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Protect Our Pastry Heritage

With the most sacred day on the American culinary calendar — Thanksgiving — only a week away, I have some disturbing news: Our critical national resources in baked goods are being gobbled up by foreigners.

No, we are not going to run out of pumpkin or apple pies to put on our holiday tables. I am speaking, and not for the first time, of Sara Lee chocolate swirl pound cake.

Already, this great American cake is so severely endangered that I went decades without spotting one before finally tracking some down in a warehouse in Lower Manhattan. At the time, I speculated that perhaps global warming had forced the frozen cakes to cooler climates in Canada. But it turns out the real threat is coming from our neighbor to the south, not the north. The Mexican company Grupo Bimbo SAB recently announced that it will buy Sara Lee’s North American bakery business. Sara Lee, the iconic American bakery, plans to turn its attention to its coffee and meat businesses.

It’s possible that Grupo Bimbo will maintain Sara Lee’s lineup, and possibly even engineer a return of the chocolate swirl pound cake to grocery store freezers, but I don’t trust them. Next to that chocolate swirl pound cake, my favorite childhood store-bought cake was Entenmann's blackout cake. But over the years, the blackout cake has disappeared. First it was converted into a “seasonal” item, and then it was gone altogether. The beginning of the end for the blackout cake coincided with the acquisition of Entenmann’s by Bimbo Bakeries USA in 2002.

In recent years, Entenmann's Rich Frosted Donuts have also become, at least to my experienced palate, markedly inferior to their old formulation. I am not the only customer who noticed. I'm not sure if that’s Bimbo's doing or if the donuts are just another casualty of the widespread crackdown on trans-fats. Either way, I am not a happy camper.

Fortunately for me, one of my daughters found a terrific recipe for classic Brooklyn blackout cake online, and she happens to be a very talented baker. Unfortunately, the blackout cake is a pain in the neck to make and my daughter is extremely busy. Every now and then I do something good enough to merit a blackout cake reward, but, when my daughter is away, I have no reliable source for high-quality blackout cake.

As our national pastry producers increasingly fall into foreign hands, I can only wonder which products will disappear next. Although the chocolate swirl pound cake is infinitely superior, Sara Lee’s traditional “all butter” pound cake also has a special place in my heart. When they were younger, my daughters used to frost and decorate the cakes as art projects. This gave me a few moments of peace to wonder if it was really possible to make a cake out of nothing but butter. I doubt Grupo Bimbo will do away with this staple, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes the way of Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donuts: still available but no longer the same.

So what can we do before Grupo Bimbo and other foreign-owned companies completely subvert the American confectionary process? Maybe Congress can squeeze this into the agenda for its lame-duck session. After all, these are the folks who raised Cain a few years ago over the operation of U.S. ports by a state-owned United Arab Emirates company. Americans could not be safe, they argued, unless our ports were under the control of an American enterprise. American International Group Inc., that paragon of management excellence, stepped up to fill the role.

Around the same time, lawmakers also blocked Chinese oil giant CNOOC Ltd. from buying the U.S. oil company Unocal Corp. Congress created enough of a fuss over national economic security that CNOOC dropped its $18.4 billion bid. The Chinese company said in a statement, “The unprecedented political opposition...was regrettable and unjustified.” Unocal went to the U.S.-based Chevron Corp. instead.

While ports and oil companies may be important, we've got plenty of each. On the other hand, Sara Lee is the sole source of domestically produced chocolate swirl pound cake. If we lose Sara Lee, Americans will no longer have any say in the ratio of chocolate to cake or in the precise makeup of that chocolate. Grupo Bimbo, lacking a full understanding of American heritage, may even decide to stop producing the chocolate swirl pound cake altogether.

Entenmann's blackout cake is already a lost cause. Do we have to lose Sara Lee, too?

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