Boom Town (and the strawberry celebration cake it inspired me to make)

The book: Boom Town by Sam Anderson.

After nearly four weeks, I finally finished reading Boom Town by Sam Anderson. The book is a non-fiction account of the history and culture of Oklahoma City. From the city’s wild founding in 1889, to the dynamic of its professional basketball team (the Oklahoma City Thunder), to the professional and personal lives of famous Oklahomans, Boom Town truly covers it all.

400 pages of historical non-fiction about a medium-big city in an overlooked region of the United States might sound questionable; I was certainly skeptical at first of how interesting this book could actually be. But Boom Town quickly exceeded my expectations of it. I kept asking myself: “is the story of Oklahoma City really this interesting? Or is Sam Anderson just an amazing writer and story-teller?” The answer, I think, is both.

From the beginning of the book, Sam Anderson’s writing is captivating, punchy, and often humorous. Historical non-fiction can be dense, but Anderson finds ways to lighten it, like when he adds this detail about the first night that settlers moved into Oklahoma City: “centipedes swarmed all over the place, wondering what the f*** was going on.”

Anderson also keeps the story engaging by jumping from one sub-story to another. For example: the first chapter is a (surprisingly interesting) overview of Oklahoma City, the second chapter focuses on a (former) player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and then the third chapter switches back to general information about the city. I appreciated this technique, because it helped break up the dense history of Oklahoma City into more digestible pieces. A few chapters focused on aspects of Oklahoma City that seemed irrelevant to the story at the time they were introduced, but Sam Anderson brilliantly connects all the different aspects of Oklahoma City in the last quarter of the book. Everything is interconnected, even if it isn’t immediately clear how.

My only critiques of Boom Town are the following: 1) Sam Anderson doesn’t use footnotes or endnotes to cite his references, and 2) he writes about his personal impressions of famous Oklahomans as though they are objective characterizations. Specifically, I disliked how Anderson was obsessed with finding flaws and secret “not-niceness” in NBA-player Kevin Durant, yet didn’t address any of the nuances in the character of weatherman Gary England (in my opinion, England seems grouchy and disgruntled).

Overall, Boom Town is a great book. It isn’t a quick read, but I wholeheartedly recommend taking the time to read it. The saga of Oklahoma City will leave you sighing in exasperation, laughing out loud, scratching your head, and – when you read the chapter “9:02” – weeping.

The bake: strawberry celebration cake.

For Boom Town, I baked a strawberry sprinkle cake, which is fitting for the book in a couple of ways. First, strawberry is the official fruit of Oklahoma. Second, and more importantly, a sprinkle cake captures the celebratory boom-or-bust spirit of Oklahoma City that was portrayed throughout Boom Town. (Also, there are good things going on in my personal life right now, so the cake was a nice way to celebrate that.)

To make the strawberry cake, I used this recipe from Beth Cakes, but I baked it in two 9″ round pans instead of the 9×13″ rectangle pan as stated in the recipe. I also added approximately 3 tablespoons of sprinkles into the cake batter. I frosted the cake using my own improvised strawberry cream cheese frosting recipe, sandwiched the two cakes with frosting and fresh strawberries, and decorated the cake with more sprinkles.

The frosted cake. I accidentally started assembling and frosting the cake while it was still on the cooling rack!

My only criticism of the cake is that it didn’t actually taste strongly of strawberries! One possible explanation is that the strawberries I used were underripe, and therefore didn’t add much strawberry flavor to the cake. That being said, the cake still tasted really good! It was buttery and rich, and the fresh strawberries and strawberry cream cheese frosting definitely carried lots of strawberry flavor. Overall, this was a very fun cake to make (and eat and share), especially after not baking for nearly a month!

A generous slice that shows: the sprinkle cake, the strawberry cream cheese filling with fresh strawberries, and frosting and sprinkles on top.

(donuts inspired by the cover of) Thick

The book: Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom.

This week I finished Thick: And Other Essays by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom. Thick is a collection of essays that explore what it is to be a black woman in America. Each essay looks at how race intersects with aspects of society including socioeconomic status, profession, and ethnicity.

My first impression of Thick was that the writing style was academic and formal; this wasn’t entirely surprising since Dr. McMillan Cottom is an academic (she is a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University). Although the writing is formal at times, Dr. McMillan Cottom also writes poetically and accessibly throughout Thick. She perfectly sprinkles personal anecdotes throughout her essays, allowing the reader to connect abstract ideas to real peoples’ lived experiences.

I also found Thick to be enlightening and profound. Some people told me that Thick didn’t teach them anything they didn’t already know, but that was not my experience. This could be a reflection of my lack of expertise in the field of sociology, or perhaps my ignorance as a white woman in America (or, more likely, a combination of both). But even when Thick tackled concepts that I already understood at some level, I felt like I was learning something new: Dr. McMillan Cottom really dissects and examines the nuances of race in America, allowing me (and probably other readers) to process information and expand upon my perspectives that were previously shallow or one-dimensional.

So much of Thick was eye-opening and memorable, but one of the concepts that stuck with me most was that capitalism and racism serve each other in a positive feedback loop. This is tackled in the chapter “In the Name of Beauty,” where McMillan Cottom explains how “beauty isn’t actually what you look like; beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order” (the same is true of most “lifestyle” preferences that are promoted by capitalism).

The other idea that stuck strongly with me was one that I already knew (in a shallow way) prior to reading Thick: that white men are more likely to be seen as competent in America, regardless of their level of expertise or their actual competence. Not only are white men viewed as competent, but social order forces women and people of color (especially women of color) into situations where they are likely to fail, resulting in people of power treating them as incompetent. This is explored in much more depth in the chapter “Dying to be Competent.” A major takeaway from this chapter was the importance of listening to people other than white men, especially women and non-binary people of color: because their social status often forces them into positions of less power, it is especially important that we do listen and take them seriously.

Overall, I highly recommend Thick. Dr. McMillan Cottom uses the perfect blend of academic and prosaic writing to illustrate issues of race in America. You can read an excerpt from the chapter “Dying to be Competent” here.

The bake: spice cake donuts with chocolate glaze.

I had a tough time choosing a bake inspired by Thick, mostly because the essays describing systemic racism in America (which I benefit from) did not exactly fuel my appetite for sweets. Eventually, I decided that I would make a shareable treat inspired by the cover of Thick. I ended up settling on donuts glazed with chocolate, and then drizzled with white and pink icing (to resemble the white and pink writing on the dark cover of the book).

The finished donut, next to the book cover that inspired it.

I baked these cake donuts from King Arthur Flour, then iced them in this chocolate glaze (also from KAF). I modified the donut recipe by adding a bit of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves. Once the donuts were glazed and cool, I melted some white chocolate chips and drizzled that mixture over the donuts to get the finished, decorated donut. The pink drizzle is just the melted white chocolate with a drop of pink gel food coloring.

My verdict on the donuts is that they are tasty, but definitely not as “aesthetically pleasing” as I had wanted. I am okay with this, because as Dr. McMillan Cottom points out in “In the Name of Beauty,” beauty is a construct. What matters most to me is that the donuts taste good (which they do), so that my friends and co-workers can enjoy them.