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Book Review: Ace of Cakes: Inside the World of Charm City Cakes by Duff and Willie Goldman

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"Before we get started," say the Goldman brothers in their introduction, "we'd like to define what this book is not: it's not a cookbook or a how-to manual." Thank goodness. When I first heard about the Ace of Cakes book, I was dubious to say the least. It didn't seem in keeping with the character of the show or its madcap leader to monetize success by schlepping recipes. Instead, they gave this book a very clear purpose as a "fun, visual, colorful scrapbook," which was absolutely the right path to take.

Cake decorating, especially at the level of execution at Charm City Cakes, is a wildly visual medium, and that comes through in the 300 or so high-gloss pages. They are an ebullient mash of colors, dominated largely by pastels and other frosting-inspired tones. The pictures are excellent as well, bringing an interesting mix of bright stock scenes and meaningful content. There are plenty of family photos of both Duff and his staff, with each employee at CCC getting a dedicated section preceded by a scrapbook-style page. This gives the reader something of a visual insight into the featured person's character and life outside the bakery.

There are also collages of fan mail, clients, and the Ace of Cakes production crew. Perhaps most impressive is the fondant-covered centerfold titled "Charm City Cakes: The First Seven Years." Equivalent to ten pages, the pullout is covered in hundreds of thumb-nail images of cakes and nearly every one is easily identifiable. Browsing through it left me filled with awe at the variety of skill on display and baffled by some of the orders (is that really a Linda Blair in The Exorcist cake???).

For all the images, there is still plenty to read, although the words definitely do not carry the work. Past the introduction, the book delves into a fairly detailed first person account of Duff's life and his artistic journey from Detroit to Cape Cod to Baltimore. In addition to being the longest biography, it is also the most intimate. The staff bios tend to cover the same few topics: how the person met Duff or came to work for him, what they do at the bakery, and their thoughts on being a cake decorator. Formulas aren't all bad, certainly, but in this case I think it gives the book a repetitive feel when read straight through.

Moreover, these sections are written in the first person but have been heavily sanitized. The language feels stiff and whitewashes over the voices which are such a lively part of the Food Network TV show series. Breaking up the bios are short chapters narrated by Duff about the bakery's history, artistic style and business. There is also a scattering of variety pieces which include facts about Baltimore, quotes from various Food Network executives and one page "Behind the Cake" stories. Had the book stopped here, I would have called it fluff. By expanding their coverage beyond the bakery and its staff, however, the Goldmans created a much more rounded, complete piece.

For long-time fans of the show, the 40 or so pages spotlighting the TV production crew is likely to be the most exciting. For people already plugged into the CCC world, most of the rest of the book is nothing new (except, perhaps, for the fact that the show's pitch video was called "F— You Let's Bake!"). The crew section, on the other hand, I found totally fascinating. Following a similar pattern, albeit in shorter form, as the decorator bios, each person on the production staff gets to tell their stories in their own voice. Unlike the elsewhere in the book, however, their voices come through. The writing here seems less formal, more personal, and provides a wonderful insight into both the specifics of Ace of Cakes as well as unscripted television as an industry.

I particularly liked editor M.J. Loheed's initial reaction when offered the job: "…Cake decorators? Are you $&)%ing kidding me? It seemed another sign that my career was spiraling down the giant hole of stupidity that's engulfing television." This chapter is absolutely vital, in my opinion. It's inclusion reflects the symbiotic relationship which seems to have grown up between the bakery and the show. As the success of each entity has risen in tandem, they have grown more dependent on one another, a fact which the Goldmans readily and frequently acknowledge. In the end it strikes me as flat out classy, since it would have been so easy to blow off cameramen and the like, the ones who never appear on TV.

The total package of the Ace of Cakes book is a good one. It's an impressive piece of publishing, especially from the visual perspective. The images, cover to cover, are really what make it a success, but I don't know that that's necessarily a bad thing. For the hardcore fans (and, trust me, they're out there), this is a great Christmas gift, but its appeal is broader than that. It's much more comprehensive than a cookbook with a liberal sprinkling of fun facts. It presents an interesting and thorough look at a unique aspect of American foodie culture which just happens to be in Charm City.

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About Chris Bancells

  • visalia

    I really liked the book. I had only seen the T.V. show and didn’t know much about Duff and his staff so I enjoyed finding out about the inner workings of the bakery