In every office there’s a table. Sometimes it’s littered with strays from the photocopier, other times it’s covered in office-branded pens or bowls of stale Twiglets that went out of date in 2007 but still taste scarily good. Sometimes it’s where Joe from IT perches when he’s trying to chat patronizingly to the new accountant about where to plug her keyboard in, his instructions dripping with innuendo. It’s rarely bare, but everyone knows this table serves one main purpose, and Joe needs to get his grosky ass off the surface if he wants his braided ponytail to stay in tact.
It’s the office cake table; and it’s a work necessity.
Think about it: no one meets at the water cooler anymore, do they? No, because any office with any self respect has one of those duel taps that dispenses ice cold water that hurts your teeth and boiling hot water that comes out as a trickle and takes half an hour to fill a mug. Likewise, we are a bunch of unfit, lazy losers with shirts too tight, so instead of walking to the printer and making small talk, we get our colleagues to pass back our slideshow printouts from desk to desk in a depressing Mexican wave until it ends up slap bang on your desk. So where can we have a chat these days? Where can we get to know the people who sit in the same, dull room with us for everyday?
The toilets smell too bad and everyone knows the rules: minimal eye contact and monosyllabic sentences. That’s the beauty of the cake table; it is piquant enough to get people to leave their seats and it satisfies that afternoon urge for a little sweetness. It’s a place free of technology: the cake table is a phone-free zone – the more phone you’re holding, the less cake you’re holding.
Seriously, trying to fit a whole red velvet cupcake in your mouth whilst maintaining strong eye contact with the sales lady who won’t stop talking about how ok she is with her son’s new boyfriend? There’s nothing like it.
Office cake is a great instrument in telling whether or not you can be friends with the people you work with. “No thanks I’m on a diet”? Cut them out immediately. “I’ll just have a small slice – I’ve got an apple in my drawer”? Them too. “Are any of these muffins vegan?” Don’t. Even.
“How many slices do you think I can eat in five minutes?” Now that’s more like it. That’s a friend for life.
I did this once at work. A socially awkward teenage boy in a 25-year-old woman’s body, my desperate cry for love and validation will often manifest itself in something that aims to fascinate and disgust people in equal measures, so even if they dislike me at least they’ll remember my name, and stop calling me ‘Pacale’ or ‘Francesca’ or ‘the one that always has her eyes shut in meetings’. This stunt was a particularly Matilda-esque in its execution: a competition with myself to see how many slices of cake I could eat. It was, of course, a charity bake sale so there were around 14 different types of cake, and I ate a slice from every single one in under 7 minutes. At the halfway point, my colleagues had stopped taking phone calls to come and watch me conquer my Everest.
It felt great. So bad, so sick, so disgusted with myself, but great! With every emerging
grimace on the audience in front of me – which included 3 staff members over 50 – I could feel myself gaining respect. Every moment of eye contact in that silent office, every awkward sigh was a moment I was winning. At the end, as I swallowed the last bit of masticated sponge down my dry gullet, there was an uncomfortable, uneven applause. It was like Chariots Of Fire.
Ch-ch-ch-ka-kaka, I had done it. When no one walked away, I had to ask them to leave. The sugar crash on 2015 hit me 20 minutes later, and I spent the rest of the afternoon shaking, caught between being annoyed and worried everyone was annoyed at me as beady of inky, mascara-laced sweat dripped down my face. BUT. My stunt had raised an extra FIFTEEN pounds for charity and people got my name right a helluva lot more than before, so really there’s no losers in this story.
Anyway, I digress.
You may not know this yet, but having the cake table is the only way the office’s surrogate mum can express her motherly instincts. Both her sons have moved to Dubai and only call once a month. Her husband’s cholesterol is sky high, so cakes are off limits at home. So, every time you say “Great carrot cake Marge”, or “You’ve excelled yourself with these cookies, June!” or, “Oh my CHRIST Julie, these cranberry scones are the TITS”, it makes her feel like she has found her place in the world.
And yeah, sure, there are times when office cake is not so great. In fact, it can be downright shitty. Like when everyone goes to the effort of baking a cake and piping icing on it when the sponge is too hot and having to start all over again only to discover that your manager has gone to Marks and FUCKING Sparks and got a shop-bought Victoria Sponge for the SECOND YEAR IN A ROW NEAL YOU BASTARDING SPOIL SPORT. Or when you can’t eat cake because you’re gluten intolerant and the sponge makes you bloat so bad that your think if you let out one tiny squeak of a fart you’ll end up whizzing round the room like a deflating birthday balloon.
Yet Joe from IT (it’s always him, the dick), insists on coming over and asking why you’re not eating any of his birthday cake. “I’m gluten intolerant,” you say through gritted teeth. Then, like last week when he wanted to try your gluten free wraps, and the week before that when he asked to sample your gluten free coconut macaroons, he asks you for one of your special cookies sitting in a sandwich bag on your desk.
“Oh God, these are disgusting!” he laughs, spitting G-free cookie dust in your eyes. “I think I’ll stick to the birthday cake.” Everyone hates you, Joe.
But despite its imperfections, office cake is perfect. It lets everyone know it’s your birthday without them having to come over to your desk and ask why you’re crying. And there’s nothing like the teamwork that’s involved in cutting a cake made for six people into slivers thin enough to feed an office of 20. You don’t even see that kind of unity in your monthly team building exercises. There’s nothing that brings people together than free food, which is why office cake is so sacred. So grab a slice and lean in.