When is a cake shop more than just a cake shop? At Deep Sea Sugar & Salt in Georgetown, the city of Seattle is asking and answering this question in real-time, at a safe six-foot distance, clad in masks and rain gear, waiting for a slice of deliverance from the hottest bakery in town.
Every last one of us is traumatized; I feel strongly that the last year's events are something we'll grapple with for the rest of our lives. There are the individual traumas, and then there is the collective trauma; both are real, and both will be the stuff of a grand cultural unpacking and contextualizing for months and years to come. (You will watch a movie or television program or read a novel set in 2020 sometime a decade from now and be deeply triggered by it; I both cannot wait to experience this art and resent it in advance.)
In the meantime, there is cake.
Cake suggests a kind of permissiveness, a celebration, an indulgence of the highest order, although cake certainly didn't ask to have all this societal baggage heaped upon it. Still, when cake is very good—and the cake at Deep Sea Sugar is very good—it can be looked at as a pastrified embodiment of our howling shared urge to feel something like happiness and delight in an age bereft of both. It would appear the city agrees: dozens, no hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Seattleites are lining up in droves, throngs, a socially distanced muster in front of this place each weekend, an unassuming little house on a residential street a few blocks off the main drag of Airport Way.
You will wait in line for at least 30 minutes, and perhaps much longer, together with your fellow cake seekers, dressed in raincoats even when it's dry, and puffer jackets even though it's sort of springy and warm now. Deprived of our normal spaces to go and look at each other, the cake line doubles as a form of people watching, surrounded by a diversity of ages and backgrounds, some solo, some as couples or throuples—will they share a slice? Will they each get their own? The wait is its own form of therapy, a modern church, the cafe, the gay bar patio, the zen retreat, the film festival. Everyone is wearing New Balance sneakers. I will not further the introspection by reflecting on the double meaning of balance, or what it means to seek a new balance together.
The Tik Tok teens behind me are talking into their phones. The quiet older couple in front of me waits in patient silence, holding hands. Finally my time comes. I order two cupcakes to try a few different things—rainbow chocolate and lemon pudding, thank you—and then ask the cake clerk to recommend me a slice of whatever's most popular. She beams; it's all popular, but the raspberry cardamom rose cake is particularly good today, so that's what she suggests. I would have never in a million years ordered a piece of raspberry cardamom rose cake if left to my own devices—I kind of loathe raspberry in desserts—but if you ask for a recommendation in this life it's rude not to take it. One gets the feeling that what you pick doesn't matter; everything here is someone's favorite.
As she rings me up ($4.25 for the cupcakes, $8.25 for the cake slice) I ask if it's always this busy here. "Last weekend it was a four and a half hour wait," she replies, and we share a wild-eyed look at the absurdity of such reality. I glance behind me, and the line has grown even longer. My half an hour wait was actually a stroke of good fortune.
My cake box comes out five minutes later: two delicately arrayed cupcakes next to a divine slice of sugar, butter, fruit, and florality. There is a wonderful clarity of flavor in the rose frosting, unabashedly floral, both rose flavored and rose scented. The cake is airy, profoundly so, but also toothsome and satisfying. The cardamom sponge itself is just so: dense and light at the same time, moreish and held together by some inexorable alchemy. The raspberry never threatens to dominate the wider cohesion of flavors. There is a subtle greenness to the cardamom. It is a little pocket symphony of piquancy. It is a very good slice of cake.
Everyone here is searching for something, but let's not do the reductive, easy thing of calling it "comfort" because food-as-comfort is an overplayed trope. I think what's happening here is more like a gulp of clean air, the downbeat of your favorite song, or a form of urban meditation. As I'm leaving I peer inside the bakery again, where a small crew is baking, slicing, frosting, and serving cake as fast as humanly possible, but with an earned grace of pace that comes from knowing there is always someone waiting, always someone next in line. You are watching people participate in commerce, yes—but you are also watching a form of live-action municipal therapy, a little communal celebration in dark times.
They've got music to work with inside the bakery—you gotta have music—and in that final moment I hear it, a song I love and have loved for many years and will always love, The Cure's timeless "Pictures Of You." Not an incredibly original choice for a favorite song, but I glommed some degree of identity onto this work as a moody suburban teen and it's stuck with me, which is fine. Who has time to judge?
The women in the bakery start singing along behind their masks, and I sing, too.