The cake-tin effect
A woman of a certain age is only noticeable when she becomes an angel of cake mercy.
I’m over 60 and female and therefore invisible when I’m out in the world. I’m happy with my stealth status: It feeds my writerly eavesdropping. Everyone’s glued to cellphones, anyway, so you could probably stare holes through people on the subway and terrify toddlers in restaurants and no one would ever notice, except the toddlers.
Recently, though, I discovered a phenomenon that makes even women of a certain age an irresistible focus of desire. Heads turn, eyes glaze over, sighs escape from constricted throats. This effect works explicitly on older men, I have noted, in my unscientific random sampling. It works with a consistency that feels like magic — but only when carrying a particular kind of kitchen implement.
I was on my way to Fisher’s Island in New York in the first days of summer for an all-female weekend, a blowout that would include bonfires on the beach, costumes, thrift store rummaging, and food sharing with old friends. Lots and lots of wonderful food carefully and lovingly planned. This year’s theme was High WASP, which meant crab toasts, lobster salad, and G&Ts. I was bringing my Labor-Intensive Lemon Cake, so named because the Silver Palate recipe called for five packed tablespoons of lemon zest. The dense, lemon-infused result was worth the labor. This one looked like a masterpiece. I carried the cake in a retro ’50s tin I had scored at a yard sale — a round stainless steel and ebony-handled treasure. I felt like one of January Jones’s neighbors in “Mad Men.” I had an overwhelming urge to smoke a cigarette, even though I gave them up years ago. I wished I were wearing heels and a shirtwaist instead of jeans and a T-shirt, so I could do justice to the cake tin.
I walked into the tiny New London ticket office for the Fisher’s Island ferry. I had dumped my duffle bag outside but hung onto the lemon cake. I placed it on the counter when I gave my name to claim my reservation, but the reservation clerk didn’t hear me: He was staring at the cake tin, clearly having a Proustian moment. His eyes glazed over as he fixated on the tin, forgetting to look up my reservation. He asked, hoarsely, what kind of cake I was carrying. “Lemon cake,” I answered, as sprightly as Lucille Ball selling vitameatavegamin. “Lemon cake,” he repeated, sounding like a 5-year-old asking for a pony without any hope of getting one. His comrade, a geezer in a seat by the door, began grilling me about who I knew on Fisher’s and where I was staying, but what he really wanted to know was: What about the cake? Could he see it? I did a slow reveal, feeling like there should be sultry music in the background. Their mouths gaped. They were obviously revisiting indelible memories of lemon cakes past. I didn’t get my ticket without a promise to save two slices for them.
The same thing happened when I surrendered my ticket at the gate. That guy also asked what kind of cake I was carrying. He told me about his sad, failed attempt to make his own cake from a mix. I told him that mine wasn’t from a mix. He looked wistful, like he wanted to touch the tin and be hurled back to a time before cake mixes, into a flour and egg version of “Outlander.” I thought about uncovering the cake again but decided against it. I guarded the cake on the ferry because it was filled with men the same age as the ticket guys and the geezer. The old-men ferry passengers stared hungrily at the cake tin, their eyes misting a little, as they remembered, no doubt, lopsided and delicious birthday cakes of yesteryear. I was feeling absolutely shamanic, an angel of cake memory.
The cake was delicious. My friends devoured it, every last crumb. I stashed the empty tin in a paper shopping bag and walked by the ticket office on my way back. Neither the ticket clerk nor the door-guarding geezer noticed me. Without the tin, I was again invisible, so I didn’t feel guilty gliding past the door. But I’m curious now about the cake-tin effect. I’m going to duplicate the experiment, this time with Tupperware. I’ll get back to you with the results.
Marianne Leone, an actress and writer who lives on the South Shore, is the author of “Jesse: A Mother’s Story.”