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Miscellany

Let Them Eat Cake

By Patty Wetli

“Come see this,” I yelled to my brother. “This guy is paralyzed! Paralyzed!” A WWF match had turned ugly (or thrilling, depending on your perspective) when one wrestler horrifyingly body-slammed another. The referee stood over the victim’s motionless body, his back seemingly broken. I was overwrought. What kind of sport was this, where something so vicious could happen on national TV? In front of kids? What I didn’t know at the time: the routines were choreographed, the ring was padded and the competitors were acting (it doesn’t take Sean Penn to keep really still and fake a spinal injury). Such was the naiveté of the 1980s, a time when sports were sports and if you were looking for drama, you tuned in to Dallas.

Ironically, today’s reality TV, while being infinitely more subtle than WWF in its presentation of highly manipulated “true” events, has to work a lot harder to suspend our disbelief. Even one of the class acts of this genre, The Amazing Race (a personal favorite of mine), doesn’t always hold up under scrutiny. Exactly once in 10 years has a woman stopped her partner dead in their globe-trotting tracks with the dread utterance, “I have to pee.” I’m not buying it.

So I’m not sure why, but for some reason I approached Cake Boss with the gullibility of 7-year-old who thinks that a fat man in a red suit climbs down chimneys and leaves presents for people he doesn’t even know. What’s not plausible about that?

In case you haven’t heard of Cake Boss—and why haven’t you?—it follows the exploits of one Buddy Valastro and his band of merry men and women at Hoboken's Carlo's Bakery. Thanks to the magic of DVD, I gorged on five episodes in one sitting, munching on microwave popcorn for lack of an appropriate sweet. (This is why we don’t have cable. If I had access to 500 channels and a legitimate alternative to Wife Swap, I would never not watch TV.)

Buddy is a Rembrandt with a piping tube, deftly applying swirls and curlicues to a canvas of buttercream, usually under insane deadlines. (“Why, yes, ‘Modern Bride,’ I can make three six-tiered cakes for your photo shoot… by tomorrow.” Cue the shot of Buddy raising, then furrowing his brow.) He’s such a saint, he even employs his yapping sisters and their lunkheaded husbands. Bridezillas, mostly, bow down before him. And he owes it all, sniff, to his dead father, Buddy Sr. I swallowed this premise hook, line and rolled fondant.

But once the sugar buzz wore off, a question kept nagging me, mostly because my husband wouldn't stop harping on the subject. "Noboby ever says how it tastes," Dave noted. It’s like he was saying there’s no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy. Much as I hated to admit it, he had a point.

From what I can tell, Buddy makes most of his creations out of pound cake because it's easy to carve into crazy shapes, like a bi-plane, a fire engine or a roulette wheel, not because it's inherently more flavorful than, say, red velvet. What's more, in all of the episodes I watched, I saw a sum total of one cake batter being mixed. (I confess I have an obsession with industrial-sized Hobart mixers. I could watch giant vats of butter and flour, in proportions fit for a giant, churn for hours. Seriously, if somebody posts that on YouTube, I'll never leave my computer.) In fact, Buddy literally separates his baking and decorating operations—baking on the first floor, decorating on the second. And guess where we, the viewers, spend most of our time.

Sure, Buddy's quick to mention that all the frou frou he attaches to his cakes—flowers, bows, gambling chips—is perfectly edible. But seriously, who's going to chow down on a figurine, shaped like a fireman, made out of solid gum paste. Just thinking about it had me speed dialing 1-800-DENTIST.

I get that cake in the nude isn't particularly sexy, though if it's so bland, how come cake batter is only the best ice cream flavor ever? It just can't compete, looks-wise, with the finished, frosted product. At least not on television, which is all about the visual until somebody invents smell-o-vision or taste-o-vision, things I’m pretty sure The Jetsons promised us would be available by now?

For my own wedding, because this is the way I plan all my menus, I started with the cake and worked backwards from there. Ours was a four-tiered affair, a different flavor for each level. One was banana, another was lemon with raspberry filling, and a third was chocolate mousse. The topper was chocolate cake with raspberry cheesecake filling. Oh yes, we hogged that one to ourselves for our first anniversary. Awe. Some. I had sampled each of these—and as many more as I could stick a fork into—at a tasting with our baker. (Surely I’m not the only married woman who’s considered stripping off her wedding band, leaving the engagement ring to speak for itself, in order to arrange a cake tasting. Am I?) You never see Buddy offer this to his customers. Maybe it happens off camera, after the design consultation where Buddy dazzles clients (and viewers) with his quick-thinking ingenuity. Or maybe someone who wants a cake shaped like a roulette wheel is a superficial, beauty-is-only-frosting-deep kind of person to begin with.

Or maybe the taste doesn’t matter to these people because the cake doesn’t matter to them either. Here’s another theory I’ve been kicking around: It’s possible that this show doesn’t revolve around cake. It’s possible that the cake revolves around the show.

It does seem wildly convenient that at the beginning of one particular episode, completely out of the blue, Buddy's mom forbids "exotic, erotic, whatever" cakes. And then a customer just happens to order one for a raunchy bachelorette party. (The customer is related to a member of the bakery staff. Gee, you think she was put up to the request? I smell the equivalent of “paralyzed!”) On a different occasion, the delivery team just happens to drop a cake on their way out the door, and Buddy has to race the clock to build another. (Think staff was told by the production crew, “We need more drama”? Paralyzed!) Or how about the engaged couple that agrees to have live doves as part of their wedding cake? Never gonna happen. There's not a bride on this planet who hears the words "you'll release the doves from the cake" and agrees to have live creatures winging around her reception, possibly pooping on her veil (though frankly I was more concerned about potential damage to the cake itself). Perhaps most egregious was the scenario in which a husband purportedly surprised his pregnant wife with a delivery of baked goods from Buddy. I say "purportedly" because how surprised could a person be when a camera crew shows up at her house and sets up equipment to film Buddy walking through the door with a box of sweets. Surprise my ass. Paralyzed!

You know what I think? I think that all these "customers" were specifically recruited to give Buddy & Co. an excuse to concoct increasingly extravagant cakes and engage in highly improbable hi-jinks. (Where do you find birds for a cake? You send a couple of those lunkheads to roam the streets, looking for pigeons. Hilarity ensues.) You ever heard of a "Zombie Walk"? Me neither. But we’re supposed to believe one exists and that the organizers would absolutely want to celebrate afterwards with a zombie cake.

What’s in it for the customers? I suspect that in exchange for taking part in this ruse, the aforementioned plants receive said cake, and perhaps an entire party, for free. Who’s going to complain about pound cake- free tastes mighty fine.

Which brings me to the "c" word. "How much do these cakes cost?" asked Mr. Killjoy, aka, my husband.

I had posed a similar question to a local pastry chef, Peter Rios, the owner of Alliance Bakery in Wicker Park. He told me about a couple who had approached him to bake their wedding cake. The pair apparently lived or worked, I'm not sure which, right across from Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. They wanted the Capitol Building for their cake, to feed 150 guests. Rios spent half a day (not half a minute) figuring out a design and quote for the cake, and arrived at $2,000. Let me repeat. $2,000. At that, Rios admits he's taking a loss. "We could never charge what goes into baking that cake."

The couple, on a budget, balked. Rios wound up creating a smaller dome and another cake on the side, for about half the original price. Even at that relative discount, Rios confesses, "I would never pay that."

Brides, or their fathers, occasionally will. But Buddy's customers aren't all brides. In one episode, he creates a four-tiered monster for a Sweet 16 party. The cake easily would have fed 200 and I counted maybe 15 girls at the soiree. The zombie cake was even more excessive—using Rios' pricing as a guide, I'd estimate the value in the $3,000-$4,000 range—and this for a group that seemed likely to be unemployed when they weren't busy being undead. I'm betting that in both these instances, Buddy donated the cake, having wrung sufficient drama out of their creation for yet another episode.

The problem is that your average couple from Peoria is watching Cake Boss and now they want, and expect, a Buddy-style cake for their special occasion. On the one hand, that's good news for bakeries, which lost a fair amount of their cake business to grocery store chains, Costco and the low-carb craze over the years. "Now people understand that what we produce is of value," says John Roeser, owner of Roeser's Bakery, which has been in business since 1911. On the other hand, they don’t quite grasp, because Buddy never mentions, exactly how great that value is. According to Roeser, "People bring in pictures and want you to make a $7,000 cake for $200."

That only happens on TV.

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