by Ali Berlow
Aileen was the queen of special order celebration cakes at the supermarket bakery counter. She’s always been clever in the wily ways of royal icing, fondant, piping bags, food coloring, stenciling and the air brushing celebration cakes. When the deli-boys—who are just a bunch of big flirts anyway—chided her into a bet that she couldn’t decorate a wedding cake with right hand tied behind her back—she took them up on it. It was gimme, she’d done thousands of them, lefty didn’t matter. The basket weave border in shades of violet icing and the word ‘Congratulations’ in green gel cursive turned out perfect enough for her to walk away with twenty of their greasy cold-cut flat-meat- smelling bucks tucked safely into her brassiere. And what those deli-boys didn’t know was that the bride, who was her sister-in-law’s cousin’s daughter on her father’s side, was an 18-year old girl with more important things pressing on her mind (and in her belly) than how those pink buttercream roses looked on her wedding cake.
It was a postcard that Aileen got from that crazy aunt of hers, the one from Cleveland, Ohio, who travels across the country in an Airstream and wears Italian high-heeled shoes that inspired her to enter the Have Your Cake & Eat It Too decorating contest. At first glance the purple iris on the postcard looked like just any other “Greetings from (fill in the blank)” but beneath her aunt’s loopy handwriting, the description on the back read “The Glass Flowers at Harvard, Leopold & Rudolf Blaschka, 1893.” That flower was actually a botanical model made of lamp-worked glass, but it looked like it could sway in the warm breeze heavy with honeybees. You could see the pollen on its stamens, the sunlight through its leaves. She held the postcard to her nose and sniffed it.
Aileen stuck it on her fridge along with all the other postcards from her aunt and figured that if those two Blaschkas, a father and son living in the 1800s, could create flowers like that out of glass, she’d show homage to god’s miracles with some stiff frosting, a piping bag and a good spatula. She set to work researching her subject matter and studying the flowers in her garden. She practiced tinting new colors, fine-tuning the pressure control and correcting her piping bag position with the strength of chopping wood and the delicacy of tatting lace. She upgraded her equipment and splurged for the deluxe master set of 52 metal decorating tips that came in a convenient carrying case. The deli- boys sensed something was up when they saw her reading books like The Natural History of Pollination and Cakewalk: Adventures with Sugar.
Aileen baked and decorated a lemon rectangular sheet cake for the contest, it’s what she does best, and besides three dimensionals like teddy bears and goldfish were not her style. Then she drew sepia portraits of the Blaschka glass-masters. On the left side was Leonard, the handsome father with a faraway look in his eyes and on the right, his son, Rudolf, cocky with furrowed brow and a handlebar mustache that she’d made appear neatly combed with a #150 petal tip. And in the middle, balancing between the Blaschka men, was a spiky mauve-colored flower, a botanically correct meadow blazing star along with a monarch butterfly. Aileen had conjured that nearly invisible moment when a butterfly alights on a flower and it uncoils its proboscis into the inner depths of a blossom in search of sweet nectar.
Before she mailed off her entry form and two photos of the cake, she spit on the envelope three times for good luck. Aileen’s cake would be judged solely on creativity, appearance, technique and use of materials. Apparently it didn’t matter what was inside. Proud as peacocks her deli-boys were, saying that she was a shoe-in and that the judges were jerks (to put it politely) if they didn’t even want to taste it. “Besides,” they said, “this was the best cake you ever made for us.”