There's no such thing as a free cake, part II?
Whether they are free versus debt depends on several things including: the relationship of the baker to the bakee, the circumstances of the gift (often they are asked for by third parties, in which case the "obligation" goes elsewhere) such as whether it was bartered, traded or even debt payment itself, the conditions in which the gift is presented (public versus private venue), and finally, intention on my part.
Oh yeah, and the relative rank of the requestor in relation to me matters as well. If they are a peer as opposed to a boss or superior then they are more likely to be “marked”. My superiors can simply take cake as their just due.
So I thought long and hard about all of the birthday cakes I’ve made over the past two years (or so) and came to an immediate conclusion. The first observation is that I make a huge amount of cake for people and two that I have a disturbingly good memory for what type of cake I made, down to the filling and the icing. I am, in fact, completely cake obsessed.
But I digress. First, let’s look at the data.
Here’s the basic tabulation of columns I came up with so you get the idea of the kind of data I’m collecting from the cake memory hard-wired into some part of my brain.
Bakee, Requestor, Requested?, Type of Cake/Icing, Complicated Level, Decorated, Relationship, Rank, Years Known, Venue, Trade/Barter/Debt Payment?, Intent, Results, Labor Cost (combo of complicated level, decorated labor weighted).
Some basic data trends and an excel spreadsheet later:
Number of Birthday Cakes made = 16
Requested (by someone other than me) = 5 out of 16
Cake Types = 8 vanilla variants (buttercream, golden genoise, white, yellow), 6 chocolate variants (devils food, sour cream fudge, german chocolate), 2 fruit (lemon, strawberry) As an aside, I notice that I have made more vanilla than chocolate cakes. As a little kid I ALWAYS picked vanilla shakes and ice cream over chocolate. At some level, I’m still doing that.
Complicated Level = 9 Low, 5 Medium, 2 High
Decorated = 7
For basic analysis, I began by looking for trends that might seem likely to point towards obligation. Let’s start with the requested cakes, which have the most possibility for obvious reciprocation right off the bat. Of the 5 cakes that were requested, 4 were Medium to High complicated level and were decorated. This is unsurprising and leads into a few basic points.
In general we can say that the higher the labor cost combined with the nature of the venue will be important variables in incurring debt. This is because higher labor (on my part) and a public venue would create more “debt” pressure.
Of the five requested birthday cakes, 4 were in the "high cost" bracket and of those, 3 were in public parties. Those three appear to be the ones with the highest potential debt value. One can be eliminated because the requestor and cakee were a superior and it was a going away/birthday party. A second can also be eliminated because it was "paid" for, actually MORE than paid for by a really cool fifties metal cake keeper given to me on the part of the requestor who asked me to make a birthday cake for a friend of hers. I think I still owe the person on that one; I made out like a bandit. As an added bonus the person I made the cake for, who was only an acquaintance at the time, is now a friend (was it the cake?). The third requestor was originally going to help me make and decorate the cake but backed out at the last minute (on the helping part anyways). That may have helped create indebtedness if the wily requestor hadn’t then told me she didn't like it anyway (it was for her guy) so it really was a total bust as far as actually working antagonistically.* (More on this point will be dealt with later, about whether someone can feel indebtedness. This matters if I am foolishly trying to create debt on their part.)
So I wasn't all that successful at antagonistic cake giving in the requested cake factor (the other two were for and by family). What about the cakes offered and not asked for? Surely I did some marked gift giving there? Well, here again it depends. Those we hold closest to us like good friends and immediate family are not typically obligated by cake giving for birthdays. Actually I cannot say this for all cultures, but I can suggest it was the case for my own family history.
Let’s take a look.
Here’s Pretzel on the left and Mrs. Roth on the right at about age two holding giant decorated birthday cakes and wearing huge grins. At age 2 or so, we are being inculcated in the joys of birthday cake giving and especially receiving.
Here’s another one of Pretzel and Mrs. Roth helping our grandmother bake her 62nd birthday cake (Pretzel’s holding the cake pan).
Here’s another one of Pretzel eyeing the decorations. According to my mother I was very particular about that sort of thing. My mouth is open because I am talking. I believe the words "crazed parrot" were used often to describe it.
And a further evidence of my Grandparents singing happy birthday and waiting for cake. My grandmother does not appear to be unduly obligated here. In fact, she seems quite pleased and affectionate. Her birthday was August 23rd, 1918. I'm sorry I couldn't make her cake this year.
Here’s my favorite part. Eating the cake.
And it’s not just the grandparents that got in on the birthday cake action.
Here’s one of Mrs. Roth, me, and my Mother, with her 29th birthday cake. We didn’t do the writing (I believe my grandmother helped with that) but from the messy icing, you can see that we did the rest. Actually, I learned fractions at a very young age due to baking, another bonus.
And here’s one of me, Mrs. Roth and my father with his rather squashed looking birthday cake, another twin baking special. We also insisted on trying to put all 34 candles or so on his cake. I'm the one smiling at him.
These are just the early and few samples of birthday cake baking that was a tradition in my family. I recall them more as tribute for the birthday person. Actually, one early memory I have is of always waking up on my birthday to find paper streamers decorating me and my sis’s room on our birthday. My mom always made birthdays for everyone around us seem very special. I recall making many cakes for parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins (when they were around) and friends. Maybe it was an American Southern tradition, I don’t know.
I recall many homely coconut cakes with our attempts at seven minute frosting for my mother (who was fond of coconut) where we never seemed to beat the frosting enough. She was sanguine anyway, even when we decided to ruin it one year by putting a lot of maraschino cherries on it (it looked like someone had killed a polar bear on a plate) because we knew that she liked cherries (bing cherries as it turned out).
Ah cake memories. I still remember how most of ‘em tasted too.
Back to the analysis. Clearly, when I make cakes for those I hold dear, it’s not all for ritual obligation, but part of a family tradition. It turns out that of the 16 cakes made, 10 were for people I've known more than 5 years and for those other 6 in the less than five years bracket, I can say that 4 were for people I really like, two for friends (good ones!) and two for a brother in law (aka Mr. Roth).
Well, I suppose the obvious critique is that I am too close to this analysis to really be objective about my own intentions in the matter. Fair enough. And I also inserted cute kiddie pics to make my rhetorical point! But that brings us back to the point I suggested earlier as to whether I can operate on the assumption that someone will actually feel the indebtedness that I wish to put there if I wanted to do it.
I think birthday cake baking, at least in this part of the world, is not one that fits into a ritual system that all recognize. The majority of cakes I made for people were low labor cost and not decorated. The few in public venues were still not within a recognizable system of obligation, like wedding gifts or graduation gifts. So clearly the lack of a commonly recognized birthday cake ritual of reciprocation makes it a little harder to use it as an antagonistic competitive device. It’s not to say that it couldn’t be done. In fact, I've clearly gotten a lot out of it in terms of reinforcing friend and family ties and also eating lots of cake (which is always a positive experience). I just don’t seem to be very good at gaining a clear upper hand in my social network by baking cakes. In fact, I can safely say that in a few cases (and I’m thinking of the guy who brought me back the Xanath vanilla liqueur from Mexico AND the Hokkaido cream stew sauce from Japan) I owe the cakee way more cake than I could possibly bake soon!
Generally, I do recognize that one has to be secure in one's relationships to accept gifts without feeling obligation debts where none are intended. And let's be fair, I did get a lot of vocal "yums" out of it, which of course I treasure along with the smiles. So, yeah, I suppose you could say that I got quite a bit out of all the cake baking. I got to engage in a hobby I enjoy, make people I (mostly) know well and like happy, and I scored a few compliments along the way.
Is it a hardship to get birthday cake from me? Well, only if the strawberry icing melts off of your cake onto the table (sorry Mrs. Roth).
So yes, there is such a thing as free cake in this world. Free and obligation free Birthday cake can be yours if I really like you, have known you for a while, owe you something, you are related to me closely, and if it's a relatively private venue (like an office or at home). Oh yeah, and your chances are almost 2/3rds greater if you're a girl. 10 of the 16 birthday cakes were for women.
Actually those numbers are even greater because of the 6 ostensibly for men, 2 of them were requested by women. This is even less surprising when you consider that most of my close friends are women.
Here are a few that I made for birthdays that also happen to be decorated. The first one's my favorite.
Chinese porcelain? Sort of...
Art Deco, 42 is the age of the gal for whom the cake was made.
I was going for the Blue Delft ceramic tradition but the blue is more baby blue than the proper cobalt blue.
Incidentally, I didn't include cakes I've made for Mr. Pretzel Bender in this blog for a reason.
He's out outlier because I've made him too many.
Wedding cakes are another story. But I think I'll have to save that for another blog.