Finding God in a $30 box of cake mix

I met a priest at the airport who told me anything can be a prayer. I test that theory in the kitchen.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 24, 2023 3:01PM (EDT)

Gingerbread cloud cake (Ashlie Stevens)
Gingerbread cloud cake (Ashlie Stevens)

Recently, I had a chance meeting at the airport with a 70-something-year-old priest who had been childhood friends with my college poetry professor. During his two-hour layover, we talked about a lot of things: writing; his inability to care for houseplants; my woeful ignorance of jazz; and monk and mystic Thomas Merton's famous epiphany, which, as we confirmed using Google Maps, took place just 6.2 miles from the Chili's inside the B Terminal of the Louisville International Airport

I think through our discussion, the priest could tell I was searching for something, even if he, or even I, couldn't quite put a finger on it. At one point — after he had stooped to grab his carry-on bag, but before he took a moment to straighten his starchy collar — he reached for my hand and gave my palm a quick press. 

He looked into my eyes as if he was about to deliver a sermon, then stopped himself short and simply said, "You know, anything can be a prayer if you make it one." 

For the sake of both full disclosure and brevity, I'm a Sunday School graduate and seminary drop-out who can sum up my current relationship to faith as a bit of an uncomfortable mystery. I believe God is there, though — after a period of nursing a lot of tenderness following a life spent witnessing the often hateful underbelly of organized religion — I do appreciate spiritual breadcrumbs that may lead to a greater understanding of what exactly God being out there means. 

And for someone searching, that statement (you know, the one cryptically delivered by a priest before he hopped a flight to Topeka) felt like it might be one of those breadcrumbs. So, I spent some time gently assessing it against my everyday life. Is washing my hair a prayer? Is making my bed a prayer? Is staring at the raven nesting on my neighbor's rooftop a prayer? 

Rather quickly, I realized that in practice, I was asking potentially the wrong question. If anything can be a prayer, then what are my prayers actually saying? Figuring out the answer to that question turned out to be a little tougher — and I wasn't expecting to find it in a box of cake mix. 

Now, to be fair, this wasn't your typical box of cake mix. It is, as I described it to both my partner and coworkers, a fancy cake mix from a company based here in Chicago called ELIA (which means "olive oil" in Greek). Fittingly, each box of specialized mix, developed by former bakery owner Candice Hunsinger, comes with a pre-portioned bottle of organic extra virgin olive oil sourced from Greece itself. Currently, the company sells three "core flavors": vanilla with a hint of lemon; dark chocolate and espresso; and the "Grecian," which is an almond and citrus cake. I went with the chocolate. 


A post shared by ELIA (

I knew that I was probably going to write about this cake in some capacity and honestly thought that the throughline would be something like, "This box of cake mix retails for $30. Is it worth it?" Then, I semi-jokingly asked myself, "Is making a boxed cake a prayer — and if so, what is that prayer saying?" 

Like a lot of women who were raised in a conservative religious environment, I have some complicated feelings surrounding the intersection of domesticity and self-worth and, honestly, just self-worth in general. Something I've recently recognized about myself is that I chase perfection in inconsequential things as a way to assert a level of control in my life that I didn't necessarily have growing up. 

Is staring at a cake a prayer? Is it less of a prayer if you didn't make the whole thing yourself?

For that reason, totally normal things, like making cake from a box, can sometimes feel lazy or somehow less than if I were to schlep to the store, buy all the ingredients and spend an afternoon making and icing a dessert that (knowing my baking skills or lack thereof) still probably wouldn't turn out as good as the stuff from the box. Because that's the thing, the dark chocolate and espresso cake from ELIA is literally the nicest cake I have ever been able to make in my own kitchen. 

As soon as I took a bite of the batter, I knew that it was going to be; it was fudgy and a little bittersweet, with a beautiful floral, almost honeysuckle-like note from the olive oil. This was confirmed when I eventually turned it out of the cake pan onto a baby blue cake plate, dappled by late afternoon sunbeams. I decorated it with folds of whipped cream and some blueberries I fished out of the crisper drawer. 

Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.

Is staring at a cake a prayer? Is it less of a prayer if you didn't make the whole thing yourself? At that moment, I didn't care. I was just elated to have cake that made Monday feel like a celebration

Funnily enough, it was then that I realized that I was so focused on having something to say to God, that I had forgotten that prayer can be an opportunity to listen, too. While digging for a knife, I swear I heard someone say, "You deserve nice things and you shouldn't make it so hard on yourself to have them." 

I'm still looking for breadcrumbs to lead to answers for the big spiritual questions, but for now I'm content with the knowledge that God likes cake from a box

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

MORE FROM Ashlie D. Stevens

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cake Essay God Religion