Remember this commercial? No? Well, 1977 really was a long time ago, I suppose. This 36-second drama presents a man in a suit explaining to a housewife that Pillsbury Frosting Supreme is so creamy that “you can spread it with a paper knife!” Young Mrs. Williams scoffs as the suit cuts a not-very-knife-like shape out of a paper plate, scoops a little out of the can of frosting, and lets her try. She continues to exclaim that she doesn’t believe it, even as her manicured fingers run the mutilated paper plate over the cake. The young housewife clearly doesn’t know her business, but fortunately, the wise man in the suit sets her straight. The world I grew up in was full of men like that on TV and everywhere else.
Much about the commercial is odd. For one thing, the premise is a cheat: a paper plate is far thicker than normal paper. He certainly couldn’t have frosted that cake with a sheet of looseleaf. Furthermore, that’s not a knife; it’s a curved, oblong shape cut out of a paper plate. Beyond the specious cutlery, Mrs. Williams is dim-witted, even by the sexist standards of ads from that period. Obviously, if you can dig a few tablespoons out of the container with the “paper” “knife,” spreading the stuff should be comparatively easy. Why hold up the losing end of an argument for twenty seconds longer than necessary?
Stranger than Mrs. Williams’ unwillingness to believe the undeniable, though, is the fact that any whipped buttercream should be soft enough to spread with just about anything at room temperature. To say that this frosting can be spread with a piece of cardboard is to tell us literally nothing about it. In a surreal twist on the usual false advertising, the ad simply informs us that this product shares the same attribute as all similar products, storebought or homemade, and not a particularly important one. “Marlboro: light them at one end, and you can suck smoke out of the other.” Try doing that with a Camel.
But the oddest thing about the commercial is that neither Mr. Expert nor Mrs. Williams ever comments on the taste of this highly spreadable substance (other than a brief yummy sound in the final second). Does this frosting taste better than homemade? Almost as good? Somewhat similar? Or, as I remember, like faintly chocolate-flavored shortening with enough sugar to make your teeth hurt? Why does this commercial for a food product give no indication about whether you might want to eat it or not? The absence of discourse about flavor makes any viewer brighter than Mrs. Williams suspect that there is not much to say about how much you might enjoy eating a cake frosted with Pillsbury Frosting Supreme, which is, I believe, the purpose of frosting.
When I was baptized into the baking cult of Rose Levy Beranbaum a few years ago, I taught myself how to make a variety of buttercreams from The Cake Bible: classic, neoclassic, eggwhite chocolate, silk meringue (a heavenly combination of crème anglaise, Italian meringue, and butter that took a few thrown-out batches to master), and, my favorite, mousseline, a buttercream with such a gorgeous, light texture and such intense flavor that every time I make it, I’m astonished that an ordinary human being can achieve such perfection in a fallen world. These are not the kind of frostings made of softened butter, some melted chocolate chips and a lot of confectioners’ sugar. These require technique, timing, high-quality ingredients, and mastery of a candy thermometer. Overcook the sugar syrup, and the sugar will crystallize, making sweet grit in what should be as smooth as the inside of your cheek. Undercook it, and the frosting will not perform the marvelous alchemy that occurs when you beat the 238° sugar syrup into the raw eggs, cooking them right in the bowl as you beat them. There is no halfway mark with these buttercreams. Either you’ve made something to feed to the livestock, or you’ve made a rich, complex, flavorful, creamy frosting which, incidentally, you can spread with a paper knife, if you really must.
These buttercreams, complementing the equally worthy cakes in The Cake Bible, don’t just sit between layers and make the top look pretty. Their flavors unfold in your mouth. When I eat a slice of butter cake frosted and filled with mousseline that I have flavored with limoncello and lemon oil, with maybe some thinly sliced strawberries between layers, I have no desire to wolf it down. I want to eat it slowly, bite by bite, with time between each to appreciate its tastes and textures. Considering the butter and eggs used to achieve the effect, savoring each slice (and limiting it to one) is prudent, and makes the cake last longer, too. Has anyone ever felt the desire to eat a Betty Crocker product mindfully?
The only quality a good homemade buttercream shares with the stuff in the can is that they’re both easy to spread. The marketing makes a perverse sort of sense: they can’t promise you memorable flavor or beautiful texture, so they make the one pledge that their food scientists and manufacturers can keep.
All counterfeits play the same cheap trick of misdirection on us, pointing our attention to a handful of the genuine article’s most obvious and most easily-imitated, but never its most soul-satisfying qualities. Cake is yellow, sweet, and contains little holes, so even the worst instant cake mix in the baking aisle will yield something answering to that description. Bedtime on a parent’s lap includes soothing songs and stories, as does the bedtime DVD in front of which one can park a toddler instead. A gifted, caring teacher imparts content, assigns work and assesses it, and so does the online instructor of a class of hundreds, a thousand miles away. Real friends dish about their lives and opinions and always remember your birthday, just like those kids who sat next to you in high school twenty years ago who all friended you when you first got on Facebook. Real love can fill your soul with the sweetest sensations of affinity and passion, and so can a mad, hopeless crush.
The consolation prize looks bewitchingly like the jackpot for a moment, only better! Faster! More convenient and modern, shiny and fun! The ersatz is less exhausting than the complex, demanding, time-consuming, often frustrating thing for which it substitutes, and many of us are already really tired. Sometimes, we are too drained to tell the difference.
The difference exists, nevertheless, and we know it by what it leaves behind. All things instant and effortless, all things frictionless enough to spread with a paper knife: they make you fat –and leave you hungry.
After I wrote this, I realized what it is: my sermon for Rosh Hashana and forMichaelmas. –JG
10/4/11 Update: I found this article from the St. Petersburg Times, 2/1/1977 where they tried to replicate the commercial.