The Edible Complex

 “James Möllendorpf, the oldest of the merchant senators, died a grotesque and ghastly death. Diabetic and senile in his last years, he let his instincts of self-preservation desert him, to the point where he succumbed more and more to his passion for cakes and tarts. Doctor Grabov, the family doctor, protested with all his energy, and the family firmly but gently denied him sweets. But what did the Senator do? Mentally ill, he had rented a small room, a chamber, a veritable hole, unsuitable for his class, on Gröpelgrube Street. Here he secretly locked himself to eat tarts. And there they found him, dead, his mouth still full of half-chewed cake, the remnants of which blemished his skirt and the dirty table.” -Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (my translation)


Josephine Kay was hungry. Hamburgers for breakfast, roast pig for lunch. Before bed a box of Reese’s Puffs, drowned in heavy cream. By the time she turned sixteen, her prodigious appetite was the stuff of local legend: mothers urged finicky children to ‘eat like Josephine,’ and no one ever tired of recalling the time she ate twenty scoops of ice cream at the county fair—without, as witnesses put it, ‘coming up for air.’ Josephine’s parents looked on in awe as their daughter indefatigably polished off the contents of the refrigerator or the breadbox, neatly scooping the last crumbs of brioche into her waiting mouth.

But for all her achievements, sweet and savory, what Josephine really craved was cake. Cheesecake and carrot cake, angle cake and apple cake. She wrote off the rest to the necessary evil of dietary diversification, but her heart and her belly weren’t in it. Chocolate or marzipan, red velvet or buttercream, Josephine’s kinship with cake transcended superficial differences in flavor or frosting. She could see down to each cake’s flour-and-sugar soul—could see all the way back, in fact, to the very first cake she had enjoyed, an unassuming blond and vanilla affair with spun sugar roses clustered at the corners. This cake, so unremarkable in appearance and consistency, so conventional in taste and composition, had marked young Josephine’s initiation into world of solid food, from which her overcautious parents had theretofore banned her, citing undeveloped teeth. Justly or unjustly, Josephine credited this cake with introducing her to the joys of satiation.

For years she thought of it longingly: the expanse of its untouched icing, the tender texture of its interior. It seemed to her that this cake had been uniquely satisfying, uniquely warm and whole and happy, singularly sugared and buttered and baked. The memory of this cake, The Cake, drew her closer around herself and seemed, somehow, to deepen and expand her.

Sometimes she dreamt of The Cake, and she awoke salivating, feeling that her mouth was cavernous. On these occasions, she descended to the kitchen to prepare a midnight feast: crackers and olive spread, peaches sprinkled with cinnamon, chocolate-covered hazelnuts and bowls of whipped cream. The crackers proved dry and the peaches mealy, the hazelnuts stale and the whipped cream sour. The olive spread, she thought, was missing some crucial ingredient (was it salt?).

And yet cake, she found, or admitted, or confessed, was hardly more fulfilling. Late at night sometimes she would almost admit it to the silence of her sleeping room: the more she loved cake, the more she hated eating it. Hers was not a happy love, not a love like full-bellied Thanksgiving pie or a hot bowl of cinnamon oatmeal. She sat down to dessert, fork in hand, feeling cheated even as she chewed. In even the grandest four-tiered constructions, Josephine, like Michelangelo seeking out the shapes in lumps of unhewn stone, could see the crumbs to which her eating would reduce her beloved.

 How nice, she thought, it would be to gaze upon a mound of untouched pastry rising above an immaculate plate; to sink her fork into a choice corner; and, above all, to know how many slices remained and how gloriously long it would take her to consume them. She passed her happiest moments hungry for an endless, eternal eating. A consumption without top or bottom, end or middle, up or down.

But for the first time in her life, Josephine wasn’t hungry. Already the thought of a whole steak, a whole cake, daunted her, and she had to fortify herself with Tums and seltzer water before she sat down to her third or fourth course. “I remember when I loved nothing better than the thought of eating cake,” she wrote. “I remember when I used to faithfully catalogue everything too dear to forget: that sunny café where I sampled my first black forest cake, the unparalleled pleasure of dipping into an over-iced angel cake with the tip—just the tip—of an eager fork. I fear the day when I can stomach no more.”

Her parents, who watched her anxiously, observed that her eating was marked by a new desperation: tarts and tortes and truffles, mousses and marshmallows and marzipans. They prompted doctors to survey her mouth and throat. The cold metal devices they inserted between her lips felt like an infidelity, an affront to the warm density of The Cake. “It’s not a physical problem,” the physicians concluded. “If she’s hungry, you should feed her.”

 “I don’t want to live in a world where I don’t love cake,” Josephine wrote that spring, shortly thereafter. “I’d rather die. I want to expire in a state of overstuffed equilibrium, consuming cake and consumed by cake, maximally integrated into cake, full to the point of bursting—finally, fatally full. A Liebestort for my Liebestod. An Urcake, a cake to end all cake.”

That night, true to her intentions, she went to the bakery and ordered peanut butter cheesecake and slabs of fudge, fruitcake and teacake with powdered sugar, cake with ice cream and cake with cream cheese. Vanilla cake, chocolate cake, cinnamon cake, apple cake (one with raisins and one without). Cake made of donuts and donuts made of cake. Mooncakes and cupcakes and five story wedding cakes, threatening crumbly collapse. Teacakes and pineapple upside down cakes and cake batter jammed into ice cream cones. Confronted with this chaos of cakes Josephine plunged her hands into the crème brûlée and shoved her tongue into the hole at heart of the bundt cake, wriggled a few intrepid fingers into the secret crème at the core of the tender tarts. With her teeth she unlayered layers, deflated damp soufflés, tore fragile threads of flaking pastry dough, and lay waste to tiramisu. She lovingly sucked the filling from the creampuffs and éclairs. She left no scone unturned and no flavor unsavored.

But at the end of it all, when she had reached the ominous inevitability of empty pans, she was still waiting. For vomit? Death? Explosion? For some supernatural event, cakes towering many-tiered up into the sky? For transformation? For the prize hidden somewhere within the king’s cake (she had probably eaten it, she thought, along with the fourth slice, which had tasted slightly plasticky)? For boundary between self and cake to dissolve, like sugar into batter?

She couldn’t say exactly, but somewhere between the angel’s food cake and the zucchini cake—probably, she hypothesized, around the Yule log, though perhaps even weeks ago, or maybe even years—she had finally eaten enough.