Slice of life
Finding innocence by breaking the rules of food
Food writer Angela Evans dressed as a Greaser, eating chocolate cake on the floor like Two-Bit in "The Outsiders"
Memory fades and flickers like the candles on my second birthday cake. I was not old enough to understand that the room filled with friends and family wearing silly hats would become a yearly tradition. The love and decorations that filled the room were there for me, but none of that registered.
It was the chocolate cake that captured my attention, along with the song that transformed the lopsided confection my mom baked into a sacred object that would conjure my heart’s desire. To this day, I still concentrate on the ever-growing number of candles with laser focus as I whisper a secret wish to myself.
As an adult, chocolate cake has taken on new meaning. No longer the special treat of my youth, the dessert—viewed through health-conscious, scale-watching eyes—has become both a symbol of innocence and that of indulgence. But how can the combination of flour, eggs, sugar and chocolate be both benign and forbidden? Whether a simple sheet cake or an elaborate confection, chocolate cake has a lot of meaning packed between its frosted layers.
In S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” (1967), Hinton employs chocolate cake to do the heavy lifting of explaining the Curtis boys’ relationships and circumstance. Darry, Sodapop, and Ponyboy were orphaned by the death of their parents. Left to take care of themselves as teenagers, the boys created their new, post-tragedy normal by making up their own rules.
Eating chocolate cake for breakfast was one of those rules.
“All three of us like chocolate cake for breakfast. Mom had never allowed it with ham and eggs, but Darry let Soda and me talk him into it. We really didn’t have to twist his arm; Darry loves chocolate cake as much as we do. Sodapop always makes sure there’s some in the icebox every night and if there isn’t he cooks one up real quick.”
The idea of cake for breakfast springs from the childhood fantasy of making one’s own rules without parents interfering. The idea loses its luster, however, if the impetus for the new tradition is tinged with tragedy. For the Curtis boys, it was one-part coping mechanism—a way to create something positive out of something destructive—and one-part new tradition.
They recognized that their mother would probably not have approved of dessert for breakfast, but this was their home now. They were the ones in control. The act of chocolate cake for breakfast was both rebellious and virtuous. For all their self-proclaimed and perceived toughness, this was their ultimate act of rebellion. The community viewed the Curtis boys and their Greaser friends as miscreants, but as the story unfolds, we learn they were, in reality, the innocent ones.
I have a similar rule-breaking breakfast tradition with my mother. We like to eat cheeseburgers with all the fixins early in the a.m. My mother also had an unfortunate upbringing. Rules applied to her as a child were abusive and arbitrarily cruel. She vowed things would be different for her children and they were.
For example, she saw no reason why bacon and eggs were the only appropriate breakfast fare. So, eating cheeseburgers for breakfast became our Saturday morning tradition. Saturday was the one day she wasn’t working one of her four jobs and actually had the time to cook a meal. It was the time we got to spend with each other and indulge in a tradition of our own creation.
When I ate my cheeseburger while watching Saturday morning cartoons, I relished the rebelliousness of it. None of my other friends’ mothers would dream of committing such breakfast blasphemy. But to my mom, the act was a way of reclaiming her childhood by providing a different one for me.
We all accept that food is culture. But it also means family—a way of relating to and being with those we care about. Eating is more than perfunctory, it is ritual. Chocolate cake is both ubiquitous and special. Innocent and sinful. It is as rich with texture and flavor as it is with memory and tradition.
Like the Curtis boys’ slice of chocolate cake for breakfast, each of us has our own outside-of-the-norm food custom. Rather than pleading, “it doesn’t fit this or that diet,” rather than denigrating our dietary oddities, we ought to celebrate these customs and remember we don’t eat just to feed our bodies. Life’s about more than that.
For more from Angela, read her article on 25 years of Boston Deli Grill & Market.