I wish I liked this book. The concept was certainly compelling–a book celebrating cakes rather than simply being about making them–but ultimately it fell flat.
I think what put me off was how the author kept switching back and forth between personal memories (occasionally not cake related, she writes at length about her mother and grandmother’s cooking), cake history, contests, cake shop visits and other cake related topics with little in the way of transitions. This gave a sort of scattered feel to the book. While these events were divided into different sections and chapters, she referred back to events that occurred in earlier chapters/sections fairly frequently so even though the topic changed, the chapters (she cutely calls them layers) really couldn’t stand alone as individual essays. She also skipped around quite a bit chronologically, thoughts on her visit to Charm City Cakes are divided into at least 3 different chapters, which was odd and seemed out of order.
Some chapters (especially the more historically-focused) despite the obvious research that went into them seemed sort of thrown in at the last minute; they were very short and without much of the commentary the rest of the book was thick with.
It was almost as if the book was both too large in scope–it is a “celebration of cake”, rather than a straight up memoir- and too small–she rarely ventures beyond the confines of the Baltimore area. Even the Today show competition she writes about is made up solely of local bakers. While Baltimore is home to several bakeries, it isn’t as if Baltimore is some sort of cake capital in the country. When she does discuss cakes from other regions, one is not left with the impression that she actually traveled to these areas or bothered to try most of those cakes but rather that she conducted the interviews remotely.
Despite it being a book about eating cakes rather than making them, she does do a fair amount of cake baking in the book. I didn’t get the impression she knew too much about baking before starting her book research and makes a few mistakes (repeatedly referring to vegetable shortening as lard springs to mind) which is fine, I guess–she doesn’t claim to be an experienced baker– but these chapters take the book into more memoir territory which I felt was at odds with chapters like the ones about Marie Antoinette and the history of the cakewalk which were written with little personal interjection.
The whole book sort of vacillated between being a personal story about a woman’s odd relationship with cake and a book that was more about cake in general. I ended up wishing that she had picked one form/topic or the other. One’s life can inform a more straightforward book about a topic and indeed that’s what makes more the readable nonfiction books stand out but she veered a little too close to the personal on too many occasions for a book that wasn’t supposed to be a memoir for my taste.
I would have rather had a straight up memoir about her and her rather obsessive love of cake (she eats cake out of the trash!!) like Hilary Liftin’s Candy and Me: A Girl’s Tale of Life, Love, and Sugar or more of a cohesive cake journey similar to Steve Almond’s Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America (although to my knowledge, neither deign to eat out of trash bins) than the mess this ended up being.
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