Now that January is over, there is some hope that the previous month’s incessant diet culture messaging will die down soon as the hordes of people who promised to eat healthy and exercise realize that both of those things are boring as hell. Even if you haven’t been depriving yourself over the last month, now is as good a time as any to treat yourself to an ice cream cake.
Ice cream cakes are, like most cakes, typically reserved for celebratory experiences. The practice dates back to antiquity, when ancient Greeks would bake cakes and set them alight with candles in worship of Artemis, the goddess of the moon; Romans stirred together flour, honey, and nuts to feed wedding guests. Ice cream cakes are, of course, a much newer innovation popularized by chains like Carvel and Baskin-Robbins, but no more frequently consumed — they’re reserved only for children’s birthday parties and office events not worth the cost of a custom cake.
Which is why, strolling down the frozen foods section of my neighborhood grocery store a couple of months ago, I was a little surprised to see a small Carvel ice cream cake sitting on the shelf next to the Marie Callender’s frozen apple pies. I hadn’t even thought about ice cream cake in years, and the pandemic has halted most of the celebrations that require a dessert that can feed more than a couple of people. On an impulse, I threw it into my cart.
At $12, the cake was a little more expensive than the typical pint of Jeni’s I have on my grocery list, but not so much that it felt like some incredible splurge. After getting it home, I tucked it into the freezer and went on about my day, remembering about eight hours later that I had an actual ice cream cake all to myself, just waiting inside the freezer.
I cracked open the box and sliced into the cake, which was still somehow a little soft. I had to pry the cake off the bottom of the box a little, but no worries — if worse came to worst and I had to eat it off the cardboard disc it was piped onto at the Carvel factory, this was my ice cream cake and it didn’t have to look pretty.
The first bite was an instant hit of nostalgia-induced dopamine. The layers of chocolate and vanilla were separated by a layer of Carvel’s classic “crunchies,” or crushed-up bits of cookies that add essential textural contrast. The cake’s marshmallow icing is an absolute feat of food engineering, staying soft and fluffy in the freezer but never getting too gooey or melty after warming up on the plate. A ring of icing dyed with some chemical that is probably banned in Europe piped around the edge of the cake and showered with pastel sprinkles, stained the corners of my mouth.
After eating a slice, I stuck the rest of the cake back into its box inside the freezer where it sat for a few more days, waiting for me to remember it again. Even after accumulating a little mild freezer burn, it tasted and looked basically the same. As I whittled the leftovers down over the course of a week, my $12 investment proved sound.
It also got me to thinking about celebration, and what that means in a time when throwing a party to mark even the most major of milestones could literally prove deadly. Sure, plenty of people have continued on with their birthday parties and beach vacations as if there is no pandemic, but for those of us that are incapable of that level of delusion, we have been robbed of so many small joys in these past two years, not to mention the crushing weight of trying to survive a pandemic in the era of late capitalism.
And so we must make those joys ourselves. To do that, we can plop down $12 on an ice cream cake and celebrate the fact that we made it through a Wednesday without cussing anybody out, or that we finally finished the mountain of laundry that’s lurked in the corner of the bedroom for a month. Making our own joy can also be for literally no reason — simply because you enjoy eating a slice of ice cream cake and because you fucking deserve it.
As much as it sounds like some bullshit you might read in a self-help book, finding time to celebrate nothing, to enjoy an ice cream cake by yourself just because, turns out to be pretty good for your (my) mental health. Learning that you don’t need a reason, or an excuse, to treat yourself, is a surprising revelation, one that comes with a great deal of joy and freedom — and maybe a little bit of freezer burn.