Sometimes it is hard to know what one is supposed to do or say about a tragic event. Yesterday a manager of a Marriott hotel here in San Diego put out coffee and mini-muffins for half an hour in the morning, “in memory of those we lost on 9/11.” Somebody offended by this posted a picture to Twitter and many people on the radio and internet complained about or ridiculed the gesture.
There is of course something laughably inadequate about this gesture, in some sense. Mini-muffins? For thirty minutes? But that’s inevitably true of almost any concrete gesture for a tragedy of this scope. There’s really very little that a regular person could possibly do to commemorate 9/11 this year that wouldn’t be crass or trite or kitschy, if actually compared to the enormity of what happened. And yet I think there is something nice and well-meaning and deeply human in wanting to do something, even if just provide muffins and coffee, and just for half an hour.
I realize that this is a sensitive topic, but I am inclined to think that we should be charitable to those who are doing their best to do something nice. That is why we send thank you notes even for ugly wedding gifts. I am also inclined to view this gesture in light of the longstanding American tradition of offering to cook or bring food for those who are bereaved. (I’m also inclined to be less charitable to those who used 9/11 in commercial advertising, such as yesterday’s “$9.11″ golf special.)
Finally, proving that life does often imitate the Onion, my friend Alex Potapov reminded me of this column from the September, 2001 Onion: Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake.
Feeling helpless in the wake of the horrible Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands, Christine Pearson baked a cake and decorated it like an American flag Monday.
“I had to do something to force myself away from the TV,” said Pearson, 33, carefully laying rows of strawberry slices on the white-fudge-frosting-covered cake. “All of those people. Those poor people. I don’t know what else to do.”
Pearson, who had never before expressed feelings of patriotism in cake form, attributed the baking project to a loss of direction. Having already donated blood, mailed a check to the Red Cross, and sent a letter of thanks to the New York Fire Department, Pearson was aimlessly wandering from room to room in her apartment when the idea of creating the confectionery stars and stripes came to her.
“My friends Cassie and Patrick [Overstreet] invited me over to have dinner and just talk about, you know, everything,” said Pearson, a Topeka legal secretary who has never visited and knows no one in either New York or Washington, D.C. “I thought I’d make something special or do something out of respect for all of the people who died. All those innocent people. All those rescue workers who lost their lives.”
Mixing the cake and placing it in the oven shortly after 3 p.m., Pearson sat at the kitchen table and stared at the oven door until the timer rang 50 minutes later.
As the cake cooled, Pearson gathered materials to decorate it. She searched the spice cupboard for a half-used tube of blue food coloring, but could not find it. After frantically pulling all the cans and jars from the cupboard, she finally found the tube in the very back. Emitting a deep sigh of relief, she spread the coloring over the cake’s upper-left-hand corner to create the flag’s blue field.
“I baked a cake,” said Pearson, shrugging her shoulders and forcing a smile as she unveiled the dessert in the Overstreet household later that evening. “I made it into a flag.”
Pearson and the Overstreets stared at the cake in silence for nearly a minute, until Cassie hugged Pearson.
“It’s beautiful,” Cassie said. “The cake is beautiful.”
As Alex put it to me, “Anyway, if I saw that at a hotel I’d be touched, silly as it is.”