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Mr. President, You Only Get One Piece

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POKE far enough into anything American, and you'll hit political roots. Expend apolitical sentiment or favor in one direction, and the tenacious winds of politics will gather quickly to blow it in another.

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As an example, consider the following forgotten footnote in confectionary history, which became a political display of raw power, which proved that even a presidential cake couldn't escape the knife of politics.

Imagine the excitement of Ernest J. Montilio, a renowned Boston baker chosen by newly elected President John F. Kennedy's inaugural committee in 1961 to bake the premier cake for the gala inaugural party. Thrilled by the invitation, Montilio envisioned a splendid confectionary triumph, a huge, 550-pound, multitiered symphony of sculptured frosting covering a light and fluffy cake.

Montilio, of course, was an apolitical choice simply because at the time he was near the top of the list of Boston's best bakers. Kennedy was from Boston, so why not honor a hometown baker, political registration unknown. Skill was the issue here, not political spoils.

But when the local office of the American Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union got wind that Montilio was the baker of the hour, the frosting hit the spatula.

Montilio was nonunion. The spokesman for the union said, probably without realizing the full implications, "We take a dim view of any cake not baked in a union shop." Another union bigwig in Boston said he was "embarrassed" by the situation, meaning the controversy probably would not be a piece of cake to resolve.

Montilio, sure of himself and his skills, bravely countered with, "all my help are experts, and the reason they are nonunion is because I pay them better than union rates."

The union didn't hesitate to do what unions do best. The spokesman said efforts were to be made to organize Montilio's shop "just as fast as we can."

The inaugural ball supper committee in Washington was silent on the controversy. Wags suggested that anyone but the president would have his cake and be able to eat it too. Others said that anybody who had anything to do with the controversy should be caked with embarrassment.

Did it really matter whether it was a union-baked cake or a nonunion-baked cake as long as it was a good cake? Where was fair play and patriotism? Where was skill?

When questioned about the controversy, a man on the street said the issue was "half-baked." Another said, "No matter how you slice it, it's a mouthful."

Several days later, Montilio got a telegram from the caterers union in Washington. The union said that if a nonunion cake was on the inaugural menu, that was it for them; they would refuse to serve any food at the dinner.

Here was thick union solidarity. Skill was not the issue. It was politics.

In the face of this display of political power, Montilio halted his baking preparations. No soap, he said. I quit.

"The unions did it," he told the press. "I had to bow out rather than embarrass the President-elect. And, of course, I would never do that."

So, Montilio's cake plans crumbled. His stature rose nonetheless, and his skill did not diminish. After all, a baker's duty to his president is to know when to shut off the oven because the kitchen is getting too hot, politically speaking.

Montilio fared a little better in subsequent years baking cakes for such apolitical figures as the Pope, and Queen Elizabeth II. In l981, he tried again for President Reagan and got his cake as far as the door, so to speak. That year his 3,000-pound inaugural cake, in six sections, was too big to fit through the door at Kennedy Center. Cakes don't bend or tilt too well. All 3,000 pounds ended up at the Army and Navy Club.

Montilio shrugged and went on with life.

Meanwhile, back in 1961, at a cost of $10,000, the American Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union baked and assembled an inaugural cake that was 7-feet square at the base. It was a three-tiered cake with a three-foot-long replica of the White House on the top layer. In front of the White House was a small fountain spouting real water. Only the president, vice president, and their wives were allowed a piece from the big cake. But everyone else at the inaugural was served pre-cut pieces of cake, also bake d by the union.

For those interested in statistics, the big cake that night was whipped together with 500 pounds of butter, 600 pounds of flour, 500 pounds of sugar and 335 dozen eggs. And the total weight of all baked cakes that night was 5,617 pounds.

Thirty-two years later, instead of a cake, President-elect Bill Clinton will have a 1,000-pound Big Mac at his inaugural ball (just kidding).

Although avoiding any food issues, what Clinton could not avoid, as plans for his five-day "American Reunion" went forward, was the taint of politics. Two weeks before the inauguration it was discovered that two of the employees working for the inaugural committee were actually Republicans. One had even helped plan the Republican National Convention.

One was quickly fired, and then rehired when cooler Democrats prevailed. The other man threatened to sue, another impulse all too familiar these days in the United States.

In the end, the genuis of American politics is that it won't go away. Like dogs at a postman's heels, the barking comes and goes, but the dogs are always there. An inauguration is, after all, a political victory celebration. Half-baked or dog-eared, here's hoping this inauguration comes off as easy as pie.