Fall party cakes

Like many people, I like to think of myself as above nostalgia. I attempt, in my daily life, to acknowledge the past in the ways that I can, especially when it comes to trying to reflect on how I can be a different person than I was, how I can react differently to consistent feelings that have caused me to act in a way that I find unacceptable now. I also try to make myself the kind of the person that can look at old photos and accept the past for what it was. I want to be the person who can reflect on memories and consider them impartially.

This is, of course, impossible. Memories—by their definition, by the nature of their existence and the nature of the organ they are born from—are already twisted, warped, false. So when the inevitable draw of nostalgia comes, I try to remember this truth. I try to hold it in my hands to ward off the evils of the past remembered through my body.

Living within the area that you grew up in presents a unique challenge to this practice, or at least I thought it would when I moved back to Des Moines a year and a half ago. It helps to live in an area adjacent to where I grew up. Even the memories in the places I frequented in high school and still go sometimes are so overladen with memories that they don’t return to me with Proustian clarity, but rather a layer of static through which there’s often nothing specific is discernible.

It also helps that the actual area I grew up in was and still is the quintessential suburb and embodies all of the typical elements associated with that. Treeless and vacant, buildings and homes all facsimiles of one another. This aesthetic seems to purposefully spurn attempts to draw memories from its objects, preferring to assert its own ideas of time and space instead. Recently I drove to the cul-de-sac where the house I grew up in still stands relatively unchanged to see what it would provoke from me.  

Feeling nothing was dissatisfying. I wanted the ghost of the remembered past to call out to me and to dismiss it. I could still see, in my mind, the details of every room of the house as it had been a decade ago. But the it refused to be altered, the architecture of the house refusing to allow itself to appear as anything other than what it presently was.

Midway through the past week, I began to feel myself succumbing to a bought of the common cold that I watched descend upon me with a feeling of helplessness. I was a NASA scientist viewing an apocalyptic meteoroid from millions of miles away, unstoppable and inevitable. The day the cold made full impact, I found myself delirious, aching, and nauseous, tilting through Walgreens in search of solace in the form of symptom-reducing medication.

It was there that I was confronted by the stand-alone cube of Little Debbie snacks. When passing the section of Little Debbie snacks—the swiss rolls, the cosmic brownies, the oatmeal cream pies—I’m generally able to resist their gravity, which is fueled in no small part by the nostalgic, the simple pleasure of an after-school snack remembered as more pure and blissful than it probably was by the working adult.

But there was something different in the Little Debbie cube: fall seasonal varieties. Seeing a box of fall party cakes in such a vulnerable state brought me to my knees. The dripping mucus in the back of my throat coupled with dry saliva had left me unhungry. The fall party cakes appealed to me in a way that little else did, so I took a box home.  

There are chocolate and vanilla fall party cakes. I got the vanilla. There’s little to know about this particular food product or Little Debbie in general. I’m assuming their distribution is national, since I feel like I’ve seen their products in one form or another in grocery stores across the country. Little Debbie headquarters are based in south-eastern Tennessee and they own their fleet of distribution trucks.

If you’ve ever had year-round Little Debbie zebra cakes, the vanilla fall party cakes are functionally the same. Substitute fall-themed sprinkles for the zebra stripes, you still have the cake cut through with a layer of icing, encased in a firm layer of icing, no real vanilla flavor but instead the monolithic, immutable taste of pure sugar. What was compelling and coveted as a child is, to the adult, unsubtle and abrasive.

The fall party cake, like almost any other Little Debbie snack, is the definition of empty calories, the essence of anti-nutrition, without really offering the taste to make it a worthwhile exchange. But it’s also become to me, as the Little Debbie marketing copy tells you it should be, “a part of a… fall family tradition.” By becoming a memory to me, Little Debbie has appealed to my animal brain and its inability to remove itself from the past completely, compelling me to do the unreasonable: purchase and consume a box of fall party cakes.