Saints, Cakes, and Redemption

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I’m hardly what you’d call devout. Baptized Presbyterian, despite being Greek on my mother’s side, I know next to nothing about saints. I do, however, know a thing or two about cakes—including the fleeting, unhealthy way they can fill an empty ache in your life, something I admit I felt as I sat in my parents’ house last summer, listlessly paging through a Greek cookbook while my kindergartener slept down the hall.

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The problem wasn’t just that August night. This time last year, things weren’t going well. Work was scarce, household finances unstable. But even money woes seemed preferable when set against my emotional state. Drained and depressed, I’d sunk into a lingering malaise. Maybe it was the realization that I was turning 40. Maybe the role of Restaurant Widow was taking its toll: I almost never saw my husband, a sommelier. Come Sundays, we were too exhausted to connect or even care that we didn’t. Plowing through the weeks with something akin to single-parent status, I sat alone most nights feeling irrelevant and irritable, full of too many thoughts and too much hunger.

Searching for comfort, I immersed myself in the desserts section of the book. A simple spice cake caught my eye. The ingredient list was nothing much—it included the walnuts, cinnamon, and cloves typical of Greek pastry—but the name of the recipe intrigued me, as did its legend.

Called a phanouropita (pronounced “fan-oo-RO-pee-ta”), the cake honors the Greek Orthodox Saint Phanourios, a martyred soldier whose icon, lost for centuries, was found in perfect condition under the rubble of a ransacked church in Rhodes in the early 1500s. Since then, worshippers, mostly women, have followed a tradition of baking and giving away this cake when they want to locate something missing. Phanourios, whose name relates to the Greek verb “I reveal,” apparently will find things for you, but you have to ask him. Sweetly.

Phanourios appealed to me. In his icon, he holds a lit candle, the promise of revelation, and I was sick of sitting in the dark. In truth, I felt lost. Maybe this saint and his cake could help.

The phanouropita should have been easy to make. It’s a dump-and-mix recipe, and traditionally there are only nine ingredients. Chopping nuts looked like the biggest challenge. I was okay with that. I carefully measured oil and orange juice, added sugar. I splashed in the right dose of Metaxa, its deep, dried-fruit aroma reminding me of the gravelly voices of rural yiayias, women with hard-knock lives who needed the shot of brandy more than I did. I watched tawny streaks of spice disperse through the flour as I cranked my sifter. And then I started mixing, by hand.

According to the recipe I used that day, custom required beating the batter with a wooden spoon for nine full minutes. (Nine, I found out later, are the levels of holy angels in the Church.) After two or three minutes, I was losing enthusiasm. At six minutes I started equating the task with penance. By the nine-minute mark, I figured I’d atoned for a lifetime of sin but found myself in hell anyway. My arm was on fire.

The batter had a strange consistency, gummy and dense. I coaxed it to the corners of a loaf pan. I figured it was a flop but couldn’t know unless I baked it. First, however, some ceremony was in order. I placed a printout of Phanourios’s icon on the counter and searched my mind for something the saint could retrieve for me. My husband wasn’t exactly missing; I hadn’t lost my keys or wallet. I could use another paying job, but that seemed too ambitious to start with.

In the end, I failed to ask for anything. I did, however, crouch in front of the oven to make a timid sign of the cross. When my son wandered into the kitchen and asked what I was doing, I quickly straightened and stuffed my hands in my pockets. “Nothing,” I said. “Baking a cake.”

The cake smelled like something from my grandmother’s kitchen. Cutting the traditional nine slices (those angels again), I ate one to be sure it tasted good, then bagged the others. On Sunday I planned to visit Manhattan’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral, where I’d never been before. I had no idea who I’d give the cake to, but it turned out not to matter—encountering a man begging in front of the church (he almost seemed planted there to test me), I realized I’d forgotten to bring the cake along. I gave him a dollar, sat through three hours of service, and went home. I did venture out with the cake later on, but gave up after the first homeless person turned it down.

Even giving the cake away was harder than I’d imagined.

I’m not sure what compelled me to make a full-blown project out of the phanouropita, why I couldn’t just let it go. Maybe it was stubbornness. More likely, I harbored some masochistic hope that if I kept pressing the sore, hollow spot I felt—if I kept making the cake—eventually I’d discover what was missing. I gave away cake after cake, sometimes leaving them next to sleeping homeless people, other times donating them to the church or giving them to friends. I tried different recipes and meditated on more specific prayers: perhaps the saint could find me a new client after all, or a magazine willing to take a story. I started keeping score: cakes baked, prayers answered. I prepared the same recipe in a purgatorial loop, sifting and mixing week after week, waiting for something to happen.

While I waited, I decided to take classes in food writing and offered my services as a recipe tester. I began developing and sharing my own recipes as well, wading slowly into the blogging community. I got to know the owners of Greek bakeries and specialty shops, and wherever I encountered Greeks, I made sure to ask about the cake, unearthing anecdotes about the mysterious saint. I found women who swore that Phanourios had found them a husband, or health, or a tenant for an empty apartment. Salt cellars appeared, as did wayward legal documents. The secondhand testimonials were inspiring and only intensified my craving for an outcome I could call my own.

During the first weeks of 2010, the scorecard for Phanourios stood at 11–0. I’d baked 11 cakes and none of my prayers had been answered.

Sure, the repeated act of baking and giving away a modest cake had brought me a keener sense of purpose. Yes, its traditions shoved me out into the world again, where I was interacting with people who shared my interests, especially food. And it was true that I wasn’t exactly alone anymore, rattling around inside a disconnected life. I’d found—or had been shown—new ways of engaging with others, ways that went beyond the confines I had assumed were inevitable for a stay-at-home mom, a home-alone wife, and a freelance professional whose desk was the dining table and who worked, next to piles of wrinkled laundry, on assignments for clients I never saw.

Suddenly I was stunned by my lack of insight. I’d been waiting for something that hadn’t arrived. Yet the saint had delivered the one thing I’d been missing most of all: connection. He’d done this even when I didn’t know to ask for it by name.

As for the things I did request, from that moment, they started coming, too, fast and furious through the rest of the year. New clients in the city, lucrative projects, recipe contests, and publication—Phanourios and I went on a tear. I began to think of this mysterious martyr, this solider with a sweet tooth, as my patron saint. I continued to haul his cakes around town, making them for charity events and giving them to strangers down on their luck. But the quid pro quo was over, and I stopped keeping score. There was no need to think about it anymore. Baking the cakes was now just something I did, often on Sundays—something that fed my spirit at the end of a rewarding week’s work.

There’s a deliciousness to my days now that wasn’t there before, a gratitude for the many ways I now connect with others and make a more significant contribution to the world around me. I bake the cakes less frequently, that’s true. Writing, recipe development, family life, and a full client load take up most of my time. Tomorrow, though, August 27, is the feast day of Saint Phanourios. Tonight I will bake the twenty-sixth cake in his honor. I’ll sift powdered sugar gently over the top, slice it, and have some in the morning with coffee. When I do, I’ll say a grace for all the ways my life has changed in the past year. As for giving the cake away, with my recipe for phanouropita—and a sense of what’s possible—I give it to you.

Comments

  1. Allison, this piece reflects so well some of the dimensions of who you are: creativity, sensitivity, searching, finding, searching again, your talent for writing and discovery, and the texture of your heart and soul driven by love. Read and re-read the comments for this piece. Am I biased as your father, yes, but I’m not alone in recognizing the gift you are. Thank you.

    1. Gee, I don’t know what to say. But… I know this: I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thanks back. I’m blessed to have parents who so often steer me toward exactly those valuable insights that help change—well, everything. I couldn’t have written this without you both. Thanks for your support. I love you.

  2. Great story, Allison. I feel like I’ve found something I’ve been looking for—the story behind your interest in phanouropita! I’m always amazed at my own inability to know what to ask for when things are bleak, but more often than not can find comfort in the kitchen. I’m thrilled that you’ve found the magic of connection in the food/culinary/writing world.

    1. Thank you, Molly. Yes, it’s perplexing, I think—how we can so often fail to know what ails us. And yes again to comfort in the kitchen.

  3. Allison,

    What a moving and uplifting story. I am a greek Orthodox priest and celebrate up in the Catskills presently. St. Phanourios has always been a very intriquing and beautiful feast for me to celebrate. This year many different ladies from the church are making this special cake to bring to the church this Sunday to be blessed and distributed. Many of the woman have never made it or don’t know too much about it. I find that one makes this cake and brings it to church with whatever intention; it’s the fact that God’s grace always shows forth and others see and experience that same grace. Your story is very inspirational for those who sometimes feel that God the Church and those longtime people we call saints are meaningless or have no purpose. The means of our daily lives even a simple cake can be an instrument that can change ourselves and others around us. That is loving our neighbors and ourselves. If you have time, or like to get your cake blessed, it would be a blessing to have it up this Sunday in Windham at the Church of the Assumption, where I will be blessing the St. Phanouris Cakes. Thank you for giving me great sermon material.

    Rev. Fr. Ignatios Achlioptas

    1. Father Ignatios, I am honored to have your response to my story. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and leave a comment. I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it to Windham this weekend, but I would love to visit your church sometime, and if I do, you can believe I will bring you a phanouropita to bless and share. What you say about people sometimes failing to connect to saints—who were, nevertheless, people who lived on this earth, people whose lives show us what is possible not in the next world but in this one—is so true. Before I baked these cakes, saints were so remote and even intimidating to me. Now, however, I see that they can be like friends, gently reminding us to connect with others and to those parts of ourselves that we often neglect. Thanks again for your comment, and I wish you a most blessed feast day of Saint Phanourios.

      1. Allison, What a great Sunday i had yesterday in Windham. I thought i would have only one St. Phanourious cake and I had more than nine cakes, which were brought to the church to be blessed during the Liturgy. During my sermon with the children, I shared the story about the saint and the cake, and most of all shared your incredibly moving story. (I told you it would be great sermon materials!). The children and adults were moved by the fact that a cake can change and transform lives and others. I reminded the children that their lives are important, and they are important to the world around us and never to let anyone tell them otherwise and that the church and faith is something can transform our inner self and give us purpose. The people up in Windham are excited to meet you, and, of course, to have you come up with your Holy Cake. The church closes after the second weekened of October, so I hope you can make time to share. Thank you for making these lost, sometimes forgotten, saints a reality in our broken and hurt world. May the prayers of St. Phanourious keep you always, and may you continue to shine forth to those around you like a candle bringing love, faith and redemption.

        1. Dear Father Ignatios,
          I’m so glad you had so many cakes to bless this year—how wonderful. I’m amazed that you really did use my story in your sermon, and I could not be happier about how you connected something I wrote with a lesson to children, that they are important to the world and that they should not doubt that faith can transform and give a sense of purpose.

          I have noted the date your church closes (I hope this is just a seasonal thing, and not a permanent closing), and I am going to see what I can do about a visit to Windham. I’ll be in touch about this soon.

          Meanwhile, thank you again so much for your words and sharing of my story.
          Blessings to you ~ Allison

          1. Allison, thanks for your response. Yes, the church in Windham is seasonal, and its last Liturgy is on October 11. It would be a great treat to see you and to welcome you to the beautiful shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It would be great to learn more about you and of course get some copies of your books. With many prayers
            and Blessings.

          2. Dear Father Ignatios,
            I tried to contact you independently of this comment thread, but I’m not sure you received my message. I really was hoping to join you early this month for the last Liturgy of the year in Windham. It just wasn’t possible. But please let me know when the church reopens. I will definitely find time for a visit in the new season!

            Thanks again for all your care and support, these have meant a lot to me. I hope you (and your congregation) have a blessed rest of the year, including Christmastime and the slow march toward Easter.

            Best regards,
            Allison

  4. Thanks for sharing your journey, Alison. Evocative writing, and the cake sounds amazing. I’ll have to fish around for the recipe link.

    1. Thank you, Stephanie, for taking the time to read and to respond. It means a lot to hear from readers. I do hope you will make the cake—and that it will bring you what you seek (even if it’s just a delicious treat with coffee or tea).

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