The Pie Was a Final Draft: On Baking a Bad Cake

by Michaella Thornton

“Words are my magic, antiproverbial cake. I eat it, and I still have it.”
Ursula K. Le Guin

For my daughter’s fifth birthday this spring, I didn’t special order her birthday cake but rather baked her cake from-scratch. I’ve fallen into an unplanned rhythm of baking her cakes on odd-numbered years and then taking a break and employing the professionals on evens. It’s a sweet little pattern of homemade fun and expert beauty, and a chance to strut my stuff, and then take a well-paid rest.

Out of pride and relief of having kept my baby alive for her first year of life, I baked her first birthday cake: a carrot cake from Julie Richardon’s gorgeous Vintage Cakes with no god-forsaken golden raisins and plenty of Ina Garten’s cream cheese frosting and sugar-dusted blueberries. I ordered an Elmo-themed cake for Birthday No. 2 and then baked Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen’s confetti cake for my sweetly minted three-year-old at the start of the pandemic when it was just the two of us witnessing a storm of unknowns. Last year, for her fourth birthday, I ordered a tiny little vanilla cake with raspberry filling and petal-pink frosting with a grizzly bear in a pink tutu holding a balloon on top to celebrate her love of, well, bears.

I mention all of this because I am typically a good baker. I’m the kind of tried-and-true baker friends request to bring dessert. From cakes to pies, holiday cookie exchanges and potlucks, I’m your gal.

But this year, this fifth year of my child’s life, I fucked up. Her birthday cake, yet another confetti cake, was an inedible mess. I know what went wrong. I used a new recipe in the eleventh hour. Somehow I used cake flour instead of the recipe’s recommended all-purpose flour. I forgot to add sugar to the cake batter until the very end. The end result: a three-layer cake that looked cute but tasted like rainbow-studded styrofoam.

Thankfully my child loves vanilla buttercream frosting and ice cream more than cake, so she wasn’t fazed by my failure. She gently patted me on the shoulder after I sang her happy birthday off-key and said, “It’s okay, Mom. You can just throw it away.”

Later that night, I took her advice. I threw the cake into the trash as I admonished myself for waiting to bake her cake so late the night before.

And while not everything is a metaphor for writing, baking a shitty cake is a lot like writing something that’s not yet fully formed, or, in some instances, may never be. Some days, we bake the stuff others salivate over. Other days, notsomuch.

In 1951, M.F.K. Fisher published her essay, “How to Cook a Wolf,” where she wrote, “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.”

To write and publish is to invite others into our private worlds. A writer has to be willing to break a few eggs, and then a dozen more, again and again, to risk vulnerability for connection. Part of the reward of writing, at least for me, is to create something meaningful out of the random moments of my life, to make visible the choices and emotions and conflicts we find ourselves, and our characters, in. To capture the messiness and fleeting beauty that is life.

Like Birthday Cake No. 5, some writing turns out better than others (and that’s okay!). Sometimes we create a masterpiece that is difficult, near impossible, to create again, even if we’re using similar ingredients and elements of story. Sometimes we may write something subtle and solid and filling, but perhaps nothing too flashy. Those quiet, little pieces nourish us, too. Not everything one writes needs to be cake does it?

And sometimes we have to write pieces that will never see the day of light to get to the essay or story or poem that others want and need to read. The practice of baking and writing requires us to take stock of what works and what doesn’t, and to begin anew, again and again.

The more we get into the practice of writing (and baking, for that matter), the less it matters if the cake is good. The act of showing up, on the page and in the kitchen, is to believe that with time and practice, we will figure out what needs to be done and learn from our actions along the way.

Read more of Kella’s work here at Reckon:

Fiction – The Hottest and Longest Lasting Fire (Best of the Net Nominee)

Nonfiction – The Pie Was a Final Draft: Scraps

<strong>Michaella Thornton</strong>
Michaella Thornton

Michaella Thornton learned how to bake at the hips of her mother and her grandmother Anna Lee. A lifetime ago, she baked professionally before realizing baker’s hours require early mornings. Kella’s prose has been featured in Brevity, Essay Daily, Fractured Lit, Hobart After Dark, Reckon Review, New South, Southeast Review, among others, and her writing has been nominated for a James Beard award and Best of the Net. Many moons ago, Kella received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her daughter.