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Cake Walk
by Deborah Markus

o I broke down last week and bought one of the Cake/Diet magazines. You know the ones. I don't mean that they advertise some kind of all-cake diet, or that they have recipes for (God forbid) diet cakes. No. These are bright-colored glossies that always have the diet of the week on the cover, with perky-looking print plastered over an inspiring "after" photo of a woman who looks exactly like any housewife would on any given day if she just lost 27 pounds and had a thorough makeover including tweezing, clipping, pore ensmallment, a glam haircut that undoubtedly starts growing out and looking tufty about fifteen minutes after the picture is taken, and a fabulous outfit that no one who actually cleans her own house and takes care of real children would dare to wear.

Next to this vision is the cake. Always. Oh, maybe around Christmas they'll relent and show some cookies that only take half an hour to decorate (each), but the rest of the year it's -- well, the one that made me cave in this week is called Banana-Split Brownie Cake. After reading the recipe, I've decided that the name just doesn't say enough. They ought to have actual living fat cells oozing off the page.

What I love about these magazines is how cheerfully blatant they are. They could just as easily tuck the cake picture and recipe inside, safely away from the diet, and claim innocence. Different departments, different editors, no communication between the two -- just like the CIA and the FBI. Or they could run a diet one week and a cake the next. They'd undermine one another just as well. But no. They're shameless. Cake and diet, diet and cake, week after week.

It's really admirable, if you think about it. I mean, in a slimy kind of way. It's like one of those symbiotic relationships the nature programs get so excited about. Like those alligator-dentist birds. No, really. I don't remember what they're called, but they're these little birds who come up to alligators and pick their teeth clean. I mean with their beaks. It's not like they have tools. No, they eat the crud off those fangs, like a teenager picking his braces, and the alligators just let them. It's cool. The birds gets a dinner that admittedly no one else in the entire animal kingdom would want; the alligator has sparkly clean teeth and gets to look like a nice guy in the bargain. (Hey, didn't you see that bird sitting right in my mouth yesterday? I didn't eat him, did I? Come a little closer and I'll tell you all about it...)

Okay, so it's not the greatest analogy in the world. But you get the picture. Imagine some woman glancing at one of these magazines. The diet of the week ("Mangoes saved my life!") doesn't particularly grab her. Maybe she's fine with her weight right where it is. (All right, so we're really in fantasyland now.) Anyway, she sees the picture of the cake and thinks, Hey, that looks good. So she tries it out (after buying the magazine, yes, I know, they don't serve dessert in klepto prison), and it is good. Yummy. Not even too hard to make -- no weird, hard-to-find ingredients or anything. So she sneaks a peek next week and sure enough -- wow, another cake! And Ted's birthday's coming up -- wouldn't this be perfect?

Pretty soon she's a magazine-cake addict. She stirs from her sugar coma one day and realizes in vague alarm that she just entered the supermarket through the big double doors not because they were closest but because they were the only ones she could fit through. Anguished, she turns to her favorite magazine and sees -- the diet! Oh, joy! Just what she needs! It doesn't even look too hard to follow -- no weird, hard-to-find foods or anything. Bob's birthday's coming up (Ted ditched her a hundred pounds ago) -- wouldn't this be perfect?

So she slims up, and then -- why, she ought to reward herself for all that hard work! And look! There it is! The cake! She's so thin now, she can have just a little... The really sick and wrong part (okay, I'm exposing my bias now) is that most of the diets, these days, are all about changing your lifestyle. No crash diets, none of those stereotypical kale-and-cauliflower-forbreakfast (trust me, you won't survive to see dinner, and if you do you'll wish you hadn't) dealies. It took a while, but everyone except the people who read those other magazines at the supermarket checkout counter ("Mangoes saved Martian's life!") has figured out by now that those torture diets don't work. Now we're into the holistic diet approach, which still doesn't work but it takes you longer to figure that out. Make large general changes in your eating habits and you're golden.

This week's tip, for example, is to cut out coffee. Not caffeine -- how could you eat that chocolate cake we've helpfully included the recipe for on page twelve if you were running strictly on unleaded? But according to simply oodles of new research, coffee itself puts you in the mindset of eating rich foods, like -- why, like that cake we've got right on the cover! No, wait, we didn't mean that. We meant foods like doughnuts and cookies, unless it's December, in which case we meant foods like doughnuts and croissants, but not at all like those lovely little Santa-and-all-twelve-individualized- reindeer cookies we just

happen to have the recipe for (page 16, right next to the article about how bad refined sugar is for your kids) and which Martha Stewart threw her back out trying to decorate.

Where were we? Oh, yeah -- no coffee! Coffee-free for a new, beautiful you! Give me a break. The woman who swears she dropped three sizes on this diet insists that drinking tea in the afternoon put her in the mind of healthier foods. Has this person never heard of England, where my family and race memories hail from?

Drinking tea in the afternoon means bread and butter to me, minimum. It means banana-and-sugar sandwiches. It means those little frosted cakes the English always seem to just casually have around the place like other people have unpaid bills. It means tarts. It means shortbread, the kind that tastes so light and crispy (a little rice flour in with the regular, that's the secret) even though it's got more butter per square inch than Ma Ingalls' churn. It means I have to eat something sweet and heavy right now! Out of my way!   Sorry. I'm okay. Been working too hard. Needed a little coffee break. I'm back now. Man, did I used to put away a lot of woman's magazine cake. It was scary. I hope to God that your arteries get to clear up after ten years of being nice to them like your lungs are supposed to heal after a decade of not smoking any more. Otherwise, I'm headed for serious trouble. Back in the eighties, I had this one recipe that had something like four ingredients, and the healthiest one was Oreos. I'm serious. It was, like, Oreos, whipped cream, more Oreos, and... oh, I don't know. Something else, anyway. There had to have been something else.

I hope. Anyway, you did something like smash up the Oreos and freeze them, and then you folded the whole mess together, and voila! Food that filled no dietary requirement whatsoever! Yes, fat is a requirement, but this cake called for that ghastly fat-free frozen whipping creme (dairy-free! all chemicals!). And please don't try to convince me that Oreos have anything as real as wheat in them. No, this cake was a mutant anti-food. And I couldn't get enough of it. Or of that ghastly chocolate chip pie (ingredients: chocolate chips, pie) I recall living on for an entire particularly cold winter. I can't imagine where I got the recipe, since none of the magazines seem to care about pie. Just cake. Cake cake cake.

So anyway, I don't what happened last week. I never buy those magazines any more. I bought them when I was a teenager and thought size six was forever. And it's pretty funny, when you think about it, that they're aiming reading material of any kind at mothers of small children. Like we have time to read. But I guess I was feeling nostalgic. And my jeans haven't been too tight lately. And bananas with chocolate has always been one of my favorite combinations. And hey, my birthday's coming up in five months -- wouldn't this be perfect?