“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” the famous or infamous phrase wrongly translated as “Let them eat cake,” was almost certainly never said by the French Queen Marie Antoinette as a riposte to being told that the peasants had no bread. But for various reasons, the phrase attached itself to the unfortunate queen who had neither brioche nor cake when she went to the guillotine.
But the line, real or not, is only part of the noble history of cake. But cake is becoming more difficult to find and cakes made the old fashioned way, from scratch, are rare indeed.
In the quest for cake in Texoma, the favorite shops are the usual suspects of sweet merchants. Gayle Anderson, the head cake decorator at the Frosted Shoppe in Denison said they try to always have Italian cream with cream cheese frosting and chocolate layer cake with butter cream frosting on hand, by the cake or the slice, for their loyal customers.
“We also have carrot cakes and strawberry,” Anderson said. “I would say that the Italian cream and the carrot cakes are the most popular.”
In Sherman, Mom’s Bakery is a favorite of many. It offers a coconut layer cake that can inspire memories of one’s childhood.
In the time before desserts came in a box, cakes were more rare commodities than pies. They were more complicated to make, took more time and were more prone to failure. Cake mixes had been introduced in the late 1920s, but the results were less that satisfactory. The cakes made from the mixes just were not very good, especially when compared to the homemade versions.
The nation’s two big millers, General Mills and Pillsbury, began working in earnest on a better mix cake in 1943, but it was six years before General Mills introduced its first Betty Crocker mix. It was not a success.
The mix had everything; all the homemaker did was add water. The cakes baked up high, moist and tasty, and when test panels were offered mix cakes and homemade cake without knowing which was which, they could rarely tell the difference. So why weren’t the cake mixes selling?
It took the researchers a while to figure it out, and when they did, the answer surprised them. It was not the cake; it was the advertising.
At first, General Mills promoted the product as relief for the housewife from the drudgery of baking a cake in a hot kitchen — a cake that did not always turn out as it should. They showed pictures of happy homemakers on the golf course, playing tennis or taking in a movie now that they had more time for themselves. That was the wrong approach by 180 degrees.
It took careful questioning and some psychological insight to come up with the real problem. Most American homemakers of the era viewed their principal duty in life as taking good care of their families. The idea that they should substitute a store bought product, one that took almost no effort to prepare, for something they made themselves struck a wrong chord. And the idea of using the time saved for personal pleasure made things worse.
Once the Madison Avenue types understood this dynamic, they were quick to solve the problem. The powdered eggs came out of the mix, and the directions revised to have home bakers add their own fresh eggs. That gave the finished product a more personal touch.
Then the advertisements began to emphasize the fact that mix cakes were more consistently good than the hit or miss homemade products — so much for foisting off an inferior cake on the family. They also changed the images in the ads. No more golf or tennis or movie matinees, now the pictures showed mom doing things for the family she never had time to do before — no more guilt over dereliction of familial duties. Game, set, match and the cake mix became as American as —well, to mix metaphors — apple pie.
Angel food cakes, which are rare these days, were popular in the 50s, especially when a mix came out. The directions called for the addition of 13 egg whites. Why 13? Who knows, but conspiratorialists could probably find evidence of collusion between the millers and the butter and egg men of America. And some still wonder what the cooks did with all of those left over yolks.
The South seemed to have a special affinity for cakes — tall, dark, devil’s food cakes with swirls of butter cream icing never failed to please, as did rich pound cakes, and the glory of many a Southern baker, coconut cakes. I grew up across the street from a friend whose grandmother specialized in coconut cakes. She would come for a visit several times each year, and one of her first tasks was to make coconut cake.
More than a cake, it was an experience — tall, three layers at least, moist, enrobed in white frosting and showered with confetti of shredded coconut. Befitting a creation so ethereal, it was always displayed in solitary grandeur on a crystal cake platter in the middle of the dining room table. The creator of this masterpiece would slice a big wedge for each of us, put it on a plate, and my friend and I would head for the kitchen in search of milk.
You’ve got to have milk.
Edward Southerland is a feature writer for Best of Texoma. For more information, visit BestofTexoma.com or www.facebook.com/BestOfTexoma.