Eat Cake

Minneapolis homemaker Ruth Hopson has a very good life: a loving husband, two healthy children, and the comfortable home she keeps for them all. But even the nicest life has its stresses, and Ruth takes refuge from hers in cake: baking cakes, inventing new cake recipes, and even visualizing herself in the center of a giant bundt cake.

A rapid series of events upends Ruth’s orderly life: her mother, a victim of violent crime, comes to live with the family; her husband, suddenly downsized from his hospital-administrator career, veers off into a mid-life crisis; and most disruptively, her long-estranged gadabout father suffers a debilitating accident and must come live with the family–and the ex-wife he abandoned long years before–to recuperate.

With her whole world shaken out its customary grooves, Ruth’s instinct is to retreat into her happy cake world–but can she find a way to make cake a shelter for her whole family?

I loved this book–completely and uncritically. It’s probably the most sentimental book you’ll ever see me recommend–and possibly the most sentimental review I’ll ever write. This book made an utter sap of me, and I don’t care, I loved it that much.

There’s not much to this slender novel; the only thing thinner than some of the characters is the plot. It’s completely transparent, and you’ll know almost right away how it will turn out (although there are a couple of surprises you might not see coming), but when I finished reading it, I felt as if I’d been wrapped in down comforter and cuddled like a baby. The only way I can describe it is “happy-making.”  The book is lifted above ordinariness by its warmth and humor; I cared about this family and wanted to see them succeed. Ruth’s battling parents get the most character development, and are delightful to watch as they are forced into close quarters for the first time since they split up over thirty years before. Ruth’s children are bare brush-strokes–the son is away at college for most of the novel, the daughter is a mere sketch of a sullen teenager, until she suddenly engages with the plot and blossoms into personhood.

What really appealed to me was the way that each character finds a place for him- or herself in the new family pattern. Their lives are thrown into disarray by just the sort of events that might strike your family or mine–illness, job loss–and their usual ways of relating to each other are disrupted. Rather than let it tear them apart, each member draws on his or her talents and resources to put the family back together in a new configuration. It was very reassuring to watch them succeed at a challenge many of us will face: maintaining strong family ties through shifting and adverse circumstances.

I reacted most strongly to Ruth, and it wasn’t until after I finished the book that I figured out why: the many scenes of Ruth in her kitchen in the wee hours of morning, looking through cookbooks and dreaming up new cake recipes called up images of my own grandma Ruth, whose fondest pastime was just that: reading cookbooks and experimenting with recipes.  Our Ruth was the family cook from the age of 10, and would remain so all her life. She always had treats baked up for visitors, and in the event of unexpected company, could put a full dinner on the table in minutes, just from the leftovers in her fridge. She had the utterly charming habit of annotating her cookbooks and recipe cards. “Made 10/3/86. Very good.  Will make again.” Or “Substituted a cup of whole wheat flour” or the like. Opinions, alterations, ideas for improvement; Grandma left notebooks full of recipes and full of her sweet spirit and love of cooking. She lives on with us in the most intimate way possible: in the food we eat. When we spent weekends at her house, our absolute favorite thing to have for breakfast were her oatmeal pancakes (“Oatie cakes!”), and now, many of us who loved her have taken that recipe and made it our own. And every time we make them for our families and friends, we think of our darling little Ruth, and remember all the times she made them for us, and feel the connection to her stretching through time.

Thus, I was delighted, upon finishing the book, to find an appendix with about a dozen of Ruth Hopson’s cake recipes. Reading Eat Cake will, at the very least, make you want to do just that. But I hope, and the author seems to hope as well, that you will also be inspired to try baking cakes, and possibly find some of the peace that Ruth found for herself and her family. As Ruth says, “One piece of cake never killed anyone.”  Nor did one fluffy, sweet, optimistic, girly novel, so please, treat yourself to a slice of Cake.

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6 Responses to Eat Cake

  1. CountessZ says:

    For much of my life I have tended to gravitate toward what I have traditionally thought of as more “serious” and “realistic” novels. You know, the ones that end with isolation and death, where moments of personal growth and positive relationships are few and far between and in general people are mired in “the human condition” (in other words, they are miserable). Over the last few years, however, I have noticed myself drawn more and more to stories that show us how people can and do change. How families, lovers, friends and neighbors can build stronger connections with each other. How our shortcomings can become our strengths and how our love and care and concern for one another can make it possible to maintain a relationship, even if it isn’t always easy. Dear lord, help us, the Countess is becoming optimistic.

    Once upon a time when I was in college, a professor pointed out that it is far more difficult to write about joy than it is about sadness. And that when most people do, it comes out schmaltzy. Personally, I think joy makes us uncomfortable much of the time and it is easier to dismiss it than revel in it — easier to call it schmaltz rather than give it serious consideration. Well, I say, bring on the schmaltz, because a little hope never killed anyone.

  2. Ramona says:

    The local library does not have this book, so I won’t be able to read it until next week and will most likely post again after reading it.
    I just want to comment on the role food plays in our lives and to thank Kaizerin for the things she wrote about G/Ma Ruth.
    My feelings about food are dichotomous. Too much emphasis is placed upon eating. Get togethers center around how much food there is; who is bringing what; what time we eat; how many desserts, etc.etc.etc. If food were less impt, would we be healthier? Less a nation of bulimics and the obese and more our natural selves? Could food stop being our “comfort” and just be what is needed to survive?
    On the other hand, I believe food can be the compliment it should be to friends and family sitting around a table enjoying one another’s company – the continental two hour meal where being with people is more impt than what’s on tv.
    It used to be, when someone in the neighborhood died, everyone brought food to the bereaved. It seems to me that practice is dying out. (No pun intended.) What does that say about our society?

  3. kaizerin says:

    Well, stop me when you get bored of hearing me say this, but again, it’s a balance point you have to seek out. I don’t think it’s possible to remove food from its central place in our social lives–after air and water, it’s the most important element of our survival, and it’s what family units do: hunt, gather, cook, feed. Families provide for each other. Dinner may be the only time the whole family sees each other all day; ditto holiday dinners and the extended family.

    What you can do, I think, is take the approach of quality over quantity. Be conscious of how vital food is, and think about what you really want to provide to nourish the people around you. You might want to look into the Slow Food Movement and see if some of their ideas and principles are useful to you.

    As for funerary customs, well, I’ve been thinking about them a lot, having just read Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, and I think they’re slipping away in general. But the food thing specifically, well–how many of us live in communities where the neighbors care–or even know–when we’ve been bereaved? Or know enough about us to know the casserole they’re making doesn’t contravene a dietary habit or food allergy? I think we can blame the loss of this custom partially on the loss of neighborliness, and partly on the general societal denial of death.

  4. CountessZ says:

    I too think food occupies a central role in our lives for a reason. As Kai points out, next to air and water it is the most vital thing these earth suits require. As someone once said, cooking is the oldest magic. Soup can be a potion (hence the association with healing). And a casserole when a family member dies or if someone is in the hospital is a token of sympathy, a talisman. It says, “Here, eat this warm food, it will stave off the chill of death.” Yet, we have given this magic over to large corporations, factory farms, fast food establishments and much more. This has stripped food of its power to heal and comfort and left us feeling always and forever hungry for more. It isn’t enough, because it isn’t enough.

    I was watching Oprah the other day and she said she felt that many Americans are living unconciously. It gave me an image of a nation of people wandering around in a coma performing their daily tasks without ever participating in them. This is true of how we approach food as well, and then we wonder why we feel unsatisfied. Of course, the media is always there to tell us that more and more and more will help. But it doesn’t.

    What I think needs to change about our approach to food (and when I say “our” I am referring to Western, often American, ideas of what eating means), is what needs to change about our approach to so many things. We need to think about it. We need to understand how it interacts with our bodies, minds and spirits to provide nourishment, comfort and sustenance. And, of course, we need to practice balance (Kai, you are my wise, dear friend and I will never, ever get tired of hearing you say such things).

  5. Ramona The Optimist says:

    Countess Z is correct (I believe) when she says it is easier to write of sadness than joy. Aren’t all the great love stories about unrequited love?
    I finished Eat Cake a week ago – tried to post my feelings at that time. (And obviously couldn’t.)
    When Kai first suggested this book, I thought, “Ya, maybe someday.” but doubted I’d ever read it – it seemed to “fluffy” for me. Then I read her review and decided to give it a try. Yes, I really, really liked this sweet little book. And, yes, it did make me think of my dear, recipe obsessed, mother.
    It even made me wish I were more like her; i.e., not so lazy when it comes to preparing food.
    I especially liked the description of Ruth’s first ‘making cake’ experience. She described her mother as a teacher. Not just because she was a teacher by occupation, but because her mother was a true ‘teacher’ in all she did.
    I have been mis-guessed as a teacher all my life…maybe I missed my true professional calling. But when it comes to dealing with little ones, I am always trying to “teach” them something even in the most mundane circumstances.
    Ruth says, “In the most fundamental way I have my first glimpse of how ingredients come together, how each is nothing in particular by itself but once they are joined they can make something miraculous.”
    I wish I had her knowledge. Not only about food and cooking/baking, but in life. How all the various ingredients come together to make us who we are…to understand why we are in one another’s lives…to see the big picture…to bake the best cake.

  6. kaizerin says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It seems like a little nothing of a book, but it’s one I know I’ll keep and re-read over the years. It’s just so sweet and optimistic. (Making it a bit of a rarity on my shelves, I admit.)

    I like the quote you pulled out, Ramona the Great. It’s a good description of the Hopson family, too. Each of them nothing particular by themselves, but all together, something miraculous–a happy, supportive family.

    Speaking of Ramona the Brave Little Pest, today is Beverly Cleary’s 90th birthday. The local NPR station did a story on her this morning, since she was a long-time resident of Portland (my side of town, even–I drive by Klickitat Street several times a week.) Happy Birthday, BC! Thanks for all your books!

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