American ingenuity shines brightest when combining innocuous ingredients into obesity-inducing foods. One of our country’s greatest talents is turning milk, sugar, and meat scraps into mass-produced foods like ice cream, candy bars, and hot dogs. Before America hit her capitalistic stride, most of these products, if they existed at all, were delicacies reserved for the European elite. Through mechanization, electrification, and refrigeration, Americans created new types of convenience foods that swept through grocery stores, schools, and homes, changing the ways people snacked and celebrated.
The foods listed above all have one fundamental thing in common: they’re absolutely delicious. That makes the existence of the subject of this essay, the supermarket sheet cake, puzzling. American society took the cake, once a statement of European excellence, and bastardized it into a dry, flavorless dessert, covered in sickly sweet icing, and adorned with a trite message of your choice. In too many kitchens, the mixer stands untouched, grandma’s recipe book remains unopened, and the oven morphs into extra storage, all while the supermarket sheet cake takes center stage at the milestone events of life.
How the supermarket sheet cake became America’s go-to celebratory dessert is anyone’s guess. It certainly wasn’t because of the taste. The supermarket sheet cake (hereafter SSC) is the antithesis of what a good cake should be. Rather than being rich, moist, and flavorful, the SSC is dry, bland, and boring. A SSC tastes like a six-year-old sponge that’s been marinated in sugar, then slathered with a mixture of shaving cream and sugar masquerading as icing. Despite having a calorie density that would make a dietician weep, the SSC provides none of the taste and texture that a good cake should.
The purpose of an SSC, you may protest, is not culinary excellence, but rather celebratory congratulations. To have a personalized dessert at your graduation, anniversary, or retirementparty, some argue, merits a sacrifice of scrumptiousness. If that were the only tradeoff made, I might agree. I wonder, however, if the hosts of these parties regard what a SSC conveys to the esteemed individual(s)? How special does your graduating daughter feel when you employ a stranger to emblazon her Christian name in third-grade cursive on a cake pre-made in a factory four states away? How recognized are grandma and grandpa’s 50 years of love and commitment when their three grown children serve a dessert at the reception that you wouldn’t even have the heart to feed to your neighbor’s yappy dog. And how appreciated does Mike feel for all of the unpaid overtime he put in during his 35 years at your company when the boss calls up the local grocer the day before his party and asks them for the cheapest thing they can slap his name on. Nothing says, “We’re not excited about this supposedly exciting event” more clearly than a supermarket sheet cake.
The taste of a supermarket sheet cake provides ample reason for its retirement from society, but unfortunately, the problems run deeper. Having a SSC at your party sets a tone that drags down the entire event. Historically, celebrations have been times for people to come together and feast on luscious food and drink. Have you ever been to a party with an SSC where anyone was even remotely excited about the food? And if there are people who get excited about never-ending vegetable trays and unripened fruit platters, I never want to meet them. This lackluster spread of food leaves guests fighting like rabid dogs over the few pieces of fresh pineapple, before giving up and munching on mixed nuts and chalky mints, all while drowning their sorrows with watery powdered lemonade.
Everyone now mills around the event, hungry and frustrated, calculating how much longer they have to stay. Then, the host, with the gusto of a boxing ring announcer, proclaims that the cake is served. People have staged coups over offenses less serious than being served SSC, yet everyone puts on their most polite smile and trudges towards the cake table.
Once you arrive, you find that the host, out of suppressed guilt for buying such a terrible dessert, has over-compensated by getting three times as much cake as needed. Instead of ordering one small SSC, the hosts splurged, getting two SSCs, each the size of a Great Lake. Imagine how long it would’ve taken Jesus to do his first miracle if he had had to wait for a 21st century wedding reception to run out of sheet cake! I’ve never seen an event come remotely close to exhausting its SSC supply. And picture the scene if they did; would anyone even care? Can you fathom a group of guests bemoaning only being able to eat one piece of SSC before it was all gone. I would swear upon my grandmother’s angel food cake pan that those words have never been uttered.
Reconvened, each person of the group picks at their piece of cake, attempting to avoid the accompanying mountain of icing at all costs. With any luck, you were able to steer clear of the edge pieces and any middle ones with an icing rose the size of a small mammal. You slowly finish the cake, leaving a large pile of icing on your plate. This mystifies the icing freak, that strange bird present in every group who proclaims that the icing is his favorite part. You avoid the temptation to verbally undress him in front of his friends, instead choosing to focus on your greater sorrow, having spent your Saturday afternoon at a supermarket sheet cake party.
Once finished, you make your rounds and say goodbye to the hosts, thanking them for the party. With torturous glee, your host drags you to the cake table, insisting that a skinny guy like you can’t leave without taking a giant wedge of SSC with him. You wait patiently as the host puts the cake in its tinfoil grave clothes, preparing it to be buried at the bottom of your refrigerator for the next three weeks. You politely accept the cake and make haste homeward.
As you turn around in your host’s cul-de-sac, you begin to ponder how our society descended to this pre-prepared, over-processed state of life. You let out a long sigh; for grandma, for cake, and for future generations. But, you reconsider, maybe you’re being too hard on the SSC and the slow decline of cake in the United States. For while past European aristocracies would be rolling over in their graves, the supermarket sheet cake has allowed Marie Antoinette’s long-lost dream to come true: the lower classes can finally eat their cake. The supermarket sheet cake: our world’s last best hope.