Thursday, July 05, 2007

Red Flag

The 4th of July is over, and I didn’t get anywhere near a sheet cake decorated with strawberries and blueberries. Not in real life, at least. I have, however, seen two emails, one magazine article, and countless magazine ads that feature the atrocious and much-despised “Flag Cake” that rears its ugly head this time each year. All of them, of course, present this idea as new and clever. Some of them have even taken the red, white, and blue dessert concept a step further. Hooray!

Why must we have a flag-shaped dessert at Fourth of July? I don’t see anyone making pilgrim- or turkey-shaped cakes at Thanksgiving. You get a basic, round pumpkin or pecan pie. Why can’t we just have a simple round pie or cake for Fourth of July, too? Why, for that matter, do we have to have a red, white and blue dessert to show our patriotism? Why does this cake now seem to embody everything that America stands for?

I’m sure the first time I saw this idea, maybe a hundred and ten years ago, it was cute. A sheet cake decorated with white frosting (or Cool Whip, which as a product is a total abomination and should be banned, but that’s another story), cut strawberries for stripes and a blueberry “star field.” My husband had some college friends who always threw a 4th of July cookout, and inevitably at least two of these little charmers would show up. This was at least 10 years ago.

I feel now that, as a nation, we should be “over” the flag cake, but every year someone at Jello or Kraft Foods or Better Homes & Gardens magazine trots out this stale idea and offers it up as an adorable and patriotic addition to your holiday meal (which, if they would have it, would be a cookout. NOOOOO!!!!!!!!!). Martha Stewart always feels the need to provide something red, white, and blue, but her folks have moved upscale to panna cotta and red currants. I even saw a recommendation from Ina Garten for a Memorial Day menu that included one of these cakes. Hers was a little more elaborate than Cool Whip smeared on a box yellow cake with cut strawberries and some blueberries decoratively arranged on top, but it was still a sheet cake decorated like a flag.

A friend sent me a link to a newspaper food section article in which the author confessed that those flag cakes always “tempted” her, but that she wasn’t “the decorating type.” I can’t say that I would really describe slathering a cake with frosting or whipped cream and pushing a few berries down into it in lines as “decorating” exactly. Even “garnishing” is a bit too elaborate a concept for that. This woman’s solution was to make a cake which, if the picture is any indication, looks not unlike a bundt cake covered with cream gravy. Now there’s a delightful change.

And now, as I mentioned, the various food manufacturers have made advances in the red, white, and blue dessert arena. Feeling that we might as an audience be tired of the flag cake after 15 years or so, they’ve added to their repertoire by creating other red, white, and blue desserts. Gee, thanks! The one I noticed involved blue Jello, blueberries, red Jello, and (no doubt) Cool Whip.

On the 4th of July (or really, on every holiday) I want something that reminds me of the Norman Rockwell world we don’t live in. Something that makes us think of the childhood we never had. Oh I know nostalgia for something that never existed is sappy and Hallmark, but really, don’t we all want to feel like we grew up in Mayberry with parents like Jane Wyatt and Robert Young? Well, OK, maybe everybody doesn’t, but I do. And I’d kind of like my kids to. I grew up in the city as an only child. I longed for the kind of life that the Brady Bunch had, or Beaver Cleaver. I admit I’m hopelessly sentimental and even goopy, and food contributes to that for me. I can’t think of anything more truly American than a good cherry pie with a scoop of ice cream on it. I know that even though I live in a surprisingly close community (for a place with 20,000 people, my town feels fairly small), my kids will never have the freedom of Mayfield. But I like the idea of giving my friends and family things to eat that make them say “You made it? I haven’t had that made from scratch since I was a kid!”

Maybe part of this comes from my own upbringing, in which nothing was ever made from scratch, including my birthday cakes. They always came from a bakery. A very nice bakery, to be sure, but a bakery. Dinners were packaged this or canned that. When Lipton first introduced Noodles & Sauce, my father went nuts; dinner every night for weeks was some flavor of Lipton Noodles & Sauce with some kind of “meat”—chicken, tuna, ground beef. I want my children to know what a homemade birthday cake tastes like. I want them to understand that “sauce” is not made from flavored powder with milk and butter added. I want them to think that dessert on the 4th of July means something made out of fruit that’s only available in the summertime, possibly with a scoop of cool ice cream on top of it. Most of all I want them never to know what a flag cake is.

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