Necessity is the mother of invention.
I remember hearing my folks say this sort of thing to each other as they sautéed their way toward dinner. I never quite understood what they meant because it never felt like we needed anything. Dinner was always awesome. My mom would dig out a few leftover baked potatoes and dice them, saggy skin and all, while my dad dug out leftover roast beef and heated up oil for hash. They chopped up onions for good measure, then tossed it all together in a hot skillet until the potatoes were crispy and golden. Dinners like that were some of my favorite, regardless of what food my folks wished they had on hand.
Now I know that our pantry sometimes got bare. Now I know my mom bought Hyrdox Cookies instead of Oreos and big tubs of generic vanilla ice cream instead of Breyers Vanilla Bean for one reason: they fit her budget better. But even those bargains were only sometimes treats. Even so, I don’t really remember going without. In fact, a bare pantry meant my dad jumped at the chance to bake a Wacky Cake–the dessert for which we always had ingredients. The fridge doesn’t have to be fully stocked with cream or eggs or milk or butter for a slice of his famous impromptu cake.
Last week I read The Kitchen Front, a novel about ordinary women struggling to cook palatable meals during WWII England. Wartime rationing redefined pantry staples, so pantry stockpiles looked awfully paltry compared to the way they looked before the war. Fresh eggs were limited; dairy products too. Food women used to take for granted were whisked away from them without their consent or approval, and before they knew it they were whirling together bits of stale bread and overcooked vegetables to make mock roast chicken. Some of their concoctions sounded just plain awful (mock anything makes me cringe), but I admired their resourcefulness and creativity nonetheless.
I imagine it was heartbreaking to have to forego serving a cake on a birthday because there weren’t enough ration coupons for eggs. Someone somewhere figured out how to make cake without it–necessity is the mother of invention, right?–and vegan cakes were born out of a different sort of necessity back then.
When I put the book down, I couldn’t help but see the parallel to my own cooking life, of course. Wartime rationing isn’t to blame for the changes in my kitchen, but outside forces beyond my control stormed in and bossed me around too, and I find myself staring at a smattering of ingredients that don’t feel like enough, wondering how to make familiar food out of mock versions of the real thing. Like them, I was frustrated and angry but powerless to do much else than slip into survival mode at first and just keep cooking something. Little by little, they learned to let go of what they didn’t have and how to make do with what they did have, and so did I, and in the process new things are born–like grain free, vegan cake that is familiar and delicious.
Wacky Cake proves that God really does bring about good things out of desperately difficult situations. All the harrowing hardship of the war didn’t change the fact that women wanted to serve something celebratory and sweet. I know what that’s like on a much smaller scale, of course, but imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t serve cake for your boy’s birthday and you might understand a little. This crazy cake made out of cassava flour, cocoa powder, sugar, oil & water makes a decadent, distinctly not weird confection that could be served to just about anyone. It’s flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of allergies–a feat women working in WWII kitchens couldn’t imagine, and yet somehow they secured it long before we ever really needed it. I feel a kinship with them when I make it, because even though allergies and intolerances and dietary restrictions weren’t really a thing back then (like they are today), they knew the frustration and heartache of going without.
I like to think Wacky Cake is a wartime gift God gave to women two generations before me during that dark, difficult season. Food doesn’t solve everything, but sweet balances out the bitter, so cake helps. God must know that; why else would he have made cocoa beans bitter and sugar cane sweet? This dessert uses both, without any of the dangerous ingredients that we can’t serve to our people this season. When I whisk this cake together, I whisper a prayer of thanks because I am certain God knew we would need this recipe for this moment, right now, when so many of us are wondering how to serve special foods to the people we love, too.
The best gifts just keep on giving, and this gift is for you too.