of people would take cake and either scrape off the frosting or throw half of it away. It turns out that CAKE is not magic. The specifics don’t always live up to the ideal.
One thing I can tell you about being vegan is that the cake is almost always a lie. Gluten-free people are probably nodding in sympathy. Almost every vegan cake option is chocolate, and almost every vegan cake slice at a bakery or restaurant is stale. I don’t care for chocolate, so I will generally skip the dessert if that’s the only thing on offer. Stale cake looks just as pretty as fresh cake. It’s so promising, so stately and elegant, yet whimsical. The anticipation! The excitement! The… reality.
There’s a restaurant I love across the street from my favorite thrift store. They have a large bakery case. I don’t keep baked goods at home, out of consideration for my husband, so my solo trips to this place are a rare opportunity to indulge. There are usually three or four flavors of cake on offer. You can buy a whole cake, a single slice, or a large cupcake. The cupcake is about right: about 110% of the quantity I want. The full slice is more like double. Every time I go in there, I think, okay, don’t be stupid, get the cupcake. The nice, sensible, pretty little cupcake. Then the waitress comes to the table and my mouth opens and SLICE comes out. Like I’m a ventriloquist’s dummy and some secret organ is pulling my strings. It’s probably wedged up in there next to my pancreas. The cakenium. The cakenium is all “FORGET THE CUPCAKES. GEEEVE MEEEEE CAAAAAAAAKE!” The cake arrives. It weighs five pounds and it could double as a skateboard ramp. Oh, no. It’s even bigger than I remembered. I’ve just eaten a “Philly cheesesteak” and curly fries. I couldn’t possibly.
There has never been an occasion when I didn’t finish an entire slice of cake. Even when it wasn’t very good. Even when it was stale. Even when it was a flavor I didn’t really like to begin with. I mean, it’s cake. Come on. Not only am I going to eat it, I’m going to take my fork and expertly scrape off every molecule of frosting. Masons building Versailles were never so careful with their mortar as I am with that frosting. My own dog wouldn’t leave a plate this clean, and we call him Spike and Span.
I’ve eaten the cake. Now I proceed to feel slightly ill for the next 8 hours. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that my fancy lunch was nearly triple the calories of what I normally eat? Or was it the sugar? Or the grease? Or the almost total lack of fiber, vegetables, or micronutrients? I remind myself why I don’t eat like this every day – it looks great, smells great, tastes great, but feels terrible.
The memory we form of certain images is a snapshot. It’s a moment in time. We will often form lasting memories about a particular food if we’ve suffered food poisoning; my dad hasn’t eaten salami since the Carter administration. We won’t always form memories of lesser annoyances. The frosting so sweet it makes my teeth burn. The blood sugar roller coaster that gives me a headache several hours later. The tight waistband that leaves big red welts. The bloated, near-comatose feeling. A lot of that stuff we do to ourselves every day. What, I’m supposed to think my tight waistband is a thing? That’s like worrying about shoulder tension or sleep deprivation.
The thing about desserts is that we’re genetically programmed to want them under almost every circumstance. One reason is sensory-specific satiety. Let’s say I’m eating mashed potatoes. YUM. My husband made me mashed potatoes as part of his ploy to get me to go out with him, and I must say that it was a contributing factor. There’s a limit, though. After a certain number of gallons of mashed potatoes, I’m going to be kinda done. I can have them again on a different day, but that’s plenty for now. OHO! But THEN someone brings out the dessert. Suddenly my feeble brain has completely forgotten about all those mashed potatoes. The novelty and the sheer sex appeal of that dessert has triggered my brain like a slot machine in a casino. DING DING DING! Did someone say PIE? I’ve seen this happen so many times at my own dinner parties that I had to quit enabling it: no matter how many different dessert options there are, no matter how big a meal everyone just ate, almost everyone will want at least a taste of every single treat that’s there.
Food FoMO. I may have just eaten 1200 calories, but there’s no way I’m missing out on any of these two flavors of cake, four flavors of pie, four flavors of ice cream, two kinds of cookies, or the multi-layer trifle. Life is short! We might die tomorrow! I might never see a dessert again!
I can’t deprive myself.
That’s the trouble. When we think CAKE is really the best thing in life. Is it? I mean, IS IT? Oh, I hope that’s not true. The idea that eating cake might be the highlight of someone’s life is the saddest thing I can think of. In this beautiful world full of riches, all we really want is... cake?
I fell out of love with cake for many reasons. I started to realize that eating large quantities of sugar, fat, and processed flour always left me feeling cruddy afterward. The pleasure only lasted as long as the flavor on my tongue. I started thinking ‘cake = migraine’ and ‘cake = sugar crash’ and ‘cake = night terrors.’ As I started eating healthier, sweets just stopped tasting as good. Food cravings can come from micronutrient deficiency, dehydration, sleep deprivation, boredom, or desire for temporary mood repair. Food cravings almost always seem to be for foods we shouldn’t be eating in the first place. There is nothing in cake or curly fries or potato chips or soda that is going to contribute to anything positive for the body.
I never ate the birthday cake at those office parties, even though I was the one ordering it, because it didn’t meet my criteria for Being a Food. I eat a plant-based diet. I’ve been doing it my entire adult life, so for me it’s simple and straightforward. People noticed, and people said stuff. “Are you anorexic?” someone asked, at a time when I was still obese and in my largest clothing size. It’s the same with alcohol. People who like to indulge want everyone present to indulge with them. Not doing so seems to come across as a criticism. I don’t drink booze because all it does is give me the spins and make my mouth taste terrible. I just don’t like it. I acknowledge that most people are getting something out of it that doesn’t work for me, just like coffee. Why would someone else care whether I drank their beers, drank their coffee, or ate their cake? More for you, right? Peer pressure doesn’t particularly work on me. Yeah, I’ll do karaoke, go skinny dipping, or get on the mechanical bull. No, I won’t eat or drink anything unless I want it. This is why I don’t rely on willpower to avoid eating things. 1. Willpower is a fairy tale. 2. I tell myself a story that works on ordinary days and on special occasions. If I Eat That, I Will Regret It. It’s Not Worth It.
I eat cake. I eat it sometimes. I don’t eat it every time I see it or every time it’s available, even if it does happen to be “a food” according to my criteria. That’s because I know I can get or bake cake any time I want. There is no scarcity here. I could get up at 3:00 AM and bake a cake if I wanted. I could freeze an entire sheet cake and microwave one slice at a time if I had a “cake emergency.” After 19 years, I’m used to the fact that the majority of social occasions involving cake do not include one that is suitable for my diet. I’m at a party because I want to contribute to the celebration. We do that with laughter, music, hugs, joy at someone’s happy occasion, decorations, gifts, and maybe dancing. Other people can eat cake in front of me without me feeling left out, excluded, or rejected. When I ate ordinary cake, the occasions might come up several times each week. Office birthday parties and retirement parties, birthday parties for family and friends, weddings, baby showers, dinner parties, restaurants with an enticing dessert menu, buffets, barbecues… I probably ate cake 20x more often than I do now. That doesn’t even touch on all the cookies, muffins, cupcakes, ice cream, candy bowls, pie, brownies, or whatever else. That’s why I haven’t had a migraine in two years, and it’s also why I’m at my goal weight instead of obese. Another way of saying it is that eating 20 times the right amount of cake was part of why I used to be fat and get headaches all the time.
I can’t deprive myself. I can’t deprive myself of being headache-free. I can’t deprive myself of being strong and energetic. I can’t deprive myself of the ability to stay in one consistent clothing size year-round. I don’t feel deprived anyway. Why would I? I have love in my life, friendship, music, artistic expression, flowers, pets, my favorite colors, the solace of books, anticipation, optimism, hope for the future, and so many other things. Maybe I’ll get around to eating cake again sometime soon. Maybe not. I had some dairy-free cheesecake in February, and a slice of carrot cake back in November. I’m sure there will be more cake in my life at some point, just like I’m sure I’ll see fireworks. I don’t need fireworks at every party to feel like I really celebrated, and I don’t need them to feel like every day is special or full of potential in some way. Cake can’t replace feelings of joy, celebration, friendship, social connection, or fun. That’s what makes it a lie.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.