"Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Shakespeare asked in Twelfth Night. There were cakes and ale aplenty at the Sugar Games, a literary dessert competition presented by PEN Center USA at Angel City Brewery in L.A. Thursday night.
KCRW's Evan Kleiman judged culinary merit, and I was the literary judge. Eleven entrants executed literary desserts for us to try, and there were three winners: Lady of the Rings was first, The Things They Curried came in second, and a book riffing on "A Tale of Two Cities" took third.
Each of those needs a little explaining, because in this contest, the story behind the dessert was as important as the taste. Well, almost as important.
The Lady of the Rings was a traditional Norwegian ring cake, a "kransekake," made by Ellen Snortland. It's a cone of stacked rings that starts wide and gets concentrically smaller; they taste a bit like coarser marzipan and have a touch of glaze. The customary decoration for the desert is little Scandinavian flags, these referred to different places in J.R.R. Tolkien's books. The things we liked about the dessert: It had wordplay ("Lady of the Rings" for "Lord of the Rings"); the origins of the "kransekake" are unclear, but pre-modern in a way that's a lot like the imaginary workd of Toklein's Middle Earth; and it was delicious.
I should say here that if you ever find yourself judging a dessert competition, no matter how delicious something is, take no more than one bite or maybe two. Because at the end of the night you will wind up so overdosed on sugar you'll feel like someone slipped you Heisenberg's Blue Sky, and there's no turning back. Once it kicks in, you're gone.
The Things They Curried by novelist Diana Wagman took second. It's a play on Tim O'Brien's 1990 Vietnam war novel "The Things They Carried," now a staple in English classes. The dessert evoked Vietnam during the war: a rice pudding paddy topped by blood-red curried fruits and served with "Agent Orange" whipped cream. By having three separate elements, the structure of the dessert mirrored, in a small way, the siganture structure of O'Brien's book, which is told in related stories. And it tasted great, of course.
The interesting thing about this competition is that if Kleiman were writing this, she could go into as much detail about the food side of the entries as I can about their bookishness.
In third place was a masterfully prepared cake by Cary Berkeley surrounded by printouts of illustrations from Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities." It was in the form of a tightly laced, colorful corset. Evan liked that the fondant was both homemade and edible, and I thought the bawdy presentation was something Dickens would enjoy.
If we had given an honorable mention I would have awarded it to the "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" lemon bars. The creator -- whose name I didn't catch -- had really connected with the story by Karen Russell. She described the story, including that it had a melancholy ending, explaining that it was why she added cloves. So, consider this the honorable mention.
The other entries were Game of Scones, Pudd'nhead Wilson, National Red Velvet Cake, Jimmy's Blues Blueberry squares (for James Baldwin), Huckleberry Sin, a pie whose title I have lost, and Rosemary's Baby.
It was the first time PEN has presented the event, but I hope it's not the last.