I never understood how you could have an entire channel devoted to food until I got access to cable in college and became completely hooked on the Food Network prime time shows. "Good Eats," is like "Bill Nye the Science Guy" if Bill Nye was a foodie. And "Unwrapped" is a slicker expansion on those old "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" segments that showed us how they made peanut butter and pasta. My favorite though, is "Ace of Cakes," a documentary-style program about Charm City Cakes, a Baltimore bakery that specializes in very unique kind of cake decorating.
I had artistic ambitions once. When I was a kid, I filled sketchbooks with doodles and took just enough art classes to figure out that I didn't have the drive to make use of my talent. My secret dream was to be a Disney animator, and I'm still obsessed with cartoons, but I let my parents talk me into a more conventional and career path. I don't regret it, but watching "Ace of Cakes" makes me think that I could ditch my cubicle to embrace my creative side again - as a cake decorator. Not just any old cake decorator, mind you, but a decorator of those one-of a-kind, made-to-order special event cakes that can be real works of art.
When I used to think of cake decorating, the first thing that came to mind was always Middle American stay-at-home Moms with their chintzy Good Housekeeping magazines full of perfectly iced, and perfectly boring birthday cakes. At Charm City Cakes, Duff Goldman and his crew of decorators make cakes shaped like baseball stadiums, Chinese food takeout boxes, manatees, and Daleks. Dry ice, sparklers, electric lights, and motorized parts have all been incorporated into some of their creations. The decorators work under tight deadlines, and suffer occasional disasters, but most of the time they all seem to be really enjoying themselves, constantly tacking new creative challenges.
As much as I like seeing the finished cakes, watching them come together is the fascinating part. The real draws of "Ace of Cakes" are the decorators. These are the artsy, laid-back, slightly oddball types that I identify with best. There's Geoff the quiet, zen master guy who handles the most technically challenging cakes like replicas of motorcycles and guitars. There's Mary Smith, a full-figured woman you'd never see anywhere else on television, who turns out jaw-dropping, ornate, wedding cakes and adorable character cakes. And Elena, who has the rocker chic going on, and Ben and Anna, who were the Power Twins in a previous life, and Mary Alice, the world's greatest receptionist, whose hair is the primary indicator of which season an episode belongs to.
And of course, there's Duff Goldman, the leader of the gang, who may be the most genial, most personable baker alive. The cameras capture everyone on the job, their work days punctuated by humor and moments of fun, even when they're at their busiest. Several of the decorators, including Duff and Geoff, are musicians, and one episode even featured a visit to the local tattoo parlor so several cast members could get inked. Duff got a whisk on his forearm. There's so much personality in the cakes because there's so much personality in the decorators.
I've never gotten tired of watching the show, and I guess nobody else has either, because "Ace of Cakes" has been running for over four years now and the plot is always the same: the decorators put together gorgeous cakes, deliver them to delighted cake fans, and universe is safe from boring confections for another day. The events might get bigger, the bakery might expand, and the decorators might get busier, but the core of the program is always the same. I think the show has probably done more for the profession than anyone else in years. Not only have they changed the paradigm of what a good cake decorator can do with a cake, but they've also popularized these specialty cakes with a huge audience of fans.
Some cake, some fondant, a little icing, a little modeling chocolate, and a decorator could build their own Taj Mahal - which has been done on the show to great success. I'm sure it must be harder than it looks, but I'm so tempted to take a crack at it. Fondant doesn't look all that different from modeling clay, which I used to make into swans and dragons in high school. Once I get a little training and master the basics, who knows?