There are areas where I’m lacking as a parent, particularly compared with my wife the early development expert. But if there’s one thing I can bring to the table it’s a cake. This I have over my wife, who is Chinese. In fact, she’s Australian of Chinese-Malaysian descent. But when it comes to baking, she’s as Chinese as 12 girls on a bike.
Just as Charlie don’t surf, Chinese don’t bake. Charlie does bake, thanks to an invasion of militant croissant fanatics, but the Chinese don’t. They have ovens in their modern apartments. But they’re put to all sorts of non-cooking uses - storing pots, books, or in one notable case I saw, shoes.
So alien are they I once asked our former maid, a woman of above-average intellect, to clean the oven and use the spray can to do so. The next time I turned it on I was hit by an eye-watering, throat-burning stench. On the cleaning shelf we had one spraycan with a picture of an oven on it, and one with a picture of a mosquito. When I pointed out her mix-up and its potentially fatal consequences, oh how our maid laughed and laughed.
I like ovens and especially making birthday cakes. Some find this image jarring - a bit like imagining Mussolini singing poppy love songs, or Justin Bieber ruling a fascist dictatorship. But if those same people bothered to look up the results of the Griffith Agricultural Show (county fair) junior novelty cake making competition from 1977-79 – which they hardly ever do - they would find me as champion in two of those years. I’d have completed the fabled event’s first ever three-peat if not for my arch-rival Tanya “The Ambulanceman’s Daughter” Taylor in what became known as Black ‘78.
(Taylor, who earned her nickname because her father was the town ambulanceman, won in controversial circumstances which people still talk about. Or person does, anyway. These are the only things I’ve ever won.)
In 1980 we moved to a city without a show culture and that was it. A star was gorn. But if being a parent is all about re-living your childhood - isn’t it? – as a crusty old adult I’ve been able to revisit the glory days.
I’m not artistic. I can barely draw a conclusion. But for some reason I can do a themed cake. It’s fairly simple if you remember three things: time, sugar, food colouring. You think of your subject, bake some cakes, then cut away anything that doesn’t look like a rabbit/frog/fairy.
Birthdays one and two for our eldest Lani were still modest – a large “1”, then cupcakes arranged as a “2”. The next year I tried harder and made an Iggle Piggle cake. In case you’re wondering what flavour Iggle Piggle is, it was chocolate on the inside and blue on the outside, and looked like this guy:
|In The Night Garden star Iggle Piggle, seen|
leaving the Ivy with a mystery companion
Then I really got going. Evie had a big strawberry, then a frog cake (green on the inside even), then a big-in-Japan cartoon cat called Doraemon.
One year Lani had a Hello Kitty cake - fairly simple since kitty is white with a round, cake-shaped head. Some Pocky sticks for the whiskers and it was beer o’clock!
Once she wanted a mermaid cake. Here I got into trouble. It was for a party so it had to be big. But it somehow got away from me, and ended up a metre long. It could have featured on one of those Discovery Channel shows, like Extreme Baking.
It took ages. By 2.00am I was feeling very overwhelmed. Then came my biggest challenge – the face. I can draw a little with a bag of icing, but a beautiful female face? Do you know what little girls are like when it comes to perceptions of beauty? Oh, it doesn’t come from within.
My creation soon looked like she had come not from Disney but from East Germany, one of those mermaids who shaved. I freaked out. I wanted to give up. But then what would we have for the party? A half-finished masterpiece? The Sagrada Familia of birthday cakes? A decapitated mermaid?
Thankfully I recalled the golden rule of neatness from school – get a girl to do it. My wife can’t bake but she can draw. Oh, salvation. By the end the mermaid was, in the Australian vernacular, a good sort. By 4.00am I fancied her rotten. The kids liked her too, with her round mermaidian boobs especially popular. This wasn’t because the baker was some kind of pervert. I’d coloured her bikini-top with sprinkles.
|PHWOAR! My mermaid was described in one leading|
birthday cake gossip magazine as "a ravishing redhead
with a fire on her belly". Pity this is the only photo of
her in existence. You wouldn't believe how much I
paid that photographer, too.
Leading up to Lani’s sixth birthday, undead fever had gripped the family thanks to the reasonably popular computer game, Plants versus Zombies. There I was with our new maid Sun Ayi (Ayi in Mandarin means Aunty).
“You bake your girls’ birthday cakes? How nice!” she says, looking at what was then just a double-decker chocolate cake.
Chinese children are raised on traditional lines. Boys should be rambunctious and play with toy guns and tanks. Girls should be prissy and play with Barbie dolls. There is no prescribed limit on cutesiness. You’d swear every item a girl can own must first be dipped in a vat of pink glitter, sparkles and, of course, fairy dust. Half the time it looks like the girls too have fallen in.
As Ayi watched I began with the icing. It was a pallid grey, like the skin on a dying man, to quote Pink Floyd. Or dead in this case.
“Grey?” Ayi said quizzically.
“Mm hmm,” I replied.
I start to cut. I cut away anything that doesn’t look like a zombie, leaving a disfigured skull shape.
“What is it?”
I took some white icing and made one eye, then another, much bigger than the first.
“Oh it’s a … face?” Ayi said.
Red streaks made the eyes bloodshot. With pupils added my zombie had a haunting stare, and a turn in his left eye.
Ayi was disturbed, even more so when I reassured her everything was going to plan. Black lining under each eye made for loose sockets, others gave him wrinkles. Then an open mouth with four sparse teeth was filled with a congealed-blood coloured deep purple. He was screaming in agony, even before I stuck the pipe cleaners in as twisted hairs.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a birthday cake like this before,” said Ayi, perhaps more concerned by my smile. She left the room. She’d only started that week.
|Sun Ayi moments after seeing my cake.|
When she returned I said: “Let me explain. It’s … how do you say this in Chinese? … it’s a zombie.”
That’s not how you say it in Chinese. Ayi shifted her gaze between me and the cake-thing.
“You know how when people die?” I go on.
“And then they get up again?”
“And then they walk around going ‘Uuuugh, UUUUUUGH’?”
I started walking around going ‘Uuuuugh, UUUUUUGH!’
“Right … “
“Well them. Lani’s cake is one of them. In English we call them ‘zombies’.”
“And Lani wants this?”
“And she’ll like it?”
“She’d bloody well better!”
This was almost too much for Ayi. “Wo sai,” she said, using an exclamation that means a lot of things, including “Oh my God what a freak!”
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH MINNIE MOUSE? OR A PRINCESS?” she said.
“She’s asked for the undead.”
Ayi now looked a lot like my cake. Before this she’d thought us a nice, typical family. Later I learned Ayi was part of the rare breed of Chinese Ayi who goes to church every Sunday. Well, I said, didn’t they talk a lot about the dead there? Wasn’t there one who became quite famous for rising from the grave? She was no more reassured about her new employer.
Next day, Ayi learned Zombie Cake was a smash hit. She was surprised. And bewildered.
To be fair, she didn’t see it with candles.