Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Where Patriotism Becomes The Icing on the Cake

When it comes to food and battle symbolism, the flag cake takes the cake.

As the Fourth of July nears, nothing says red, white and sweet more than mom and the kids plonking down blueberries in white icing for stars and arranging strawberries in rows for stripes.

Around this time, Canadians also get busy in the kitchen baking a flag cake from scratch for July 1, Canada’s birthday. This time, sliced strawberries or cherries help fashion a maple leaf pattern on a white icing cake.

And the French, for whom Marie Antoinette famously said “Let them eat cake!” – or brioche, depending on your tolerance for historical inaccuracy – they’ll be arranging their berries in vertical blocks – one-third blueberries, one-third plain white icing and one-third strawberries -- come Bastille Day on July 14.

Whatever your nationality, show your pride on your independence day with icing. Beyond the sugar rush, and a lesson in cake decoration, you get a window on the relationship between food ingredients and battle-earned freedom and nation-hood. It's like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Mom takes the ingredients off of the shelf and places them on the table. The kids measure out the portions, and add them to separate bowls for dry and wet ingredients. After mom completes a silver white cake, the history lesson begins. As the blueberries are arranged in rows in the top-left hand corner, with spaces left so the white icing resembles stars to signify the 13 colonies, mom recalls how America separated from Great Britain. Here the red strawberries, cut in half and arranged in rows across the cake, signify stripes of freedom.

The trick is to see past the assembled food ingredients to what they represent. Suddenly, something you normally run up the flagpole – a cloth with stars and stripes – lands on the dining room table, complete with forks and napkins.

Fruit and frosting just as easily kindles loyalty, honor and patriotism in British hearts, courtesy of the pastry bag, pipe or spatula, and select red and blue-colored fruit.

The possibilities of visual rhetoric are endless, whether in Mexico, where kiwi may be used represent the green, cinnamon for the eagle, and candy sprinkles for the details, or Jamaica, where options include banana for the yellow, kiwi for the green and black cherries for the black.

There’s equal variety in food ingredients required: berries, candies, sugars, icing, chocolate and fondants. And you’ll need to decide on the cake style, whether from Europe where cake is generally covered with a smooth icing and then decorated on top or around the border, or a ladder-style Victorian cake typical of weddings.

My favorite is the Lambeth style, where icings and fondants are layered, and applied using a piping bag for elaborate presentation.

You’ll decide how much complexity in decoration you want. Trying to represent the fleur-de-lis, or tricolors, takes some imagination.

That said, you’ll have a familiar flag to work from. Friends and family won’t question what you were trying to say, as if you created a piece of art. They’ll know what the cake says, because it signifies a flag, and by extension independence, freedom and, in many parts of the world, democracy.

Flag cakes also underline the principle that, over time, differences between peoples and nations, friends and foe, decrease and ultimately get reduced to a holiday-sanctioned day off and a pig out that everyone can enjoy.

That process happens in stages, however. And as nations generally adopt a new flag during a time of independence, which follows a battle or war with winners and losers, expect varied reactions to your flag cake. To some, it will invite patriotic fervor, to others possibly antipathy, and even disgust. For example, a U.S. northerner might well find a Confederate flag cake offensive. And you won’t find a swastika cake in Tel Aviv, nor in Passau, hopefully.

Clearly, one man’s flag cake is another man’s defeat and humiliation.

And while flag burning is forbidden, the morality of carving up a flag cake and mushing pieces into your mouth, or tipping leftovers into the garbage, is largely unexplored.

Nor do food conglomerates hesitate to profit from this patriotic culinary fad. Breyers ice cream, a division of Unilever, knows which side of the cake is iced. Its “Breyers Ice Cream Flag Cake” recipe for the Fourth of July predictably calls for two separate tubs of its vanilla and chocolate ice cream, fresh fruit and whipping cream.

You can even buy a flag cake pan for the Fourth of July to ensure the flag shape and 13 indentations so you get the stars for the original colonies in the right place.

It’s a peace of cake, really.

Etan Vlessing

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Evacuation Day Nearly Leaves Town

Who doesn’t love Evacuation Day? Boston City Council, apparently.

You may have recognized by now an oft-stated lament in this blog that once-proud holidays born of struggle and feasting have over time been reduced to little more than a day off of work, with little regard or observance for the past.

So it’s worth noting that Boston City Council only narrowly voted to keep its Evacuation and Bunker Hill days as floating holidays for around 35,000 Suffolk County employees, after it threatened to cancel the holiday slate to save taxpayer dollars in hard times. The Beacon Hill pols managed a resolution of support for the June 17 Bunker Hill holiday and the earlier March 17 Evacuation Day observance "so our citizens may reflect and remember the sacrifices of those who gave gone before us."

How quickly they forget March 17, 1776, when a British naval fleet sailed out of Boston harbor on route to Halifax, Nova Scotia. That came 11 months after the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 15, 1775. After a long siege, British troops were finally allowed to leave Boston harbor, within incident or injury. The anniversary of this date is conveniently celebrated by the Irish American (and other) residents of Boston and Suffolk County on March 17.

Truly, when Evacuation Day, which celebrates the evacuation of British forces from Boston on March 17, 1776, is judged non-essential, then the observance of American history has truly come to a sorry pass. Especially when it comes to Irish-Americans, for whom March 17 is also St. Patrick’s Day, a convenient coincidence and a reminder when they gave the boot to the British redcoats.

That tie to St. Patrick’s Day may well explain why Evacuation Day survives in Boston but has long since lapsed among New Yorkers who once marked the holiday on November 25, the day the defeated British army left that city’s shores in 1783.

Indeed, the conquering general of the day, George Washington, held a famous victory feast to celebrate the departure of the British at Capes Tavern at Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. Besides the usual delicacies like lamb, oysters, Virginia ham and deserts, Washington and his merrymaking officers downed 133 bottles of Madeira port and claret wine. According to the food historian Mary Donovan in her Thirteen Colonies Cookbook.

It turns out Evacuation Day early on became a convenient holiday for Brahmins in Boston and New York City to hold popular parades and private dinners where they proclaimed their respect for the sacrifices of the American revolutionary war, and projected their own political and economic power.

Historian Cliftoon Hood recounts that, by the mid-1790s, Evacuation Day in New York City had settled into an annual calendar holiday with parades and rituals, so much so that newspapers of the day reported that the Evacuation Day celebration passed off "as usual" or "with the usual military honor."

The emotion and revelry that surrounded Evacuation had long ebbed by the time of the holiday’s 100th anniversary, and it wasn’t until 1901 that Evacuation Day became a legal holiday in Boston. A year later on March 17, 1902, Boston dedicated the Dorchester Heights monument in Irish south Boston. And in Suffolk County, Evacuation Day became an official holiday, with school and government offices closed.

But in 2009, 226 years after the British redcoats took their leave of Boston, Evacuation Day has largely been forgotten in New York City, and nearly came to an unceremonious end in Suffolk County.

And with the near demise of this once joyous occasion has gone much of Evacuation Day’s historical memory.

Etan Vlessing