By Adrian Forman | The first thing you have to know is that I have a bad habit of breaking things. My past is strewn with shattered drinking glasses, banged-up knees and bruises dealt by doorknobs. When I was young, my mom said I broke things because I was “growing.” I believed her for a while. The only problem is that now I am an adult, and I am still breaking things. So, you can imagine my surprise when my dear friend, Patty, asked me to deliver her wedding cake. (This is a person who keeps a plastic wine glass at her house for when I visit.) She called just six days before the wedding; I assumed that she asked me only because she was desperate.
I voiced my concerns. My husband, Frank, and I would have to haul the cake through four hours of Capital-corridor traffic between Washington and the Chesapeake Bay. We have a two-door car with manual transmission. We would be fighting rush hour on a Friday. Patty promised the cake would be small. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It will be fine.”
All week I was as nervous as a cat in a dog show. What would the cake look like? How would I get it into the car? On Friday afternoon, the Cake Man delivered his creation just before we left for the rehearsal. The amateur baker in me marveled at his work. It was a thing of beauty: three layers of almond-flavored cake decorated with intricate patterns that had been painstakingly crafted in off-white buttercream icing. Not a good sign. Of all the icings to choose for a cake that must travel! Buttercream icing will melt if you look at it wrong. How could it possibly survive four hours in the car on a sultry September afternoon? Insanely fragile designs of shells and latticework covered almost every inch of the 40-pound cake. Forty pounds! Patty had been mistaken: The cake was not small. Suddenly my deep appreciation for the beauty of the cake dissolved into full-blown panic. Not only was this a three-tier wedding cake, it was already fully assembled. This was bad. Very bad. Even small cakes make troublesome traveling companions, and I have read enough bridal magazines to know that wedding cakes are usually assembled after they are delivered. My palms began to sweat.
Making matters worse was the cake’s packaging, if you can call it that. It sat uncovered in the bottom half of a department-store shirt box.
“So,” I asked the Cake Man, “how will this be packed for the trip down?”
He looked at me with surprise. “It’s already packed, ma’am. It’s a 40-pound cake. Just make sure it is level, and it will be fine.”
I tried to protest without calling him a liar outright. I asked if I should try to cover the cake, at the very least. He asked why. Suppressing complete disbelief, I explained that I was concerned that something might get on the cake.
“What could get on it?” he asked.
I stood before him, staring at the cake and its lovely designs, silently cursing its magnificence as the realization hit that this mission was officially doomed.
After much handwringing and disagreement, Frank and I devised a plan. We moved the front passenger seat as far forward as possible. He would drive, and I would sit behind him, holding the cake as it sat next to me. We piled several books into the back bucket seat to create an even surface. (Finally my John Irving novels would have a chance to prove their usefulness.) Then we gently placed the cake on top and backed out of the driveway.
Miraculously, we made it through the DC traffic, and Frank even managed to avoid debris that flew off the bed of a truck and directly at our car just outside of Annapolis. Though we were barely an hour into the trip, I felt that we had passed the greatest test, and that maybe, just maybe, we’d make it after all. Another hour passed. We were approaching the middle of our trip. The highway had become rural, with traffic lights dotting the road every now and then. Suddenly, I felt myself instinctively bracing for impact. Frank called out, “There goes the cake!” and I looked up in time to see our car skidding toward the taillights of the car in front of us.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion. As our car jolted to a stop just inches from the car in front of us, the cake lunged forward, and I lunged, too. It was a futile attempt to thwart an ugly physics lesson. The cake met the seat with a terrible smush. I was able to catch it as it slid down the seat toward the floorboard. It was all over in seconds. All over me, all over the backseat, all over. My chocolate-brown rehearsal dinner dress was covered in off-white confection. The top tier of the cake was half gone, and the bottom two tiers, though intact, were a horrifying display of mangled icing. The smell of almond cake filled the car, making our guilt palpable.
Frank pulled off the highway and damage control began. Shell-shocked, he cleaned what he could of the cake with a T-shirt and towel from the trunk. I had too much icing on me to help. As he cleaned, Frank tried to convince me that we should ditch the cake. I listened quietly, picking bits of cake off my dress and gingerly tossing them out the window. Then I took a deep breath and called Patty. I felt like the doctor in a bad TV movie who must deliver terrible news.
“Patty, the cake didn’t make it.”
“What?” She calmly asked. “The guy didn’t deliver it to you?”
“No.” I tried to sound equally calm. “I mean that we got halfway to the rehearsal, but then a woman slammed on her brakes, and I am so sorry, but…” I felt too awful to go on.
Patty’s response had never been uttered by a bride before and will not likely be heard again. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “We’ve got plenty of desserts. Just leave it on the side of the road.”
Not surprisingly, Frank was happy with the suggestion. But I was not so easily convinced. “No, we’re bringing the cake with us. I can’t abandon it.” My reputation was on the line. I was not about to fail.
Frank and I set off again. I was still in the backseat holding the injured cake. We traveled in silence. I stared at that cake for two hours as we rushed toward the rehearsal and the wedding party’s scorn. I kept repeating my mantra: “What Would Martha Do?” I placed another call to Patty. “I’m going to fix this cake. Don’t worry about a thing.”
I have baked some delicious cakes, and I can make a mean batch of chocolate chip cookies, but I knew I was out of my league. I needed more than a plan. I needed help. When Frank and I arrived at the rehearsal in Harborton, I immediately sought out JoAnn, whose baking expertise far exceeds mine. I knew she could help save the cake (and my reputation). JoAnn quickly concurred: the cake could be saved. That’s all I needed to hear. At the rehearsal dinner, we recruited Anne, the fiancée of a groomsman. Anne’s grandfather had owned a bakery, and she was deft with a pastry knife.
Early the next morning, I found a bakery and a florist, thanks to the proprietor of our bed and breakfast, who chipped in further by donating decorative pearls to our cause. The baker was kind enough not to laugh at our story. He offered to fix the cake for us, but there was no way I was putting it in a car again. Instead, he whipped up two cups of off-white buttercream icing, lent us decorating tips and pastry bags, and sent us on our way. My luck was definitely changing.
By late morning, the resuscitation had begun. We started with new icing and used the decorative pearls to trim each tier. JoAnn used the pastry tools to create small icing shells above the pearls. Ann reconstructed the top tier, though admittedly it was more icing than cake, and we added more pearls and shells.
That evening, we were much more anxious about the cake than the wedding. The florist had cascaded a bit of greenery and a few small pink and yellow lilies around the cake to complement our design. The result was absolutely stunning: a lovely three-tier cake with shells, pearls, and flowers for a Chesapeake Bay wedding. Patty and her new husband, Rafe, were shocked and amazed. And grateful. Finally the cake met its intended fate—at the hands of the bride and the groom.
Adrian Forman G’94 is a writer and editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.