substitutions: cake

by Tavis Gray

March 2019

White at weddings, crowned at birthdays, naked at breakups—cake knows how to make a statement. One may enjoy a coffee cake at breakfast, a tea cake in the afternoon, and a chocolate ganache at 2AM. Something can be a piece of cake, someone may take the cake, and we’re often warned about the trials and tribulations of those who wish to have their cake and eat it too. Cake permeates.

On a cakeless morning in early November, my life changed. The Los Angeles sky was yet unmoored by this winter’s spin of miniature typhoons, and for that reason I found the niceness of the day bland, or at least lacking irony. I parked at a meter way up La Cienega and walked toward the intersection at Wilshire. My doctor, newly minted on forms heretofore as my primary care (forms can be so oddly intimate), had called the day before. She felt it was necessary to go over the results of my blood test, I should say: my first blood test since perhaps birth, in person. I wondered what this meant and by the time I reached the lobby I had decided on lymphoma. I had even practiced my look of shock. I would keep my mouth closed. Reserved. Only amateurs play shock with an open mouth.

I needn’t have worried about lymphoma. As it turned out, all signs (my lipid panel cross referenced with my height and weight) pointed to the conclusion that my 19th chromosome carries a defective mutation (one may argue this is more exciting than lymphoma, at least in terms of a good twist). The result is a condition called FH, or familial hypercholesterolemia, which inhibits the body from recycling LDL cholesterol, the bad kind, the kind that causes heart attacks. With too much extra LDL in the blood (generally from consuming parts or byproducts of animals in any amount), plaque develops, constricting arteries in the same way a diet of only hamburgers might. Because of this, people with untreated FH are at a 5 times greater risk of developing heart disease. Some have heart attacks before they turn 30, or as my doctor emphasized to me: 25.


If a time-traveling spouse or agent of law had reached me first that morning, their hair ashook, desperate to know when last I had considered the existence of cholesterol, much less the state of my own—my answer, dear reader, would not have been worth the displaced atoms. Before that November morning, cholesterol was to me not unlike calculus, craft beer, or car mechanics. It was a math in which I did not engage. But a lack of engagement cannot rewrite DNA.

I began to notice the blueness of the day.  My doctor explained the options. I could go on a statin, a lipid-lowering medication that mates for life, or I could go with the god of Southern California. No, not a jade-sculptured double helix on which to pray. A change in lifestyle. A Capital C swooping Change. An hour of cardio six days a week Change. Bodily regime Change.

But change, I decided, is better dosed. I began with diet.

I’ve been an almost vegan for four months now. My doctor said meaningful lipid results, anti heart attack results, were better served dogmatically. But I am not/cannot be a saint. There isn’t room on the dais. So I confess. I ate a few carnitas tacos in Mexico City, cured meat was unavoidable over the holidays, and a butter-maliced chocolate chip cookie is occasionally (okay, often) mouth-forward. I also consume honey. Apologies to the labor of bees, but I should reiterate good tidings to the cows as I do not remember the taste of beef. What is true is that I have crafted a more plant-based life for myself, a task I would have scoffed at or at least found unimaginable before the threat of a coronary event entered the picture. And sure, the looming shadow of death plays its role. But I don’t feel cornered. Los Angeles abounds with options for the almost-vegan. I can walk myself around a menagerie of bowl’d dishes. I’ve learned more, not regrettably, about legumes.

Staring into a well of quinoa and chickpeas last week, I considered these past months. I’ve often been asked if I feel different. Am I hungry all the time? Have I cheated? Do I mourn the taste of, and I don’t mean to be indelicate here, flesh? What the curious want to ask is if I’ve changed in some way that is fundamental. Have I found the answer. The answer is that I haven’t had time to do a proper investigation of how I feel, different or otherwise. I don’t have the answer. I’ve been too busy thinking about cake. Mainly, can I have it and eat it too?


The answer begins with preheating. Set the oven to three hundred and fifty degrees. If you’re using my oven, which leaks, try 400 to be safe. Ingredients lean simple. I used an unsweetened cashew milk, lemon juice, turbinado sugar, and ⅔ cup olive oil. Whisk these lightly into 2 cups pastry flour. An additional pinch of baking soda will help the rise. Bake for forty five minutes in a holeless oven. Fifty minutes with holes. Remove from oven, cool, and glaze with powdered sugar if, like me, you contain 32 sweet teeth. Invite over bees and make peace.

Serves eight.

Substitutions is a monthly column dedicated to the ways and means of living a more plant-based life.  Recipe cards upon request!


Illustrations by Sarah Crawford

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