By Elizabeth M. LorgeJune 13, 2008
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 13, 2008) - Deep within the Pentagon Thursday, Army chefs kept adding food coloring to white buttercream icing and mixing, trying to create the perfect shade of gold.
It had to be just right because the icing would be the final touch on one of the Army's most time-honored traditions: its birthday cake.
Six Soldiers worked on and off for three days to complete the six-foot-long by three-foot-wide by 10-inch-high cake, which weighed in at more than 250 pounds with about 500 servings, and they didn't even bake it.
The Army Executive Dining Facility stopped actually baking the cake about two years ago because they were wasting too many materials, according to Sgt. 1st Class Solomon Gilbert, floor supervisor. By using 40 pre-made, frozen sheet cakes, the Soldiers spend less time trimming the individual cakes and can focus on assembling them into three layers and decorating the cake.
"Doing the cake, being a part of it, kind of brings it home for me because I've done them in field dining facilities, but now it's my first time doing it for the senior staff and everyone here at the Pentagon. So it's kind of special for me. It's the cake," said Gilbert.
With the nation at war, this year's cake is less elaborate than previous Army birthday cakes, which have even included Humvees, and the design is based on the Army birthday coin. Gilbert and noncommissioned-officer-in-charge Sgt. 1st Class Michael G. Cate said planning began about four months ago and the design required approval of senior leaders.
The chefs had the design blown up to scale and traced it onto the cake with a toothpick, a painstaking process that Gilbert said required a few fixes with some extra white icing - Soldiers used about 210 pounds total - before filling it in with colored icing and star-shaped pastry tips.
Using the pastry tips and bags weren't easy either, requiring strong hands and steady arms, according to Spc. Mark Susa, who said it was probably the hardest thing. It's especially hard when the icing is cold, said Spc. Wayne Darden, adding that you have to know to wait and how to work the icing.
"That PT comes in handy," Gilbert said.
None of the Soldiers are worried about moving the 250-pound cake today for the cake-cutting ceremony, however. Four Soldiers will walk it on a wheeled table from the Remote Delivery Facility, where it was prepared, to the Center Courtyard. Gilbert expects the walk to take about 15 minutes.
"We have a strong crew," said Susa. "We have really good guys who work with us so I'm sure it wouldn't be a problem as long as we get it together and work together real hard. It shouldn't be a problem at all. You just have to have patience."
The big concern is how much time the cake might have to spend in the sun before the senior leaders and the youngest and oldest Soldiers at the Pentagon cut it with a saber. More than a few minutes and the buttercream might start to melt.
So the team will have extra icing in each of the colors - red, white, blue, gold and black - on hand to fix any last-minute problems.
Whether or not Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and Secretary of the Army Pete Geren will like the cake is also "always in the back of our minds and that's a stress that all the Soldiers have here every day with the meals," said Gilbert. "Each plate, each dish, each garnish is looked at with a critical eye. It's always a constant pressure of making sure it's right...It's a team effort and that's what I love about it and about being an NCO and the group of the Soldiers that we have up here, the best of the best. They kind of read between the lines and they know it has to be the best, that a 100 percent needs to be a 100 and 20 percent because there's no room for error."
But nothing is better than watching someone see and enjoy one of his creations, added Spc. William Stewart.
"It's such a large cake and it means so much to the people who are actually seeing it for the first time and the 'Wows' and the expressions on people's faces when we roll the cake out and they see this large humongous cake and they wonder how we did it. It's pretty exciting just to get that feeling.