The Expired Oreo Cake that Loved Me
I couldn't bear to throw out the "7-inch Double Layer Cookies N' Crème Cake" that had become my rock.
Photos by the author
It’s the middle of the summer and I have packed up my Brooklyn apartment. There’s nothing left on the bookshelves, in the closets, under the sink, in the fridge. Nothing, except for a three-and-a-half year old cake. And I don’t know what to do with it.
The cake came into my life mysteriously. A few winters ago, not long after we moved to New York, my partner and I lent our apartment to friends-of-friends over the holidays. When we returned in January, we found a cake in the fridge. No note, no explanation, just an enormous, double layer “Cookies N’ Crème” number from Foodtown, gusseted with frosting, sheathed in cocoa shavings, studded with Oreos.
Encased in a thick dome of plastic, the cake appeared to have emerged, fully formed, from the mouth of a machine. The ingredients list was interminable. It didn’t appeal. I had no desire to eat it, and I didn’t want to serve it to anyone. I considered returning it, but there was something sad about that, like a birthday party gone wrong. I considered leaving it on the sidewalk with a sign — FREE! — but would people assume it was poisoned? Would it attract rats? I left it in the fridge.
Weeks passed. Day after day, I would wake up bleary-eyed, yet the cake would appear fresh. I remembered how once, as a small child, my brother had hidden a half-eaten McDonald’s hamburger under his car seat. My mom didn’t find it for a month, but when she did, it looked just the same. Not an ounce of mold. Maybe the cake could be a similar experiment, an indictment of our over-processed, unnatural food system, a commentary on how weird it is that some supposedly perishable things last forever.
I vowed to photograph the cake each day and chronicle its unchangingness, its lack of decay. The pictures were dull. I stopped after a week.
Once, at Foodtown, I noticed a stack of cake doppelgängers. In a mischievous mood, I thought about clandestinely swapping out mine for a new one. Who would notice? What if they were all several years old? How do we even know? Sometimes I would imagine slicing the pristine surface of the cake open, freeing a great colony of neon green worms. They’d ooze out, glowing and pulsating, and burn a hole through my kitchen counter.
But mostly, life with the cake was uneventful. It sat beside the Parmesan, the jalapeños, the various fridge stalwarts, and quietly, pleasantly, outlasted them all. Slowly, the cake became less nightmarish, and more… comforting.
I began to grow fond of it. I stopped wanting it to symbolize outrage about preservatives. I liked it as it was. Devoid of any gourmet qualities, it was unpretentious, nonjudgemental. My cake. The fridge was never empty as long as it remained. Like a sweet, uncontroversial friend, the cake was always there.
When people came over, they began to ask after the cake, like an upstairs neighbor or a well-loved hamster. Is Cake still around? Yes, I’d say, a little sheepishly, a little defensively, and then open the fridge and gesture to the right-hand corner.
But the question was implicit: What am I going to do with this cake? I happened to hear the artist Maira Kalman talk about an onion ring she had hung up on the wall of an old apartment. Days passed, weeks passed, and the onion ring didn’t shrivel, didn’t mold, stayed golden, crunchy, rotund. She and her roommates eventually brought the ring to a renowned art framer, who took the job very seriously.
I thought about preserving the cake in glass, or embalming it in wax. But it all felt wrong. The cake wasn’t an art project; it was a pal. I got haircuts. I got promotions. I traveled. My plants died and I got new ones. Seasons changed. The cake did not. The cake, always predictable, always perfect, as though purchased yesterday, waiting for the fictional arrival of child-guests who only ate tooth-shatteringly sweet desserts. Ready to delight, to deliver. In the din of life in New York, I could peek at the cake and smile, feel soothed. The cake had given me what the city, on a daily basis, completely undermined: stability.
So now, standing in the middle of my empty apartment, my belongings boxed into a truck, I still haven’t decided what to do with it. It is time to go. I’m panicking. I can’t just throw it away, unceremoniously, after all this time. But the U-Haul is waiting. I grab the cake, and it rides in the front seat of the truck, alongside my most precious possessions, up to my parents’ house in Massachusetts, where the decision can be further delayed.
The summer goes by. My parents need their fridge space back, and I’m about to move across the Atlantic. It is time. On a damp, blustery September afternoon, the weather an echo of the hurricanes to the south, I do what feels like the right thing. Cake in one hand, shovel in the other, I walk into the woods behind the backyard.
As I dig a hole, The Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” plays from the iPhone in my pocket. I read a poem called “Cake,” by Noah Eli Gordon:
you devour it
and then, then
good as it was
Finally, I slice the cake in half. Its frosting is parched, chalky, with the barest spray of white mold. My knife hacks its way through the hardened, dust-brown crumb. No technicolor maggots, no putrid cloud of gas. No spirit at long last freed. The smell of Oreo lingers in the air.
And then the cake is in the hole. The hole is filled in. The sky is bright and dark at the same time, and I am at peace. Soon, I will move to a new place. Things will be discombobulating and strange, and then they will slowly become normal. The familiar cycle.
Perhaps, along the way, I will mysteriously acquire another inanimate object that will serve as an anchor, a salve. Or, I’ll just remember that I had my cake, and I didn’t even have to eat it.