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Lies, damned lies, and coffee cake
This be madness, and there is not method in't.
“The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.”
– The Joker, immediately before trying to burn down all of Gotham
I was 27 when I learned that there’s no coffee in coffee cake. It was a shocking discovery for everyone involved. I was shocked that such a plain and obvious name could be so misleading, and looked as though I’d just learned that there were no apples in apple pie. Everyone else was shocked that I could've possibly believed coffee cake would contain real coffee, and looked as though I told them cakes were made with Pennzoil.
Years later, I now concede that I was incorrect—coffee cake does not, in fact, contain coffee. But I believe I was fooled by a cruel and dangerous deception. If, in the coming years and decades, we’re going to torch the earth, abandon civil democracy, and plug everyone into Mark Zuckerberg’s Sims funhouse, the least we can do for future generations is right this egregious grammatical wrong.
My argument is simple: It’s called coffee cake.
Blueberry jam? Full of blueberries. Maple syrup? From maple trees. Mustard? Made with mustard seeds. Eggs Benedict? Eggs. Potato salad? Mostly potatoes. Espresso martini? Vodka, Kahula, and espresso. I could do this forever.
Coffee cake, I’m told, is a reasonable exception because you eat coffee cake with coffee—suggesting, I suppose, that potato salad is a salad eaten with potatoes, or espresso martinis are regular martinis for chasing your morning coffee, or maple syrup is a sugary topping for trees. Foods are frequently named this way, they say. And in any case, coffee cake doesn’t taste anything like coffee.
First, sure, coffee cake may not taste like 320 grams of Finca Alcatraz brewed through a Hario V60-02 dripper. But my coffee—a Dunkin' Donuts brown sugar cinnamon latte—sure tastes a lot like cake. And even if coffee cake doesn't taste like coffee, so what? Olive oil doesn't taste like olives. Almond extract doesn't taste like almonds. Strawberry Kiwi Capri Sun doesn't taste like strawberries (contains real juice!). What are we to believe, the fickle, COVID-ridden perceptions of our taste buds, disoriented by the preceding meal, attempting to detect a few ounces of coffee mixed and baked into layers of dough and sugar and cinnamon, like an amateur sommelier guessing the vintage of a Burgundy burned off in a coq au vin? Or the word, right there in the name?
Second, as for foods named after ingredients—let’s check the data. There are 267 types of cakes listed on Wikipedia. Ninty of them are named after something that could conceivably be baked into a cake, like banana, or rock, or Queen Elizabeth. If we assume that cakes contain actual food—so, we're not chopping up plastic funnels for funnel cake, or baking cakes full of kings—we're left with 62 cakes named after potential ingredients.
Of these 62, only 8 are missing the ingredient in their name. One is coffee cake. Five are named after animals, which, thankfully, they don't contain: Butterfly cake, caterpillar cake, frog cake, goose breast cake, and hummingbird cake.
The remaining two, teacake and Madeira cake, are the only cakes—out of 267—that follow the coffee cake “rule.” But even these two cakes are confusing exceptions. Another type of tea cake, tea loaf, does contain tea. And while Madeira cakes doesn't have Madeira, wine cake has wine.
Among the 54 cakes that are named after what's in them? Rum cake. Avocado cake. Orange and polenta cake. Beer cake. Cucumber cake. Brazil nut cake. Applesauce cake. Hash brownies (although, Wikipedia, are brownies a cake?). Onion cake. Coffee and walnut cake, which is made with walnuts and coffee. But coffee cake, without the walnuts? Only a fool would believe it has coffee.
Finally, to the people who say coffee cake should be named after coffee because you eat it with coffee, I mostly eat cake with ice cream. So by that logic, we should call cake “ice cream cake”...but we can't, because there's already an ice cream cake. And it has ice cream in it.
We can fix this. For the sake of those trying to learn this impossible language, who are already confused by endless exceptions and inconsistencies and can't bear another I-before-E-except-after-C-but-never-coffee “rule;” for the sake of parents, wanting nothing more to see their child grow up healthy and well, unnecessarily protect their children from coffee cake, thinking it will save them from a premature caffeine dependence but instead only deprives them of new flavors and experiences and deepens their eventual confusion about what on earth coffee cake is anyway; for the sake long-haul truckers, who, looking for a caffeine pick-me-up without having a drink that will force them into another bathroom break, eat a piece of coffee cake but get nothing more than a cheap sugar high that quickly fades on the dark open road, miles from the next rest stop; for the sake of all of us, it's time to end this nonsense. It's time to call it what it is: coffree cake.