Crocodile Toes and Red Velvet Cake

In anticipation of my upcoming trip to Africa, where I’ll be working at the Lilongwe Wildlife Center in Malawi, I made an appointment to get my long list of vaccines while in New York. This is not a normal tourist-related activity, however living in a small town in Mexico stateside visits basically boil down to a list of errands. I went to a prominent university hospital and endured just the beginning (three visits in total) of the poking and prodding. The nurse asked why I needed a rabies shot, so I told her that there would be a lot of primates at the center and that an animal bite was a realistic possibility. She pulled away from me with a worried expression on her face. “Didn’t they warn you about monkey herpes?” she asked. No, I assured her that I had never heard of such a thing and it wasn’t mentioned in the 95-page volunteer manual. There was a large section on vermin and how to start your own fire for making meals, but definitely nothing on monkey herpes. I would have remembered that.

“Well, you need to be very careful,” she told me. “If you’re bitten by a herpes-infected monkey you’ll most likely die.” I pulled my aching rabid arm off the small metal table and said, “No way!” She defended her statement by showing me the university research from her computer. So while the waiting room continued to fill with impatient patients, looking at their watches and tapping their feet, the nurse and I went over the case studies. She spouted reliable statistics such as, “80% fatality rate after your central nervous system shuts down.” I answered with the equally intelligent statements like, “No way!”

I thought the worst of my problems would be crocodile toes. This is the technically correct medical term I made up for when a crocodile bites off half of your foot. My volunteer manual warns against going within 25 feet of the nearby river, since that’s where the abundant local reptiles like to sun themselves. I’m not a very good judge of distance, especially after living in a world of meters, not feet, for so long. With this in mind, I know I’m a pretty good candidate for crocodile toes.



Crocodile looking for toes


I never signed up for monkey herpes though. I would be the Virgin Mary of the African bush, contacting herpes without the benefit of even meeting a cute Doctor Without A Border. When people in San Miguel would ask what happened to that woman who ran El Buen Café, some busybody in the Jardin would whisper behind a cupped hand, “Oh, she died of herpes. Well, actually monkey herpes.” The inquirer would gasp in disbelief, thinking, “I didn’t know she was that kind of woman.“ It would not be a proud, nor noble death.

Luckily before we turned away from the computer, I asked if she was sure this was for all primates, because I couldn’t believe the coveted manual didn’t mention anything. They had, after all, dedicated five pages to snake bites, letting us know it was more likely to die from shock than actual venom before finding medical assistance. We looked closely and found out that only the macaque monkey carries the deadly herpes virus, even though they themselves have no symptoms. Hopefully the university’s research will not have been in vain when a cute and cuddly baby macaque tempts me with a smile and open arms. “I know all about you,” I’ll hiss in response.



Monkey with Baby


By the time I reached the subway my arm was heavy with pain. I tried lifting it, but the limp limb wouldn’t move. I looked like a stoke victim dragging myself down the platform as the heaviness moved into the attached shoulder blade. When I stepped forward my left side dipped to the ground; I suddenly resembled Lurch from the Addams Family. The nurse had warned me that my arm might be a little sore, but obviously she had never had a rabies shot herself, since the description “a little sore” was far from accurate.

I mentally canceled my afternoon dance classes, knowing the only thing that I was capable of doing at the moment was lifting a fork to my mouth. In my paralytic state all I could think about was eating cake. It only required one hand after all, and so far my mouth was still moving, which was a very good sign.

If I was going to die of monkey herpes by the end of the summer, I had no time to waste. This could potentially be my last chance to have excellent, beyond belief cake, so I quickly (mentally, not physically) changed directions and headed to Brooklyn.

I cannot take credit for discovering Raven the Cake Man. He was brought to my attention by Bon Appetit magazine a few years ago when they claimed he made the best cake in America. This serious boast immediately grabbed my attention and I felt that I had to investigate for myself when the opportunity arose.

On my next trip to Manhattan I headed off the island in search of “The Man”. After getting lost and walking blocks in the wrong direction, I found the simple storefront, where I quickly ordered a slice of red velvet cake with just enough, but not too much, cream cheese frosting–his signature dessert. Even though they offer other flavors, like German Chocolate and Mocha Pecan, I chose to experience what Oprah, Bill Cosby and Robert DeNiro all call a slice of heaven.


red velvet cake

Raven’s Red Velvet Cake


It was indeed one of the best cakes I had ever eaten, flavorful, smooth and moist, despite the scarlet red color, which was achieved with large amounts of food coloring. Normally I would hesitate before putting bright, artificially colored food into my mouth, however I couldn’t help myself as I shoveled bite after bite into my awaiting palette.

Raven, even though born in Harlem, learned to cook from his southern grandmother while growing up in South Carolina. He made his first cake at the age of 9, which launched a career that lead him to Johnson and Wales Culinary University, before leading him back to New York and cake-making fame. His red velvet cake has been delivered upon request to Japan and England, as well as served for dessert at the Grammy Awards.

Today, on my second visit to the little bakery on Fulton, I didn’t even flinch at the enormous slice of cake placed in front of me. The good thing about confronting your own morality is that suddenly it’s ok to savor every minute and every bite.

When I dragged myself back to the subway the pain had spread down my left side, but I didn’t care, since I was already reaping the benefits of pre-undiagnosed monkey herpes with a stomach (and purse) full of red velvet cake.

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