the onion cellar: a parable
This blog was originally posted to The Dresden Dolls Diary.
it is your friend john’s birthday. his friend melanie, who you barely know, offers up her large house to host a surprise birthday party and dinner. it’s an excellent idea. various friends from different walks of john’s life call around and the guest list grows organically: there will be a collected 16 guests, some people you know and some who you don’t. so that melanie doesn’t have to cook up a huge dinner, everybody agrees to bring a different dish. you agree to make a giant cake. you are very excited. you love to bake and have an old family recipe for a zucchini-chocolate cake that everybody always goes mad for.
however, your kitchen is covered in unopened mail and CDs and papers and your stove is from 1947 and doesn’t have a thermostat. melanie, being a totally decent human being, offers to let you use her kitchen. over an email, she informs you that not only does she have a state-of-the-art kitchen with every single amenity you could ever want, but (did you know?) she used to be a professional chef before she went into internet marketing. she know everything about cooking and would love to give you hand if you’re rusty and guide you through her kitchen’s funks as she cooks on the stove-top for the dinner. she tells you that she loves to cook with other people and a cake baked together has twice the love in it. you are overwhelmed by her kind offer and pleasant demeanor and agree to meet her at 3 pm at her house. the party starts at 7 pm. you bring her a nice bottle of wine for herself to say thank you.
when you get there, melanie greets you warmly and shows you into the kitchen. she was right: this place is unbelievable. marble counters, 6 burners on a island-stove, pots and pans of every size hanging from the ceiling. the place is equipped to the gills. melanie puts on some soothing classical music and helps you unpack your groceries & ingredients. she chats away about how she loves cooking. as you take the zucchini out of your grocery bag she gives you a weird look. you laugh and tell her that you know it sounds odd, but the cake is a a zucchini-chocolate cake and has been beloved by three generations of your family. she smiles kindly and tells you how much she loves more “creative” cooking. you think you see some hesitation when she says this and possibly a patronizing tone in her voice, but you barely pay attention. you talk for a while about cooking a recipes and uncork the wine you brought. the atmpsphere is congenial. at 4:00 you realize that time is flying and you should start baking.
by 4:30, you’re cranking on the cake. melanie is kind enough to let you use her basic ingredients like flour and salt, and she shows you how to use her futuristic oven. you’re still adding things to the batter when melanie approaches you with a question.
listen, she says: listen, i should have mentioned this before but a couple of people that are coming are vegan. would you mind terribly if we cut out the eggs and milk and butter?
you are confused. you’ve already made the batter. but she asks you so nicely. um….i don’t know, you say, i’m pretty sure that the cake needs those ingredients to bake. melanie looks at you kindly and says, guess what? they don’t! i used to work in a vegan bakery. i know just the trick, and it’ll taste almost exactly the same, she says. really? you are incredulous. really, she says. i’ll help you out and tell you exactly what to use to replace the dairy, it just so happens i have all the right ingredients. you feel it is impossible to say no. she’s being nice about it, and she’s letting you use her awesome kitchen. ok, you agree. sure. so she pulls out a bunch of soy and tofu and other unknown-looking vegan products from the fridge. you feel a little skeptical, but feel you can instinctively trust her. she was a chef.
she guides you about how much of what to add to your original batter, and you start the process over. you’re getting a little nervous about the time, but it should have plenty of time to bake. people aren’t coming over until seven. you can let the cake cool during dinner and ice it right before you serve it. no problem. the batter looks a little clumpy, but melanie assures you that it will come out fine. you start getting back into the happy cooking process, chop choping away at your zucchini.
at around 5:30, melanie lets the real bomb drop.
listen, she says: listen, i should have mentioned this before, but i’m allergic to zucchini and i actually can’t stand chocolate. i feel my eyes starting to water and my skin is breaking out into hives. can you please ditch the zucchini part of the cake? and you’re in luck…i have CAROB in the fridge, tons of it! we can use that instead of the chocolate. and your icing should be fine, she says. she really looks nervous, and she’s right…the hives are starting to show. you feel terrible. but….you are awestruck at the absurdity of the situation. why didn’t she tell you this when you were unpacking your grocery bag and laying your ingredients out on the table?
i guess so, you say, now fully disappointed that your cake will taste NOTHING like your cake.
then you think for a second and say:
melanie, i think maybe you should bake this cake alone. and i’ll help, you add. but i don’t know anything about vegan cooking.
no no! she looks at you earnestly. this is YOUR cake and you wanted to bake it! i’m just asking if you can change a couple of ingredients.
melanie, you try to say nicely, you’re asking for some pretty serious changes. my recipe was for a zucchini-chocolate cake with dairy. you’re talking about making a vegan carob cake. that’s sort of fucked up.
are we making this cake together or not? she asks impatiently.
you stand there staring at each other, at an impasse. melanie finally says fine, she’ll do it. but she’s grumpy.
five minutes later she turns around and says: listen, i really think you should be doing this. you agreed to make the cake. i have all these other things i need to cook.
you are paralysed with the ridiculousness of this all, and you start throwing carob chips into a blender, just to get the bad vibes out of the room. in your head, you’re already waiting for dinner to be over so you can forget this experience and go home. then things go from bad to worse as melanie starts complaining about the way you’re dealing with the carob.
you throw your hands up.
melanie, you say, make the damn cake. yourself. i’ll do something else. i’ll chop carrots. whatever you want, i’m just not going to deal in the cake department. it’s 6 pm and there are people coming over in an hour. we need a cake.
fine, she says, quietly. i will.
your friend bob comes over early and dips his finger in the cake batter. he looks at you questioningly.
melanie smiles warmly at him and tells him that you two have been having a good time and baking the cake “together”.
you try to keep your mouth shut.
the party starts. birthday john comes over and is pleasantly surprised. you try to forget your cake debacle and enjoy the dinner. the cake is finished and drying on the rack. melanie comes over and whispers that you need to ice it. you leave the table and go to the kitchen. you take a crumb-sized bite of the carob vegan cake. it tastes heavy and alien. you try to let go of what you want it to taste like. you try to open your culinary mind. it’s not TERRIBLE. it’s just not like anything you wanted to eat. you were really looking forward to eating the zucchini-chocolate cake. you sigh. at least the icing is delicious.
as you enter the room with the cake, everybody oohs and aahs. melanie announces that you two worked very hard together on this cake, and that it’s an old family recipe of yours.
this pisses you off.
you do not want to ruin the party, but that last part was just too much to handle.
actually, you tell the assembled guests, it isn’t a family recipe.
actually, you say, this is not the cake i wanted to bake.
melanie wanted to make the cake vegan and i let her do it, you say. and it tastes ok for a vegan cake, but you might be underwhelmed.
the room is hushed. you’ve insulted the hostess. this is not cool.
people eat the cake. the icing is complimented. the vegans in the room assure you that for a vegan cake, it kicks ass.
everybody compliments the two of you. the party is still a party. nobody seems fazed by the cake debacle. you feel silly.
melanie wraps the cake up (unsurprisingly, there is a large chunk leftover), and gives you the tupperware container to take home.
in the car on the way back home, your two best friends, doghead and arty, can sense your shitty mood as you lay down in the back seat.
we gotta be honest with you, doghead says.
lay it on me, you say.
the vegan cake wasn’t that bad, he says. it really wasn’t. but i’ve had the zucchini-chocolate cake. i feel your pain.
really? you ask.
arty, who is sitting in the passenger’s seat, takes your hand.
i know you slaved in a kitchen all day, he says, and the icing was to DIE for, but, honey?
yes? you say.
that cake was NOT FUCKING CAKE., he says. it was a brick of doom.
you all laugh.
you tell him you know, and thanks for being honest.
it’s a long drive home (about 38 hours) and there are no rest-stops on the way, so the three of you will be forced to eat nothing but this cake for fucking breakfast, lunch and dinner.
several hours later, you are very hungry.
you scrape off the icing and eat that.
you think that fasting might be healthier than eating non-stop cake.
you try to remain cheerful and look out the window at the big world which is passing by as the sun starts coming up over the horizon.
the party was a good party despite the cake debacle.
and it feels almost good to be hungry, you feel sort of lean and mean.
you are looking forward to getting home and making a cake you like.
you drift off to sleep, listening to your friends chat in the front seat….still hungry, but happier than ever to have friends who will be honest with you about your cake, because they truly understand and love you. this is better than cake.