Editor's note:

The small staff at Ren­o­varé has a sur­pris­ing num­ber of birth­days in Feb­ru­ary, so that got us think­ing about cake.

We also have some staff mem­bers who plan to give up sug­ar dur­ing the sea­son of Lent, so that got us think­ing about cake.

We also recent­ly lis­tened to a radio dra­ma about the life of St. Fran­cis of Assisi in which cake plays a minor, but sig­nif­i­cant, role, so that got us think­ing about cake.

Also, we spend quite a bit of time just think­ing about cake in general.

So, we hope you enjoy this light-heart­ed piece (not of cake) to wel­come in your week­end from our very own admin, Jus­tine Olawsky — who is also a big fan of cake. 

(Post­ed with all apolo­gies to our gluten-free friends.)

—Renovaré Team

They say that as Fran­cis of Assisi lay dying he asked one of his broth­ers to write a let­ter to Broth­er Jaco­ba.” Jaco­ba of Set­ti­soli was a wealthy young wid­ow when she met Fran­cis in Rome at the begin­ning of his min­istry. When she asked to join his band, he said that they did not yet have an order of sis­ters. She replied, Then take me as one of your broth­ers.” He dubbed her Broth­er Jaco­ba and asked her to stay in Rome and serve the poor. Appar­ent­ly, she made a par­tic­u­lar­ly deli­cious almond cake that became a favorite of the young friar.

So, on his deathbed, he asked a broth­er to write to Jaco­ba and ask her to bring to him, some of the almond cakes you used to make for me in Rome.” Before he could fin­ish the let­ter, there was a pound­ing at the door. Broth­er Jaco­ba stood out­side and demand­ed admit­tance to her friend’s cham­ber. Women were for­bid­den in the fri­ary, but Broth­er Jaco­ba would not be dis­suad­ed. She swooped into Francis’s room and deposit­ed at his bed­side his favorite almond cakes. How Fran­cis must have smiled! 

At church, we have a com­mu­ni­ty meal every fourth Sat­ur­day. You know how every con­gre­ga­tion has at least one amaz­ing cook whose gifts are called upon for every event both social and tooth­some? Mered­ith is ours. She orga­nizes every com­mu­ni­ty meal. And every com­mu­ni­ty meal ends with cake. Mered­ith and Jaco­ba are cut from much the same cloth. I doubt any­one could keep Mered­ith from bring­ing dessert to a dying dea­con either — or to any­one else for that mat­ter. Cake is her call­ing card. 

Do you like cake? I do. I’m pret­ty sure God does, too. After all, it is what he sent one of his major prophets in his dark­est hour. 

1 Kings 19 tells the sto­ry of the prophet Eli­jah’s flee­ing the vengeance-filled hea­then queen Jezebel. He end­ed up in the wilder­ness – that great bib­li­cal set­ting of test­ing and redemp­tion – plopped him­self under a broom tree, and, with just a touch of the dra­mat­ic, prayed that he might die. Angels came to com­fort him. And, just like sym­pa­thet­ic church ladies would for their suf­fer­ing co-con­gre­gants thou­sands of years in the future, they brought him cake. Thus, one les­son from this sto­ry must be that when you’ve used up your last strength run­ning for your life and hit­ting dead ends, and even when you have giv­en up hope, cake helps. At birth­days and wed­dings, at funer­als and dur­ing ill­ness­es, at the end of one dream or at the kin­dling of a new one, cake has a role to play. 

Some­times I think I can chart my life in cakes. The lemon cake we dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day … the first year I had to bake my own birth­day cake … the mul­ti-tiered cre­ation at our wed­ding recep­tion … the first time I made a rum cake with those deli­cious pock­ets of pecans on top … the day I dis­cov­ered the ulti­mate recipe for coconut cake … all the way up to the choco­late rum cake with this amaz­ing glaze that I made for kicks a few weeks ago. OK, so now I’m get­ting hun­gry. Nota bene: Nev­er write about cake right before dinnertime. 

In the inter­est of some sort of edi­fi­ca­tion, and not sim­ply a recita­tion of delec­table baked goods, here is a short his­to­ry of cake: 

The orig­i­nal cakes were not the sweet con­fec­tions we know and love today, of course. Elijah’s cake was prob­a­bly more like bread sweet­ened with hon­ey or fruits. In fact, when­ev­er the word trans­lat­ed as cake” appears in the Bible, it is usu­al­ly ref­er­enced as a cake of figs, dates, or raisins. Poor Israelites! All the fruit­cake and none of the Christmas! 

The first tru­ly sweet cakes arrived on the scene in the 17th cen­tu­ry, along with the wider avail­abil­i­ty of refined sug­ar. They still tend­ed to con­tain fruits and used yeast as the leav­en. Our mod­ern notion of cake came only in the 19th cen­tu­ry, as white flour and bak­ing pow­der joined to form the smooth, moist con­coc­tions we cur­rent­ly use to mark great occasions. 

How did cakes become almost the uni­ver­sal cel­e­bra­to­ry or con­so­la­to­ry dessert? The Food Time­line web­site (food​time​line​.org) offers this expla­na­tion: Cakes are served at spe­cial occa­sions (birth­days, wed­dings, hol­i­days, funer­als) because they rep­re­sent our best culi­nary offer­ing hon­or­ing our most loved peo­ple. In old­en times” when refined sug­ar, spices, nuts, and dried fruit were expen­sive, it was an hon­or to be hon­ored with cake. Today cake isn’t super expen­sive and we have many choic­es (store bought, box mix, scratch, bak­ery spe­cial order) but the mes­sage remains con­stant. Cake says: you’re impor­tant and we love you.

There you have it. Cake says, You’re impor­tant, and we love you.” Which gets me back to Eli­jah. He felt unim­por­tant, which is sur­pris­ing, if you think about it. He had just expe­ri­enced what my Bible calls the Mount Carmel Vic­to­ry” before his flight into the wilder­ness. Remem­ber that thrilling show­down between the prophets of Baal and Eli­jah? Each side pre­pared an offer­ing for its god, short of ignit­ing the fire beneath it, and then each called upon its deity to light the fire and con­sume the offer­ing. When you read the account, it is quite hilar­i­ous. The hea­then prophets called on the name of Baal from morn­ing even till noon, say­ing, O Baal, hear us!’ But there was no voice; no one answered. Then they leaped about the altar which they had made.” 

Next came Eli­jah’s turn. Before he even called upon Yah­weh to ignite the offer­ing, he upped the ante by instruct­ing that the wood beneath it be doused three times and sur­round­ed by a trench of water. Eli­jah offered one sim­ple prayer to the Lord, and God’s heav­en­ly fire fell and con­sumed not only the offer­ing, but the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench.” 

What a vic­to­ry! How short-lived! 

A mere six vers­es lat­er, Eli­jah was on the run for his life. When, under that juniper tree, he prayed that the Lord would take his life, for I am no bet­ter than my fathers,” he must have felt so hope­less that, even after that grand spec­ta­cle on Mount Carmel, the wicked queen still had so much earth­ly pow­er. With great gen­tle­ness, the Lord sent Eli­jah cake and rest before address­ing him in that still, small voice. Eli­jah still had work to do on earth, but cake helped remind him that he was impor­tant and loved. 

Cake says, You’re impor­tant, and we love you.” I can­not repeat that enough. These out­ward signs of inward pri­or­i­ties are real­ly so sig­nif­i­cant. Which is how Broth­er Jaco­ba knew to bring almond cake with her when she said good­bye to a friend. It is why Mered­ith lav­ish­es her con­sid­er­able culi­nary skills on the com­mu­ni­ty meal, and espe­cial­ly why she makes cake for our guests. It is the sim­plest way to con­vey a pro­found mes­sage: You are impor­tant, and we love you. 

May our hearts be formed to love, O Lord, and our lips be shaped to praise. Teach our minds to think your thoughts; our feet to walk your ways. No mat­ter how the road may curve, help us know the path to take. And when you ask our hands to serve, may they e’er be serv­ing cake! Amen.

P.S. If you would like the ulti­mate coconut cake recipe, just email Jus­tine at [email protected]​renovare.​org. She is hap­py to share. 

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