Sunday, 15 May 2011

My Caker Journey

I don’t remember the first time I heard the word, or the context in which it was said. I didn’t know what a "caker" was, let alone a "mangiacake." It was only years later, when I settled into life with my Italian partner, that the word began popping up more and more.

“What’s a caker?” I asked him once.

“You know,” he replied. “Canadian.”

“But you were born here. Aren’t you Canadian?”

“Yes, but I still consider myself Italian.”

“So then all Canadians are cakers?”

“No. Only the ones who cook with Cheez Whiz.”

I thought back to the years of casseroles I’d consumed, the packets of Dream Whip, the frozen Tater Tots, the Wonder Bread and Ritz crackers. I was raised in the ‘70s within an Anglo Saxon cultural fog. Part Scottish, part Irish, part I-don’t-know-but-does-it-really-matter? Like so many of my friends, I grew up with no sense of Old World traditions. We were, well, Canadians. But we weren’t cakers.

Were we?

But to back peddle a bit – exactly how did this “mangiacake” business start up? 


There seems to be two possible origins. The first is that when Italian immigrants came to North America, they couldn’t afford luxuries like cake, so they were forced to sit and watch all the Anglos stuff their faces. Hence, “cake-eaters.” The second version claims that immigrant Italians considered North American bread too cake-like for their liking.

Whatever the origins, the die was cast. The “mangiacake” was born.

My own identification as a caker came more into focus when I started to see my world through my Italian in-laws' eyes. Lunch consisted of five courses of food with names that sounded more like opera titles: sopresatta, friulano, prosciutto, zabaglione. When it came time for us to dine at my parents' place, it was hard not to cringe at the white kaiser buns tossed onto the table, the packaged luncheon meat, the neon orange processed cheese slices in fanned out display, the tub of mint-green coleslaw. What arias could be found in a bottle of Catalina?

It was only when I held my culture up to another, I realized how pale (and that's Cream of Mushroom soup pale) my own culture actually was. The Italians were right. I was a bonafide caker through and through.

What followed, naturally, was shame. I thought about the meals my in-laws made, the preparation, the ceremony, the sweat, the angst over whether or not the tomato sauce had turned out “acido.” At every meal, the food is discussed, inspected, often times critiqued, but in the end, always celebrated.

Not so with the cakers. Our food takes its merits from convenience, how few ingredients are needed, and if we manage to get away with only one dish to clean up afterwards.

I became the worst kind of caker – the apologetic one. I was embarrassed of caker food: the cheapness, the unhealthiness, the laziness that went into its preparation.

A few years into our relationship, I invited my partner's siblings, their spouses and a few friends over for a Christmas party. On a whim, I christened it a “Caker Christmas Party.” They laughed at the Duncan Hines cake box I taped to my front door and the plate of Triscuits and Velveeta cheese I set out as the centerpiece. The following year, I had Caker Christmas again. Only this time, I made it participatory. All invited guests would have to bring a caker dish. Some were nervous at first (and a little scared), but with a lot of handholding and reassurances that yes, you really do put crushed potato chips on top of the casserole, everyone persevered. Caker Christmas was a hit and the Italians ate it up – literally.

If there was a lesson learned that night, it was this – that caker food, in spite of its simplicity, over-processed ingredients and perilous sodium content, tastes damn good.

Fourteen years later, Caker Christmas is now an annual holiday tradition. I couldn’t stop having it if I wanted to. The Italians love it. Sure, they turn their noses up at the dishes, but I get immense satisfaction watching them go back for seconds.

Most importantly, what’s transpired over those dishes of melting para-mee-shun cheese, chow mein noodles and canned corn has been something I never expected – a celebration. Of my food and my caker culture. It took another culture to help me appreciate my own.

So this blog is my way of celebrating all things caker. Each week, I'll post a new recipe from the cookbooks I've acquired over the years. Whether this blog reacquaints you with some familiar recipes or introduces you to new ones, remember to be proud of your caker upbringing. Tuna casserole isn’t made with shame, my friend. Only love.

And to all you non-cakers out there – welcome to the party. 

Brian

6 comments:

  1. Yup, I put in my time as a mangiacake too. But never once did I hear the word "caker". It was simply "Cake." (as in "David's marrying a cake.")

    Go figure.

    cheers
    susan

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  2. This is really cute.

    Just this weekend, I had a conversation with a group of Jews about the hilariousness of meals prepared from recipes found on food containers, or items that involve crumbled, processed something on top of something else.

    Not 24 hours later, I was discussing the fact that my girlfriend had learned to serve "real food" at the family bbq after marrying into a Colombian family. Ethnic adults consider hamburgers and hot dogs a serious insult.

    White bread folks.
    So sad, so humorous.

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  3. So happy to run across your blog. Was directed here from Chowhound. I'm glad you are able to turn a negative (I think) term into something positive and fun. Felice 2013 and tante buone cose.

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  4. I just finished Samantha Bee's book, "I Know I Am but What Are You," and her take on the origin of the work caker is that Italian immigrants thought protestants were not sufficiently serious about religion and treated the holy host like they were eating cake. Don't know if it is true, but thought I'd pass it on!

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    Replies
    1. Hmm. Another interesting theory. Thanks for sharing!

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