Last weekend, my kids requested cake. A two-tiered chocolate cake, specifically, with vanilla icing and rainbow sprinkles — otherwise known in our house as “the Birthday Cake.” Everyone in my family gets a version of this cake on their birthday, that we slice and serve with candles one night and then continue to pick at throughout the week, peeking under the dome of tin foil with our forks to sneak mouthfuls straight off the platter.
But last weekend was not anyone’s birthday — no one currently sharing the same 1,600-square-foot self-isolation quarters we’ve been living in for the past few weeks, anyway. And for a minute, I balked. What about a fruit tart? Or Rice Krispies treats? Or some snickerdoodles or chocolate chip cookies or any other perfectly normal, non-occasion-centric dessert that you’d typically make on a weekday — wait, was it a weekday? I swore it was Sunday. But maybe it was Tuesday? Hold on, tell me what day it is now and I can count back…
Fuck it, I made the cake.
Of the many unexpected cultural phenomena arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most awesomely science fiction-y is the emerging collective sense of timelessness. With none of the normal schedules in place with which we mark the passage of time — daily commutes and school hours and work shifts and exercise routines — we’ve all become a little untethered. Weekends and weekdays blend together and the seasons stop mattering when you’re stuck inside anyway. It’s like we’re all in the middle of a Vegas casino, with no windows or clocks, and an abundance of cocktails and desperation. In response, people have begun putting up spooky lawn decorations reserved for Halloween and re-hanging Christmas lights (right… since we totally took those down) because hey, the distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion, amirite?
So yes, I made the un-birthday cake. Because this is the time to make whatever the hell you want, whenever you want, if it feels particularly comforting during a pandemic that’s frankly scary and isolating. Other cooks out there should also feel empowered to whip up other “time-specific” foods, or dishes that are traditionally reserved for holiday celebrations.
Schedules be damned, make a gingerbread house. Make hamantaschen and moon cakes and latkes and escudella i carn d’olla. Grill hot dogs on a snow-bound Webber; boil trending black eyed peas months into the new year; bake a king cake (whoever gets the baby avoids the terrifying masked-and-gloved grocery run). Since we’re all sourdough wizards now, how about using all those crusty nubs to make stuffing? And while we’re at it, a full Thanksgiving feast? (I can’t get any potatoes right now for mashing, but pumpkin pie is perhaps the ultimate pantry dessert.)
In this time of the Great Apart, holiday foods carry with them a sense memory of togetherness. Feasting in that way — even alone — is not an indulgence, it’s a psychological necessity. Many are using this sustained period of isolation as a chance to try something new — no-knead loaves, kombucha, pasta from scratch. And yes, pushing yourself to into new cooking territory can bring some much-needed purpose to this time of monotony.
But as most of us have already figured out, while now may be a great opportunity to learn a new language and conquer the collected works of Emerson, it’s an even better time for sweatpants and Tiger King. In the midst of all this “project” cooking, it’s important to save room for the more familiar things that bring us comfort, that trigger feelings of security and nostalgia, that remind us of our own particular flavor of Better Days. Things like buñelos and brisket and nankhatai and sugar cookies and tangyuan.
Life itself is intimidating enough right now; our cooking doesn’t have to be. So yeah, let them eat cake.