Cakes and Queens

In the entry on “but . . .  however“ I use this example: “but the cake he made for my birthday, however, was his old girlfriend’s favorite flavor, not mine” (if you don’t see what’s wrong with this sentence, see the entry on p. 46).

I try to avoid gender stereotyping in my entries, but this one was really not a stretch. It was inspired by an actual event: the first birthday of my new girlfriend (and now wife) after we began dating. Cooking is a serious hobby of mine, and I surprised her with one of my favorite cakes, the traditional French Reine de Saba, an intensely fudgy, buttery confection made with almonds.

You can watch Julia Child make a Reine de Saba on YouTube.

Although she was very nice about it, I learned later that this wasn’t her favorite flavor combination (she really doesn’t care for nuts in baked goods), and I haven’t made it since. To be clear: there was no old girlfriend in the original incident. This combination of flavors was just a favorite of my own, but I think the version in the book is funnier.

The name of the cake I have always found interesting. It refers to the Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon, according to an account in the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings, Chapter 10). The story was probably meant to demonstrate the king’s fame by having a fabulously wealthy foreigner travel a long distance to pay him homage. In ancient times trading lavish gifts was a way of cementing political relations between kingdoms, and that is what this story is all about.

But popular tradition in both East and West made a love story out of the visit. One version assigns her the name “Belkis” and has her actually marrying the much-married Israelite ruler. You can read a variety of legends involving this story on a Freemasonry site.

Modern scholars think she was probably from Saba, in modern Yemen; but earlier tradition makes her an Ethiopian and depicts her as black—hence her association with dark chocolate.

I’m particularly fond of two pieces of music relating to Belkis. The first is the very popular “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from Handel’s Solomon. The lively music for this popular processional always makes me imagine the visiting noblewoman scampering enthusiastically toward the throne to greet the great monarch. There’s nothing stately about this state visit.

The other is more obscure: Ottorino Respighi’s score for the ballet Belkis, Queen of Sheba. It’s an example of European Orientalist exoticism at its most cinematic.

For my use of another familiar legendary Queen cake reference, see the entry on “connaisseur/coinoisseur“ on p. 66. That allusion will be the subject of a later post on this blog.

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