The Cake Is a Metaphor


Marco sighed, eyes transfixed on the reflections off the chrome of a mixing bowl. The pâtisserie was not doing very well lately and unless he got a couple big jobs soon he might have to consider the possibility of going back to the hotel, hat in hand– of all the cruel fates.

A bell rang towards the front of the store, and Marco looked up to see a man in his early thirties who must have been on his way to work. He wore an off-the-rack business suit that hung off his shoulders awkwardly, the fabric bunching up at the edges. Marco knew the type: old enough to be in charge of things and young enough to have faith in his adulthood.

“I’m in the market for a custom cake,” said the man. “And I hear this is the place to come to get one. Could you tell me about what I’d pay?”

“It depends on exactly what you want, of course, but to give you a rough estimate you’re looking at maybe five hundred, six hundred dollars.”

The man nodded, then paused and took a breath, as if to take it in, although Marco knew he wasn’t actually considering anything– the pause was part of the act, the dance of a practiced negotiator. He had seen plenty of it while trying to run his shop. Baking was a business like any other business.

“So my only problem,” the man began– of course it wasn’t his only problem, “Is that I have no way of knowing if I’m going to get a good cake.”

Marco opened his mouth to say something but wasn’t sure exactly where to start. Could he point, wordlessly, to the awards lining the walls? The magazine articles extolling his work? But before he could do anything the man waved his hand dismissively. “I know you’re famous, I’ve seen your profiles, and so on. But you know, things change. You might have hired different help in the back since that time, people who don’t know what they’re doing. You might be substituting inferior ingredients to save money, or maybe you aren’t in tune with modern tastes like you used to be. For all I know, you have a drug or alcohol problem now and your work is erratic at best.” The man smiled thinly. “I’m not saying you do, of course. It’s just that I can’t know these things. You agree with me, wouldn’t you, that things change?”

“Give me a break. I can guarantee you something good,” said Marco. “There’s my pride, you know?”

The man shrugged. “You can’t put pride into a binding contract. It has no monetary value.”

After an awkward silence the man leaned over the counter, like he was an old friend. “Tell you what, Marco,” he said. “Why don’t I pay you a small fraction of the cost of a whole cake– say, fifty dollars, and you bake me a single slice of cake. I’ll eat it and see if it’s good enough. If it is, I’ll pay you the remaining four hundred and fifty dollars, and you make me the other nine slices.”

Marco snorted. “That’s preposterous. It’s nearly as much work to bake one slice as it is to bake the whole cake. If you want one slice, you’re better off just waiting for me to put together a full-sized cake and then I’ll cut off a slice for you.”

The man in the suit stood up from the counter and straightened his jacket, tugging at its lapels. “Listen, I’ll be completely honest with you. Your bid is pretty startlingly high compared to some of the others I’ve gotten around town. The hotel, for example, says they can make me a similar cake for about three hundred. Quality, sure, maybe not exactly the same. But my point is that five hundred dollars is a significant outlay of money. If I’m going to go with you, you’re going to have understand I can’t just drop an amount like that off with you and just assume I’m going to get a cake that meets my needs.”

“I’ll show you the kitchen,” said Marco, “And I can show you the ingredients–”

“Do I look like I have time to hang around while you bake a cake? Look, Marco. If you can’t do business this way, that’s fine, but I’m telling you now that you’ll find it very rough going in this industry.” The man’s eyes scanned the shop, registering its inert air. “Maybe you already have.” Abruptly, he turned to leave.

“Hold on,” said Marco, doing some sloppy math in his head. It would be the toil and sweat of baking two cakes for the remuneration of one. Even worse, the humiliation of submitting a tiny cake to the man in the suit so he could see if it was “good enough”. But it was a job. He hadn’t come this far to give up.

Baking is business, but a being pâtissier is about art. And art can be a capricious mistress.

“Okay,” said Marco. “I’ll do it.”

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