My favorite dessert is carrot cake. I’m not sure exactly when or why this happened, but there it is. I don’t have a particular favorite purveyor or recipe, though my preference is that it contain walnuts. Raisins I could take or leave. I have never actually baked one myself, and don’t have a cake pan. I am, generally speaking, trying to go easy on the carbs.
We all have our indulgences; a price we are willing to pay. It’s easy to imagine that carrot cake’s is relatively low. The vegetal aura, the warm, unthreatening spice—it seems (questions of dessert tend to slip sideways around rational thought, into the realm of baseless intuition) almost monastic where nutrition is concerned. The palanquin of cream cheese frosting, granted, but that’s mostly for pageantry’s sake. Nowhere near the insouciant bulk of a cheesecake or the oozy debauch of a pecan pie. The carrot, associated most closely in my mind with the image of a crudité edging toward room temperature on a lonely table at a chaperoned dance, and particularly the shredded carrot, postiche of shitty salads, is useless for self-indulgence. The very word feels like repentance, a small, smooth stone hurled through a window at the lab where they fry our taste buds, dunk us by our ankles in triglycerides. Just the carrot cake, for me. The carrot is simple. It is honest and demure.
It is also, for all practical purposes, incidental to the cake that takes its name. You certainly can’t taste the vegetable, not in any appreciable way, and at issue is not so much the conception of carrot cake as its digestion. Rhetoric, the ancient saying goes, holds sway only from the palate up. The facts on the ground are that the standard carrot cake recipe involves somewhere between one and three pounds of sugar, inclusive of the frosting, which, along with cinnamon or nutmeg or whatever else you feel like putting in it, is the bulk of what you taste. The carrots themselves are more of a texture thing, and keep the cake moist, being primarily (about 88 percent, for the completists) made of water. So, on the one hand, I’m just lying to myself. On the other, however, that’s just more or less how this works. It’s why the thing exists.
It was not always so. Carrots have a decent amount of sugar in them—nowhere near what we’re accustomed to (annual per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners in the US stood at 128 pounds in 2016), but enough that they’ve been used in desserts for, minimum, a millennium. The earliest documentation of what could be considered a proto-carrot cake comes via Abu Muhammad al-Muthaffar ibn Nasr ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, who, a thousand years ago in Baghdad, wrote a cookbook. It is a masterpiece of recipes, poems, jokes, and anecdotes entitled The Book of Cookery, Preparing Salubrious Foods and Delectable Dishes Extracted from Medical Books and Told by Proficient Cooks and the Wise. Among its 132 chapters are four dedicated to the Khabis, a kind of pudding or custard, and among those are a couple with carrots. One calls for sliced carrots to be softened in milk, flavored with cloves, cassia, ginger, nutmeg, and spikenard (which used to be all the rage but has fallen out of favor in recent centuries—Achilles anoints the body of Patroclus with it in the Iliad), then thickened with eggs. The other brings dates to the party. They both actually sound pretty good.
Similar dishes continue to crop up over the centuries in the form of carrot puddings, approximating what we’d recognize as an unfrosted cake. Constance Hall’s endearing, hand-written 1672 cookbook has an entry, “To Make a Carrott Pudding,” baked with boiled carrots, eggs, butter, cream, salt, nutmeg, and breadcrumbs. A century later, Geroge Washington was offered something similar when he hosted a feast at Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan after the final British evacuation in 1783—carrots, butter, flour, eggs, cinnamon, and nutmeg. (The tavern is still there, so I went by and checked: Washington’s face is plastered all over, but carrot cake is no longer on the menu.) The early-nineteenth-century Art of French Cookery by Antoine Beauvilliers calls for boiled carrots, flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and orange flowers, baked for forty-five minutes and served plain. For hundreds of years the recipe had more or less remained unchanged, having reached what could be presumed its ideal form. These are delicate, thoughtful cakes, unfrosted save for an occasional dollop of whipped cream. They’re civilized, dignified, restrained. And things might have kept on like that were it not for Hitler.
American business has always been kind of a freak show, but the things we do to food are really something. To take one famous example, we engineered tomatoes to look perfectly smooth and beautifully red, but in the process made them taste like wet sand—which is to say that we don’t meet demands so much as manufacture them, so that eventually everybody just forgets whatever came before. The Second World War is where the path of carrot cake branches, where the American propensity for lunatic entrepreneurial freelancing takes over and I end up crouched over a half-eaten slice of cake, hating myself. It is, if you will indulge me just a moment, the fork in the road.
In early 1942, when the American government started rationing goods, first on the list was sugar. Pretty much everything else followed shortly thereafter. But with US forces all over the globe, from Europe to the Pacific, quantity wasn’t the only issue—there were the practical matters of transportation and spoilage. In stepped industrialists contracted by the government to sort out the practicalities. One of them was George C. Page, a Nebraskan farm boy who’d moved to Los Angeles with a couple of dollars in his pocket and a sincere desire to be rich. Page washed dishes in a restaurant until he’d saved up enough to rent a storefront, then started a company called Mission Pak, shipping California oranges to people for Christmas.
Page made a killing after Pearl Harbor by buying up warehouses and renting them back out to the rapidly expanding war industry. Northrup and Hughes Aircraft built planes in his buildings, and he made a fortune jacking up the rents on their short-term leases because it was too much of a hassle for them, what with all the machinery they’d brought in, to move. He bought up the Malibu beachfront, which people were abandoning for fear of Japanese invasion, and turned it around at a massive profit once it was clear they weren’t coming. He volunteered to fight, but the government sent him to Berkeley instead, to learn how to dehydrate food. Studs Terkel interviewed him for his oral history, The Good War: “I reasoned that dehydrated products were so concentrated that there would be a good demand after the war as well.”
He was wrong. Frozen foods got hot, but nobody wanted the dehydrated stuff. When the war ended, the government slipped out of his contracts, and he was stuck with a warehouse of dehydrated carrots.
Angelinos might be familiar with Page because he, annoyed that the fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits were housed seven miles away in the Natural History Museum and not right by the pit where they’d ingloriously struggled and died, built the George C. Page Museum that sits there now. I know him because I eat my anxiety. Saddled with a mountain of carrots, Page called up his old boss from the restaurant he’d worked at as a teen. “He took some of those tins off my hands and came up with the idea of the carrot cake. It became so popular that other bakers used it. Every pound of those carrots was taken off my hands. I got out of everything.”
So began the popularization of carrot cake in America. Things built slowly at first, then exploded in the late ’60s, when carrot cake was finally mated with the cream cheese frosting that’s so ubiquitous now. It was a fad food, the carrots and chopped nuts convincing everybody it was basically a salad, driven on by Philadelphia Cream Cheese’s marketing efforts. You might think of carrot cake not as a way to prepare carrots but a way to get rid of them. There’s a sucker born every minute.
I still can’t help but think of carrot cake as an honest sort of food. I think of all the vaguely autumnal desserts this way—pecan pie, for example, strikes me as a legitimate thing, organic, born of a proud culinary tradition and centuries of evolutionary tinkering. But pecan pie, as we know it, was essentially invented by corn syrup manufacturers, just as Adams Extract made red velvet cake a phenomenon. There are a ton of these Frankenstein desserts, though most of them have fallen by the wayside over the years. Campbell’s jumped on a depression-era stopgap of using tomato soup as the basis for a cake (which functioned much as carrots are supposed to, keeping things moist and imparting a little sweetness). Propelled by magazine ads and the company’s recipe suggestions, it had a moment about the same time that carrot cake took off—tomato soup cake was the first recipe Campbell’s ever published right on their cans—but never quite caught on. Soup cake doesn’t have much of a ring to it, I suppose.
The carrot cake that emerged from the ’60s, with its expanse of white frosting, its ridiculous little sugar carrot decoration, is a fake, a fraud, an absolute disaster calorically speaking, but somehow, still, it is my favorite. It’s not nostalgia. There were no carrot cakes at holiday dinners with my family. I’ve never had a carrot cake for my birthday. I’ve never split a slice of carrot cake with a woman I was falling for. In fact, I could not describe for you any particular thought or feeling I have ever had while eating carrot cake, could not pinpoint any dates or times, could not distinguish between one slice or any other. I can’t seem to remember ever having eaten it at all. Carrot cake is my favorite dessert, but I have no memory of it. What I remember instead are Wayne Thiebaud’s cakes, those perfect cylinders, gleaming immaculate shellacs smiling from behind the glass, their little dunes of pigment catching just a hair of light. Theirs is the kind of perfection native only to desire and the willingness to pretend.
What comes after that I want no part of. The first half of a piece of cake you can eat without even realizing what you’re doing. The second half is where I get into trouble. Craving, then a flash of anger. The stubborn tar around my feet. My eyes are always bigger than my stomach, though that’s not always for lack of trying. On the subject of rhetoric: in Welsh, the word for carrot is moron.