Sunday, December 25, 2011

On My Hopeless Longing for a Forest Friends Swirl Cake

Oscar Wilde: "Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself."

Swiss Colony: "A flavorful, easy-to-serve customer favorite!"

Long ago in the early '80s, when I was a little Jewish girl growing up in a condo on the outskirts of D.C., I had a bad, bad case of Christmas Envy. It's hard to say why. We did, after all, have a five-foot artificial Christmas tree, and stockings we draped on the stereo cabinet; but still, I had it bad. Maybe it was the brainwashing influence of It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Maybe it was because Michelle Crampton, the girl who lived upstairs in her grandmother's smoky third-floor walk-up, told me explosive stories about her Christmas mornings: twenty-two presents! Twenty-FIVE! My Little Ponies! Cabbage Patch Dolls! It sounded like an extravaganza of all the toys I would know only from friends' houses and, later, VH-1 nostalgia specials, and the gifts my father doled out at a reasonable rate of one per night paled in comparison.

It wasn't just Christmas, though. There was Easter, too, when I'd flip through the Sunday circulars in the Washington Post to ogle all the photos of cello-wrapped baskets bursting with candy and pastel dresses that came with bonnets and gloves. I mean no disrespect against the religion of my birth by saying that Manischewitz's coconut macaroons for Passover just don't have the same appeal. It was through the deluge of holiday catalogs and sales flyers that I got my start telling stories. This is a true confession: at age six or seven I would sit in the den for hours with a stack of catalogs and a pair of safety scissors, and snip out all the little photos of things I wanted, storing them in big black plastic grocery bags I kept in my closet. This drove my mother insane. She was convinced the bags would become a breeding ground for roaches. But she wasn't really big on telling me I couldn't do things, and so every week I added to my collection like a future star of "Hoarders," all the while making up stories in my head about the people who lived in the commercial wonderland stored in my garbage bag.

The first time I ever attended anyone's Christmas celebration, at my aunt's house in Arizona, I was around 12 or 13. Prior to that, my knowledge of the holiday was all based on research. And in the early '80s, there seemed to be no more authoritative text than the Swiss Colony catalog. A great deal of real estate in my garbage bag was devoted to Swiss Colony products, thanks to the fact that they sent their catalog about every other day beginning in September, and I had no reason to doubt that its contents represented the Standard American Christmas. Everyone who was not Jewish ate summer sausage and shrink-wrapped cheese in mass quantities, found use for tiny jars of jam and a handful of mixed nuts, and entertained with trays of petits fours. Their houses, too, were decorated with the windchimes and novelty-print blankets in the back of the booklet, and on every holiday table was a glass gumdrop tree.

This year, as I started to pull Christmas together for my own family, I made a stop-- as I always do-- on the Swiss Colony website. I never actually order anything. It just gets me in the holiday mood, you know, since they haven't changed their offerings since 1983. As the page loaded I was greeted with the three smiling raccoon faces of the Forest Friends Swirl Cake, also known, for some reason, as the Orphans' Log. And for the first time it hit me: I have a Visa. I'm 35 years old and, dammit, I'm tired of looking at the Forest Friends Swirl Cake. I can buy the damn thing and have a real freakin' Christmas!

It took nanoseconds for my nine-year-old inner child to retrieve my credit card and place the order. It arrived a week later, attached to a complimentary box of chocolate truffles and one of petits fours (Petits fours! There really is a Santa!). I could hardly wait for the momentous occasion to arrive, and then, at long last, it was Christmas Day.

The cake was smaller than I expected, but my surprise was short-lived; celebrities are always shorter in person. Still, for purposes of scale, I took a picture of it next to an object whose size I know well:

You like what I did there? But still, you can see that this cake is really quite small, especially given that I forked over nearly $30 for it. Though delighted that those raccoon faces were looking at me and me alone, I was starting to feel glad that I had resisted buying the cheese and summer sausage boxed sets and had instead gone with some milky brie and Ubriaco del Piave from the cheese counter at Wegmans and a selection of charcuterie. Thirty bucks at Wegmans will get you an absolutely beautiful fresh fruit tart, but then again, my childhood Christmas dreams aren't made of fruit tarts, are they?

I sliced into the cake. It looked more or less like I expected: swirly and dense. The chocolate shell was thicker than expected, almost like a solid bar.

At this point, since I had decided upon opening the box that I would blog this adventure, I decided to pause and take a photo of the gift I got for my husband to enable me to hit the necessary minimum for getting the chocolaty freebies.

It would work better if I knew how to turn the photo, but as you can see, it is a blanket printed with a picture of a wolf howling at the moon. Our sectional sofa's chaise lounge is wearing out, and recently he bought a cheap acrylic blanket with a soaring eagle to cover the upholstery and prevent ripping. If I was the author of, say, The Help, or The Night Circus, I would solve this problem by reupholstering my sofa in fabric spun by the Pope's personal silkworms. But since merely reading my book's inside cover causes people to go to Confession, I decided I'd better class the place up with the wolf-pack blanket.

So I returned to my slice of Forest Friends Swirl Cake. I made it this far:

I'm going to have to blame it on the filling. It had that Crisco-y texture, as if someone had sweetened the shortening with some kind of liquid sugar to keep it from getting fluffy. The cake was dry and one-note. The chocolate coating was decent. But after all the calories I threw back today between the Brie with cranberry-walnut topping, the Westphalian ham, and those petits fours-- which, to my surprise, turned out to be quite yummy-- I just couldn't justify this one. In the end, the Forest Friends were ever so much tastier in the imaginary realm.

But I'm not disappointed. It's how these things work, after all; it's why we read, why we write, and why we usually stop short of doing the things we read and write about. Unless you happen to be longing for an Orphans' Log. In which case I'd like to recommend the fruit tarts at Wegmans.


  1. Did you at least eat their little faces? That would have been my first stop. And having dealt with a tremendous amount of sin, I'm not so sure desire is over with when we submit to it. What do you think? Or is "playing the tape" a sort of submission?

  2. Yeah, I think the quote is an interesting perspective, but I don't agree with it. Occasionally it works this way, but most of the time I think the opposite happens. Plus, from a spiritual point of view, I don't think it's true at all. People do sometimes feel sick with longing for the things they've forbidden themselves, but I'm a Milton fan, after all, and I was totally enraptured by the line in Paradise Lost that says we are "sufficient to have stood, yet free to fall." Which is the opposite of the idea in the Wilde quote-- that we're enslaved by what we long for and that we're essentially helpless against it or ruled by it.

    As to the cake, I have not eaten their little faces yet, but I will be sure to before the rest of the cake disappears in whatever form (children or trash). No way am I going to pass up that opportunity, all book allegories aside.