“A party without cake is just a meeting.” That’s one of my favorite Julia Child quotations. First, because it has nothing to do with cooking. Second, because it involves cake.
I like cake. A lot. In the unlikely event of my being nominated to the Supreme Court, cake unlike some of the topics that came up most recently, would perhaps be the subject of questioning in the Senate judiciary committee. However, for someone who likes cake I don’t eat very much of it. Years and years of fixed attention to limiting food consumption and keeping a mental list of good and bad foods can’t be ignored so easily. I have cake maybe once every two months or so. And it had better be worth it.
I’m a decent baker. At the holidays, I look for a family event where I can bring a coconut cake that I can make look like the snow scene in the Nutcracker. We order a special princess cake from a local Danish bakery whenever my son visits from Germany. I make an amazing chocolate cake, which I recently made for a friend’s birthday during quarantine. A total of five hours, three kinds of chocolate, many, many steps, which I happily did in old clothes that could withstand flour and spatter. That was an event I looked forward to. When it’s just my husband and me it’s unimaginable to make a cake for just the two of us.
When we used to have dinner parties, I had a regular rotation of things I liked to make – a pumpkin cake made with olive oil and rosemary, an almond apricot jam tart with a crunchy meringue topping, and banana cream pie made from a recipe from a long-defunct Depression-era Los Angeles diner. Sometimes I thought my husband invited people over for dinner just so we could justify the banana cream pie.
But now? Now? Now my meetings are on Zoom and there aren’t even breakfast burritos or dry sandwiches to help keep me in my seat. I must stare fixedly into my small thirteen-inch computer screen, fussing with lighting and the stack of books placed underneath to try to bring some sign of life into my face. It seems impossible that I can look so much worse in that little screen than I do even in my bathroom mirror every morning. Yes, my hair is flat and has that distinctive ribbon of darker, greyish hair in my part that I see on everyone when I go to the grocery store. Yes, my chin line is looser and more prominent than I would like. But I swear, when I left the bathroom to start my workday in the dining room an hour ago, my eyes looked alive and ready and I was actually glad to get going on the things I wanted to do. Now I’m not so sure.
Standard definitions of “meeting” include the terms “assembly” or “coming together.” There’s no mention of physical closeness. Perhaps that is assumed. Or perhaps our dictionary editors were well ahead of everyone else in preparing for the pandemic.
All I know is that I really don’t like these new meetings. Don’t get me wrong. I like working from home, doing solo work on projects. It’s like I’ve been preparing for this model of work all my life. But for meetings, I don’t like the idea that there’s an assumption that my time is somehow worth less now, that I can be called upon to devote a half hour or hour or whatever period of time, fixed in my little square with everyone being able to critique the collection of books and art in my background. I don’t like the forced jollity, the repetition of memes and jokes that perhaps were funny and fresh in the middle of March but which now just seem like a waste of air and effort. This is all supposed to be easier, more efficient, an entry into a new way of arranging our lives – dare I say it? It’s supposed to be a piece of cake. But not for me.
I comb through my calendar, looking for things I can cancel or simply not show up for. For times when I can hide and camouflage myself in the anonymity of not responding to an email or calendar invitation. I go back through my camera role to try to find a professional-enough photo of myself that I can put up when I want the camera off, when I want to be free to read Twitter or knit or play with the cat while I listen to whatever is being said in a Zoom meeting. My search is fruitless. All the photos I have in recent years are of me with my family, eating tortellini in Bologna or having schnitzel in Berlin. Solo photos of me are in the middle of the lavender in my garden or showing off my new flamenco shoes or ballet flats or Tahitian pearl necklace or framed against the arches of the Pont du Gard in Provence. When was the last time I took a professional portrait? Our firm website has been up for several years now. The photo there clearly is an eight-year younger me that I don’t want to use. Next time I’m in the office (in two months, perhaps?) I’ll have someone take a nice photo of me at my desk that I can then use for the remote meetings that I know will continue to happen for months and months.
I do have a lot of photos of slices of cake. Princess cake in Oslo, Victoria sponge at Fortnum & Mason, sachertorte in Salzburg, and a piece of mille feuille from my most recent birthday in January in New York. Then it hits me. Perfect. Until I get a decent professional photo, I will have a picture of a piece of Esterhazytorte from the Café Central in Vienna as my Zoom place keeper. A bit of Austro-Hungarian decadence. Because, after all, what is a meeting if there is only cake and not any true human connection?