Spice Cake

The Awl’s holiday series on flavors and spices.

Spice cake was the best cake. The other kids thought that this was not the case, and argued for chocolate cake, they were wrong; spice cake was the best cake because I was six years old, it was my favorite and hence, it was the best cake. Not a carrot cake, not a pretender spice cake with bits of nuts or gourds in it, but a simple spice cake, with a cream cheese or butter cream frosting from the little plastic packet at the bottom of the box. Chocolate cake was everywhere. It didn’t even rate. Plus? No spice.

A thing to know about that time and placeWest Virginia, late Q3 of the 20th Century—was that it was not a place one would encounter a wealth of herbs and spices. Even the non-box-mix cooking that might happen in my family, the drop biscuits and the minute steak and the chicken dumplings, relied solely on salt, black pepper and the applicable fat/shortening for flavor. Spice cake, it had spice. That hooked me, whatever this spice was.

What spice was, in the context of then, was a warm and woodsy almost-peppery flavor that took the edge off the sugar. I guess its purpose—cutting through cloying sweetness—was akin to that of chocolate, though chocolate was unctuousness you drowned in, while spice was friendly. Chocolate was a bully (and less a flavor than a precondition), but spice was a secret you were invited into.

Of course, my little kid brain was not curious about what spice actually was, and luckily so, because even now I wonder? Example: what food group do spices belong to? Answer: Yes! Sure, spices are these additions to food to alter the taste, but what do they have in common? They derive from any of the following: tree barks, plant seeds, plant pods, dried flowers, dried herbs even resins. They come from plants, yes, but so do fruits, and vegetables, and herbs. Spice is sui generis, defined by mass agreement.

And the spice of spice cake, come to find out, is primarily cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. Sometimes you see ginger, sometimes mace, but spice cake, historically, is defined by that trinity. Why isn’t a spice cake called Actually Cinnamon Clove Nutmeg Cake? Because the world loves a synechdoche, or at least loves an opportunity to look up the difference between synechdoche and metonymy one more time. The spice in a spice cake was the American take on all spicestasty, but interchangeable.

Obviously, spice has distinctive, collective connotations for a long time. Spicy means hot, and all senses of hot. Medieval abbot Bernard of Clairvaux reflected popular sentiment when he wrote that spices “delight the palate but inflame the libido,” which association survived to modern times, when a similar sentiment was expressed by the formation of a pay cable channel devoted to soft-core pornography called the Spice Channel. Somehow the association with this weird non-food group has been around for millennia, so maybe I was vibing that as a little kid in the way that someone’s fillings can receive AM radio transmissions.

But spice as a concept has not merely been prurient: consider also the spice “Melange” from Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which was this drug that could only be found in one place that gave you powers and fueled commerce and culture—actually, not far off, as spice has had an outsized role in world history. Spice was an historic focus of trade between the East and West since the time that mariners figured out how to traverse the oceans. Cloves and nutmeg were native to a group of islands just east of Indonesia, known then as the Moluccas or the Spice Islands, and now as the Malukus, cinnamon bark was native to Sri Lanka, and a sophisticated trade flow grew around getting spice into the food of Western Europe. Take the Age of Discovery, as the world was being circumnavigated and the New World discovered, it wasn’t just gold and glory that was being sought. More convenient trade routes, including for spices, was the goal, and slapping the moniker West Indies on the Caribbean Basin was a bit of casual disregard stemming from the fact that Columbus thought he found the eastern edge of the Spice Islands. (For further reading see Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner. It’s about spices.)

It is weird to know this now. I was a shaggy, devoted spice cake partisan—and from a box, not one of those gramma cakes that were made “from scratch” but didn’t have spiceand I certainly wasn’t motivated to make some overarching point based on a cake. (Yet.) What I knew was that, among the things that I ate, this cake hinted of another world out there. It wasn’t a world of hope or of dreams—it was possibilities and hints, but just barely.

Synechdoche is a strange thing to come in a box mix, but those times when box mixes were the norm were not so long ago and not so different from now. Yes, food sites and, if you’re feeling luxurious, food magazines, will tell you differently, not only about the many spice cakes you can make from scratch at home and the very hoity-toity spice cakes you may purchase from the spice cake stores around the country, started by frustrated i-bankers, but this may not be yet a universal truth. Trundle your butt down to an old-fashioned supermarket, a Shop Rite or Piggly Wiggly, and you will find the same glorious aisle of shelf-stabilized cake mixes that you would have seen forty years ago. Maybe more nods on the packaging to health, maybe exotic new flavors like “funfetti” or “red velvet”, but the event horizon of We Are All Foodies Now is not yet arrived, no matter what you hear.

You can still reliably find a box of spice cake mix in supermarkets out there, and they still call it a “spice cake” even though that’s a bit unkind to spices in general. I even made one! It was fine, as in “edible, I guess,” probably because I subscribe to food magazines and make healthful things from scratch. But nostalgia has its own flavor, and memory its own cravings.