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A chocolate cake from Hagrid's coat pocket

From an inside pocket of his black overcoat he pulled a slightly squashed box. Harry opened it with trembling fingers. Inside was a large, sticky chocolate cake with Happy Birthday Harry written on it in green icing.

– J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, chapter 4

This scene, occuring immediately after Hagrid's arrival and the Dursleys' comeuppance (which included phrases such as "yeh great lump" and "yeh great prune", hmm), marks the first nice thing that anyone has ever done for Harry's birthday since his parents died. Stunned and confused though he is, Harry is still able to see this gesture for what it is: someone made an effort especially for him, to make him happy, because they care. The feeling is so unfamiliar that it confuses him, and he isn't even able to formulate a "thank you". Well, that, and a giant just broke down the door.

I started reading the Harry Potter books when I was 13, immediately after the first film was released. Re-reading them periodically was a ritual; my closest friends were fans, and we'd have long discussions about the plots and characters. We had no qualms calling ourselves Potterheads. In my first year of college, some of us started a blog named Felix Felicis to share all things Potterverse. In my final year of college, I co-wrote a paper comparing the books to Milton's Paradise Lost. I devoured S P Sipal's A Writers' Guide to Harry Potter blogIn London and Oxford, I went on Harry Potter walking tours and won stickers for knowing more answers than little kids. I defended the series, but also enjoyed spoofs (Potter Puppet Pals and A Very Potter Musical, anyone?). Like any other book, they weren't perfect, but the benefits far outweighed the shortcomings.

Over the years, this relationship endured, but evolved. The first thing I did upon my return to Delhi in 2012 after 14 months in London was to re-read all seven books, but this time I made copious notes and observations (on separate pages; I hate marking up books), engaging more critically to both appreciate the text and be less forgiving of its flaws. In 2013, I discovered the world of fan fiction (!), and it was almost liberating to find and write in this world where the author's word isn't final and can take many different shapes. A couple of years ago, I started reading these books in German. And last year, I discovered an utterly wonderful podcast that treats the books as, wait for it, sacred reading. I'm reading along with the episodes, and differently.

More recently, of course, the struggle for me has been about re-framing the books in the context of their author's transphobia and conduct in general. It feels wrong to enjoy books written by someone capable of such hate and ignorance, but it's difficult to find a similar world of comfort and wonder in other fantasy writing. I found this article by my friend and writer Bedatri D Choudhury, titled "What do we do with Woody Allen's films?" helpful, where she writes that the answer doesn't lie in censorship, but that the "works have to co-exist with their takedown." 

This seems similar to the approach that the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text team have taken, where they continue to engage with the books that touched so many lives, but condemn the views of the author. A line I enjoyed from the ongoing second cycle of the podcast was Matthew Potts saying that "the text [was] reading back against J. K. Rowling", as they discussed how the very first chapter of the first book introduces and challenges gendered norms and essentialism, contradicting much of Rowling's recent "beliefs". Reading fan-fic stories from different points of view and potential, reading the text in a different language, reading each chapter through a theme and listening to a podcast, reading through the lens of food  these have all been different ways to re-engage with conscious awareness, rather than "losing myself" in the story.

I didn't realise until listening to the episode for this chapter on the Sacred Text podcast, but food symbolises the difference between Harry's two worlds. The Dursleys make him cook; our first introduction to Harry is of living in a cramped space, pulling spiders off his socks, and frying eggs and bacon for the family. He does seem to get to eat as much as Dudley, even when they're running from all the letters (stale cornflakes and cold tinned tomatoes on toast for breakfast; a bag of chips and a banana for dinner.) But the Dursleys probably aren't going to go out of their way or spend additional money on him.

The Dursleys bought Dudley and Piers large chocolate ice creams at the entrance and then, because the smiling lady in the van had asked Harry what he wanted before they could hurry him away, they bought him a cheap lemon ice pop. [...] They ate at the zoo restaurant, and when Dudley had a tantrum because his knickerbocker glory didn't have enough ice cream on top, Uncle Vernon bought him another one and Harry was allowed to finish the first.

This is, of course, just one in a long list of ways in which the Dursleys discriminate between their son and his cousin. Harry doesn't even get the treatment that Piers, who isn't family, does. Strangers are kinder. But he's grateful for these tidbits because they're just...different. The deprivation of food remains a theme; his punishment after the zoo involves grounding and "no meals". Even Mrs. Figg gives him only stale chocolate cake to eat.

We learn a lot about Harry in these first chapters. He has a sense of humour and self-preservation. He comes across as resilient, because rather than giving in to his misery, he finds ways to survive (he waits till the Dursleys go to bed, because "until they were, he couldn't risk sneaking to the kitchen for some food.") Unlike those who are bullied often replicating those behaviours in later life, Harry is generous even the first time he has something to share, as we see later on the Hogwarts Express with Ron. Even when Harry learns the truth about his past, he recovers quickly, embracing a new world that he doesn't understand but is open to and awed by, which is certainly more than we can say about the author of these books.

The opening pages of chapter 4 in Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen

The Wizarding world, on the other hand, nourishes Harry from the minute he steps into it, beginning with Hagrid and the cake  and tea, and sausages. Every new place and relationship Harry enters involves food: large ice creams in Diagon Alley; the snack trolley on the Hogwarts Express; the decadent start-of-term banquet at Hogwarts; Hagrid's rock cakes; and the delicacies Mrs. Weasley sends him for Christmas. 

Anyway  Harry," said the giant, turning his back on the Dursleys, "a very happy birthday to yeh. Got summat for yeh here  I mighta sat on it at some point, but it'll taste alright. 

Hagrid's generosity is not limited to the birthday cake or sausages. He times his arrival at exactly midnight on Harry's eleventh birthday, he defends Harry/terrorises the Durleys (including 11-year-old Dudley, who deserves better despite everything), he unlocks information, warmth, kindness, magic, and the longed-for letter. His overcoat reminded me of Hermione's beaded bag in later books, concealing and producing everything from kettles to owls. As Casper ter Kuile says in Sacred Text,
To bring a birthday cake in a pocket over such distance, and to make it a personal trip, to think of that, to get it decorated... there's such generosity and love in that, and it's so simple but it means so much to Harry.
The interpretation of Harry's birthday cake in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

According to the film version of the first book, Hagrid baked this cake – I suppose that's implied in the book though not explicitly stated. We don't actually know what the cake tastes like, so it's difficult to guess. (Also, and this is just occurring to me, has there ever been a mention of a bakery in these books?) Even so, I'm not sure why the film went with weird pink frosting and inexplicably misspelled words. I decided to go with the book's description, opting for this fudgy chocolate cake with this chocolate buttercream frosting

The book mentions that the box was slightly squashed, not the cake itself, but it might be too much to ask for the cake to be intact after a stormy journey in a half-giant's coat. Most recipes I came across recommended deliberate damage, but mine was unintentionally but fittingly so 
– I'm not sure why or how, but the cake came out of the oven massively cracked on top. It smelled amazing but I was slightly crestfallen (this was also my birthday cake!), though watching YouTube videos of cakes falling apart completely cheered me up a bit (also #cakefails on Instagram; I may have gone down a rabbit hole). I decided that this was not a "fail" as I still had a cake, and set about making the frosting. Such fun. The frosting was delicious, and filling up the cracks and then slathering it over the entire cake was extremely satisfying. It looked much improved.

Then came the part I was most nervous about 
– the green icing. I was determined to decorate it; the green seems important, somehow, though I'm not sure why. The Hogwarts letters were written in emerald green ink too. Is it because Harry's eyes are green? Slytherin? Who knows. But anyway, I've never tried icing before because I just assumed it would be hard work. The purpose of this project is to challenge myself, so I bought some green colouring, a piping bag and a set of nozzles. I mixed together this buttercream icing, and ended up with a nice shade of green (the colour really bleeds! Tiny drops, people.) I did a few practice letters on parchment, got impatient, and started writing on the cake. I hadn't expected it to be this much fun and fairly simple. I even changed nozzles and piped some little rosettes, and then ruined it a bit and fixed it by adding more chocolate frosting, but oh well. 

This turned out to be an all-day project best summed up by
James Acaster on flapjacks: "Started making it. Had a breakdown. Bon appetit!" (Thanks, Sahil!) And even though the cake looked like it had survived a long journey, it tasted pretty darn good.


  1. This made me so nostalgic! I’ve never actually re-read the HP books. Started them when I was 11 so I felt like I grew up with them! I love all the cosiness in the books. The cake looks so moist and yum, who cares about cracks. The youtube video meme is hilarious - the comments especially haha!

    1. Wait, are you not as big a fan as I'd thought? Haha. I'm still searching for a fantasy series that builds such a world (and with such awesome food!) Also can't wait to put icing on EVERYTHING.


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