Life, Love, and Lemon Cake with Artist Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman’s newest book is a celebration of cake, and all the moments in life that come along with it

By Alex Testere

Published on April 4, 2018

I am a cake person. Some people are pie people, or ice-cream people, or fro-yo people (which are very different from ice-cream people), and some people still are not dessert people at all. And then I’m not sure what kind of people they are.

I did not know I was a cake person until I met Maira Kalman, the artist and author behind The Principles of Uncertainty, And The Pursuit of Happiness, Daniel Handler's Why We Broke Up, and more New Yorker covers than I can count. When we sat down to discuss her latest book Cake, an illustrated memoir of sorts with recipes from Barbara Scott-Goodman, I wanted to know, as yet uninitiated into the tribe of cake people, why cake?

"All over the world, all the time, people are eating cake. They always have and they always will," Kalman writes in her book.

There’s a certain grandeur in a towering layer cake, enveloped in glistening ganache, studded with candles or buttercream roses, all growing dewy as they come to room temperature. Those are essential to any celebration. But some cakes are more nonchalant, effortlessly cool and quotidien, a single piece of pound cake served with afternoon tea.

Despite the nature of the moment, a slice of cake can create one, even between two relative strangers sitting at a café in the West Village, one of them discussing her most recent book, the other trying to contain his wonderment at sharing a table with a personal hero. It turns out, every cake tells a story, and no two stories are the same.

So, with two slices of cake between us—one chocolate ganache and one lemon meringue—I asked Maira how this story came to be. It begins, as many great stories do, with a dinner party.

Maira Kalman: It's the serendipity of all things, really. I was at a party with Barbara Scott-Goodman, who wrote recipes to this book, and we've known each other for a long time and we were just chatting about things, and talking about how much we love cake and she said, "Wouldn't it be nice to do a book about cake?" And I agreed. It's the nature of what cake is, too. I don't like to cook very much, but I do like to bake. I'm not a 'baker' by any means, but if I were to choose something to make for you, I would make you a cake over a brisket.

Alex Testere: And is there a cake in particular that first came to mind when you set out to make this book?

MK: Well, probably my favorite cake is lemon pound cake, in general. Anything with lemon attached to it, but I've written before about that honey cake that everybody in my family makes, and so I don't know if there's a cake I've met that I don't like, but probably the lemon pound cake was the glorious image.

AT: What is it about the lemon pound cake that stands out?

MK: There's just something about a lemon pound cake, when I was younger, that seemed incredibly sophisticated. That anything made with a lemon was just very, very chic.

AT: Yes, I can imagine a lemon as a very sophisticated fruit. Was there another kind of cake you enjoyed growing up, one that triggers a certain memory?

MK: The first one that comes to mind is the one in the very beginning of the book, that my aunt Shoshana would make in Tel-Aviv. It was a chocolate cake with no chocolate in it; just cocoa and coffee. We would come home from the beach, and all of us would sit on the terrace—there were five of us, my sister and I and my three cousins—and there was a sense of incredible calm and pleasure and ease. And when you're a kid and somebody hands you a plate without asking for it, you just think, 'This is a very good life indeed.'

AT: A very uncomplicated sense of pleasure, in being a kid.

MK: Right, and anything after the beach, I mean, any food you have after a trip to the beach is a delight.

AT: Those moments just automatically imprint into your memory.

MK: It does, just a moment of complete loveliness.

"Together or alone," Kalman writes, "celebrating or sitting quietly and thinking, someone is savoring a moment of cake."

AT: So, does each cake you and Barbara created for this book come from such a moment like that?

MK: Well, we went back and forth. Everybody has opinions about the best cakes in the world, the cakes we couldn't live without. And many of those are pulled from the history of all those significant moments in life, birthdays, anniversaries, bringing a cake to someone who doesn't feel well. Our job was to figure out a list of cakes, which is not a bad problem to have, and so we just kept exchanging lists and then we'd make new lists, and finally we said, here are the 16 cakes that everyone should know.

AT: And I bet there are some cakes that tell stories better than others.

MK: And sometimes it's more about the sense of what it's connected to, the memories of the cake. There is the cake of the broken heart, one my aunt made me when a boy broke my heart as a teenager. There's the cake of philosophy, one I made in Rome that had all kinds of texts from philosophers on it because we were thinking a lot then about Spinoza and Lucretius, and all the weighty questions in this world. 'What's the meaning of life? Oh, well, let's have some cake.' Somehow, that's always the play in this world; you have the incredibly intense heavy moments, and then you have a celebratory …

AT: … Slice of cake to make them light.

MK: There's also, especially coming from Israel, but also here, is the sense of a mid-afternoon break. In Israel, it happens at five o'clock. The British were there then, and it was always a bit too hot for tea at four o'clock, so at five, everybody gathered in cafés, or we went to someone's house the adults would have tea and coffee. We'd have cake and ice cream.

AT: Sounds like a good deal.

MK: Mm-hmm, and that pause, that sort of celebratory pause, or even just a relaxation pause, it's the idea that whatever has happened to you during the day, whatever catastrophe has befallen you, you can simply stop and have a piece of cake.

AT: It's exemplary of this idea that we need to take breaks to do good work, to move forward. A friend told me recently, when I told her I was struggling with making new work, and feeling like I needed to take a break, she said, "Every religion has a Sunday."

MK: Absolutely. People need rest. I say during the day, too, not just once a week!

AT: So you've written and illustrated many books, including the 2011 edition of Michael Pollan's Food Rules. And I've seen various scenes pop up in your books over the years, like the woman eating a sliced egg sandwich at a New York luncheonette in The Principles of Uncertainty. Do you feel any affinity for drawing food in particular?

MK: I've never done a food book specifically, though I bring food into every single project I've ever painted, especially with Daniel Handler and his 13 Words. There are a lot of cakes in that book, because he wrote the book knowing that I love to paint cakes. I'm always painting meals, and people sitting at tables, taking that kind of break.

AT: As an artist, do you find you handle the painting of a cake differently than, say, if you were painting a person?

MK: I'm probably happier painting a cake or a fruit platter, but no, it's all still painting. But I'm very happy to paint those scenes of eating, or just the table all set, the way it looks, because it gives me great joy. I always think that the moments of family, or gathering around a table—one hopes that they're moments of great joy, and funniness, and naturalness. And just hopefully you can be yourself when you're around the table with people that you know pretty well.

AT: Definitely. Food has a way of acting as an equalizer among new people. I think that's why we all love to have a dinner party more than we love to stand around and make small talk.

MK: Yeah, it's true. And I, actually, I would much rather serve at a dinner party than sit at a dinner party.

AT: Exactly! That's something I've realized recently too; I love to host people, I love to cook for them and bring them around a table. I like doing that so much more than going to other people's parties.

MK: Right? There's something about … It's interesting. When you're with your family, or with close friends, it's very different. But when you're going to a 'dinner party,' there's some performance aspect to it, and it's a little bit exhausting, and you think, 'If I can't think of one more story to tell, I'm just going to have to go home and get into my pajamas immediately.' I'm going to one tonight, and I'm hoping that—

AT: —you have enough stories to tell?

MK: Precisely.

AT: Do you cook often at home? Besides the occasional cake?

MK: I'd much rather be the assistant. I'd rather be the chopper, the cleaner, the table setter. I love the world of setting the table and getting flowers and just looking at the colors of the napkins and the tablecloth. I love ironing everything beforehand, that's a big part of it. I'm the attendant around everything more than the cook.

"There’s just something about a lemon pound cake, when I was younger, that seemed incredibly sophisticated. That anything made with a lemon was just very, very chic."

AT: Who usually does the cooking?

MK: My daughter's an amazing cook, but she longer lives at home. But my boyfriend is a great cook also, and he cooks most of the food.

AT: I have someone like that too. That's great to have.

MK: I'm happy to be his assistant. Then, somehow, the week goes by and you've managed to eat. I always say that after I've gone shopping, and I have to peel a cucumber or something, I'm exhausted. I'm thinking, 'How has anybody ever worked so hard as to peel this cucumber? I couldn't possibly make an entire dinner.' You first decide what you want to eat, then you make the list, then you go shopping, you bring it home, you organize it, and then you have to cook it and serve it. But I really do long to have a repertoire of, let's say, a dozen magnificent dishes. The perfect lasagna, the perfect short rib recipe.

AT: Did the addition of recipes change anything about your approach to this book?

MK: Well, it's a useful book, with actual recipes that people can use. I was very happy with that, I love the counterpoint of lyrical stories, or sad stories, or funny stories with something very pragmatic interspersed, like a recipe. I thought, 'This is a delightful way to make a book, you're offering some help, and then offering some story and some art.'

AT: Had you considered handwriting the recipes?

MK: We discussed it, you know there's always a question of the balance of my handwriting in a book, and I think we understood that there should be a separation between the stories and the recipes. And so the recipes are all clear and crisp, and the stories are more lyrical. There's no wondering 'what is this word?' in the recipes.

AT: I've been thinking about illustrations in cookbooks a lot recently, specifically after a conversation with Samin Nosrat and Wendy MacNaughton about their book, Salt Fat Acid Heat. We had talked then about there almost being an unfair sense of perfection tied to the big, glossy photographs in many cookbooks.

MK: Right. I'm hoping the nice things about these paintings is the imperfection of life and cake, and all those things. Barbara even mentions in her intro that no matter how good you are, there will always be the potential for a mishap.

AT: A mishap.

MK: A mishap is really something wonderful to contemplate! For unknown reasons, inexplicable reasons, you won't always get it right, and there's no reason to despair. I've made cakes that are really … I couldn't even call them cakes. I'd have to call them sludge on a pate.

AT: It can be such a terrible feeling to destroy something like that. To put in all the time and effort—

MK: —You feel like such a failure. But, then again, it's a nice thing to be reminded that you can fail and still the world will not come to an end.

Cake, by Maira Kalman, with recipes by Barbara Scott-Goodman, will be published by Penguin Press on April 10, 2018.

Continue to Next Story

Want more SAVEUR?

Get our favorite recipes, stories, and more delivered to your inbox.