The first time I remember seeing the word "sex" in print was actually in a cookbook. I can't recall the title, but it had a green plastic spiral binding and a paperback cover with a rosy-cheeked grandmother in a frilled apron on the front. It belonged to my mother by way of her mother, who likely picked it up at one of the antique book fairs or library sales she frequented on the weekends.
I was probably nine or ten when I initially grabbed it off the kitchen bookshelf. My school was holding some kind of character day — and as I had decided to dress as the sufficiently broad character of "grandmother," I thought it made sense to consult this cookbook's cover for grandmotherly fashion inspiration. Thanks to the Food Network, my interest in cooking was also really burgeoning at the time, so I flipped back to the last chapter which contained the desserts.
There were cookies, cupcakes, pies and then there it was — "Better than Sex Cake."
Again, I don't remember much about the cookbook itself, though I do remember that each recipe was introduced with a short blurb; the paragraph that preceded this recipe was obviously suggestive enough that it had me knocking on my parents' bedroom door to ask my mom, "Hey, what is 'sex?'"
"Where did you hear that word?" she demanded. I sheepishly pointed to the cookbook.
She scanned the page I had dog-eared and let out a tired sigh. Sex was something for married grown-ups, she said before sending me off to play. Intrigued, I later surreptitiously spirited the book up to my bedroom to look for some more context clues, but when I flipped back to the dessert section, the page containing the recipe had been carefully torn out. Like most girls my age, I continued to gather clues for the next several years — through playground whispers and vague hotel pamphlets about adult pay-per-view — until my family got a home computer and the internet provided detailed answers.
Intrigued, I later surreptitiously spirited the book up to my bedroom to look for some more context clues, but when I flipped back to the dessert section, the page containing the recipe had been carefully torn out.
By that point, I had long forgotten about "better than sex" cake. I wouldn't think of it again until a few years ago, when I was at a now-shuttered bakery located in Fulton, Kentucky, a 3,000-person town set along U.S. 51. When I saw the cake in the display case, bookended by bowls of banana pudding and Jell-O salad, I immediately remembered the cookbook and my childhood curiosity reemerged.
"Hey, what is that?" I called back to the woman behind the counter. She was in her 60s with a smart gray bob and a forest green apron that smelled like frosting and menthols. "'Better than sex' cake, hon," she replied, tapping the sign with her manicured nail.
"No, no — I mean, what is it? What is in it?" I asked.
The woman behind the counter responded that there was a little bit of everything in this cake. Her version started with a chocolate sheet cake base, which was then soaked in condensed milk and topped with an ungodly amount of Cool Whip. After being refrigerated for a few hours, or overnight, the cake was then garnished with crushed Butterfingers and a drizzle of Hershey's chocolate sauce. When I asked where she first learned the recipe, the woman shrugged and said she thought her sister had clipped it out of a magazine.
To be fair, I've since found out that the exact origin of the "better than sex" cake is actually pretty murky, as are the recipe specifications.
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According to Bonnie McDowell, the author of "Quaint Cooking: For the Love of the Vintage Kitchen," the cake started appearing in newspaper columns in the early 1980s, which means that it was likely first popularized by home cooks in the decade prior.
"What I can tell you is how it spread across the country," McDowell wrote. "The epicenter seems to be a June 1981 meeting in St. Louis of newspaper food writers from across the country. This recipe seemed to be passed around between editors. A Pittsburgh paper who posted the recipe said that she got the recipe from a fellow editor at the St. Petersburg Times (Florida) who in turn says she got it from a mutual at the Charlotte Observer (North Carolina). So it should be no surprise that after the conference, it kept getting passed around by the reader word of mouth. Mary Alice Powell wrote in her 1983 food column that this cake recipe proved the 'neighbors still exchange recipes over the backyard.'"
Seven years later, "The Dallas Morning News" columnist Marlyn Schwartz posed the question: "Can food be better than sex?"
"This is not an X-rated column," she wrote. "But in the interest of good reporting, I must point out that a lot of people these days are carrying the 'safe sex' campaign one step further." Schwartz reported that she had received a cookbook for Christmas that offered four distinct recipes for "better than sex cake."
In her research, McDowell also found four distinct recipes for "better than sex" cake.
The first is a vanilla cake topped with sweet, crushed pineapple that's been stewed with sugar, followed by a thick layer of vanilla pudding. That's then topped with whipped cream and coconut flakes. The next variation also starts with vanilla cake batter, this time blended with chocolate chunks, sour cream and nuts.
The third variation is similar to the chocolate cake I tried in Fulton, topped with whipped topping and crushed candy. McDowell describes the final variation like this:
First flour, butter, and chopped pecans are mixed together and pressed in a pan, and baked. A layer of cream cheese, confectioners sugar, and whipped topping are spread on top of that. Then vanilla pudding and chocolate pudding are mixed together and spread over that. It is then topped with whipped topping and garnished with shaved chocolate.
This cake, McDowell wrote, was also sometimes referred to in cookbooks by the less explicit, but equally suggestive name, "Better than Robert Redford" or simply "Better than Redford" cake, referring, of course, to the "Indecent Proposal" actor who is still regarded as a sex symbol. There's also the G-rated "Holy Cow Cake" name, which was typically applied to chocolate variations of the cake.
The original saucy name, however, definitely seemed to add to the cake's appeal.
"Sinful, positively sinful," read an article in the food section of a 1998 issue of Lawrence Journal-World. "Rita Larson of Tonganoxie submitted a recipe to the Journal-World's Recipes from Readers contest that was simply too intriguing to pass up. We suggest Better Than Sex Cake is one possible way to reward someone who's been very, very good."
As someone who was raised in the church, it's not lost on me the ways in which we culturally insist on branding decadent food and pleasurable sex as "sinful," especially in media typically written by and for women, but it's undeniable that even the illusion of something being illicit can be somewhat alluring.
That's why the "better than sex" cake still endures, though instead of the being exchanged by neighbors "over the backyard," it's now largely through blogs like Spaceships and Laser Beams, Preppy Kitchen and Tastes Better from Scratch — which each published their own recipes for the cake in 2023, 2022 and 2021, respectively.
Some variations on the recipe, including Paula Deen's, phrase the name as a question: "Is it Really Better Than Sex? Cake."
When I jokingly asked that same question of the woman behind the counter at the bakery in Fulton after ordering a slice, she gave a wry chuckle and simply said, "I've definitely had better, but I'll tell you, I've definitely had way worse."
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