Mack the Knife, Now a Transgender Hero of London’s Riotous Underground

By Jordy Rosenberg
329 pp. One World. $27.

“Some time ago — never mind how long precisely — I slipped off the map of the world,” Dr. Voth, a transgender professor and the principal narrator of Jordy Rosenberg’s “Confessions of the Fox,” announces on the first page of this debut novel, in a hat tip to “Moby-Dick.” The alternate world into which Voth slips is not a watery abyss but rather a “living diorama of flesh worship,” which he implores his reader to join. As cetology is to Melville, so quim (18th-century slang for female genitalia) is to Rosenberg. Quim’s cognates — tuzzy-muzzy, boiling Spot, monosyllable, Water-Mill — are scattered through these pages, expanding conventional usage to “signify any loved point of entry on the body, irrespective of gender or sex,” a description of sorts of Rosenberg’s novel.


How does Voth reach this utopia of the flesh? His journey begins when he stumbles upon a mysterious manuscript at a university book sale. The papers purportedly contain a true account of the life of the infamous jailbreaker Jack Sheppard. You may recognize Sheppard as Mack the Knife from Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” but with a few significant alterations: Jack is now transgender, and his London is no longer exclusively white and straight. Enter Bess Khan, a prostitute of South Asian descent who helps Jack realize his ambition as “King Screwsman” by encouraging his ever more daring heists — like stealing from London’s ruthless “Thief-Catcher General,” Jonathan Wild — as well as his emerging queerness. “A wonderful, fetching Something,” Bess calls Jack, and it is through her physical intervention that Jack forges the body he is meant to have. What ensues is a picaresque adventure through a London rarely seen in literature of the period, one filled with sentinels and fear of plague but also with a thriving subculture of mollies (18th-century slang for queer men) and prostitutes and a celebratory aura of sexual freedom.

Jack’s adventure may not be immediately accessible to all audiences. Voth informs the reader that his manuscript may only be decoded by someone who can “cry a certain kind of tears,” by which he means someone who has lived on the margins of society. Someone who also, I might add, enjoys queer theory, 18th-century frame narratives, prison abolition literature, Marxist historical readings, a surprisingly lengthy subplot involving a copy of Spinoza’s “Ethics” and a running footnote hall of mirrors to rival Borges. Perhaps representative of the novel’s aim is a marbled page midway through the book, a homage to “Tristram Shandy.” Like Sterne’s marbled page, Rosenberg’s offers a key to his narrative. It serves primarily as a rebuttal to an indignity many transpeople have faced at some point in their lives: the intrusive gaze of a non-transperson eager to glimpse their genitals. This novel is an antidote to that gaze.

Rosenberg’s chimeric prose prevents all of this from feeling too pedantic. His numerous stylistic influences — everyone from Ali Smith to Angela Davis, Ferdinand de Saussure and Allen Ginsberg — while jarring at first, cohere by the third act, once the manuscript’s secret, which I will not spoil here, is revealed. Rosenberg, a professor of 18th-century literature and queer theory at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is also very funny, a virtue that may persuade readers to persevere through some of the novel’s more theoretical sections. His satirical passages on academia and its unholy union with capitalism ring only too true. And in the novel’s final paragraphs, he offers one of the most trenchant calls for progressive action that I have read in a very long time. The climb may be steep, but the view from the top is grand.


As Easy as Riding a Bike

But as those children grow up and learn to ride, they are mastering a very complex process. Mont Hubbard and Ron Hess, each now a professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, Davis, worked on the project of modeling the system of bicycle and human rider from the point of view of mechanical engineering.

“Everyone knows how to ride a bicycle, but nobody knows how we ride a bicycle,” Professor Hubbard said. “We think our way of imagining the human process is a way to understand that second half.”

This is a system involving a human and a machine, and, he said, “the human is receiving sensory information and there is a control system in the brain creating the right corrective forces that need to be applied to the handlebar to get the bicycle to stand up.”

But processing that information isn’t simple, by any means. Dr. Hess said it turned out to be more complicated than modeling pilots and airplanes.

To make adjustments and keep the bike upright and moving forward, the human brain has to receive sensory information about the position and motion of the body in space and the pressure applied to the handlebars, visual information, and vestibular information about balance and the roll rate of the bike. “All three of those have to be used successfully to ride a bike,” Dr. Hess said, with information coming in from different kinds of sensory receptors, in the eye, in the muscles, in the inner ear.

“If the rider doesn’t do the right thing, if his or her actions aren’t adequate to stabilize the bicycle, then the bicycle will fall over,” Dr. Hubbard said. In engineering, he said, this is called a control law: “The control law says, if I’m falling to the right, what do I do, I turn the wheels to the right,” in a constant process of subtle adjustment and balance to keep the bicycle upright and moving forward. The rider may not understand the differential equations in the model, he said, but the brain is making these calculations.

In their model, “the human takes those streams of information and creates from those various streams a control signal which is a force to push the handle bars,” Dr. Hubbard said. They were able to build a bicycle that could right itself, using these equations to make adjustments, taking into account the important variables like the tilt angle of the bicycle. The model predicted, for example, that before making a turn to one side, there would first be a smaller steering turn to the other side, and Dr. Hess said he had found it satisfying to see that borne out by observing skilled riders.


5 Simple Tips to Handle a Wild Animal Encounter on Vacation

Don’t Run

Running from most animals — including coyotes, feral dogs and bears — is a futile exercise, Ms. Levin said. They’re just faster than you are, and won’t tire out before you do. Plus, running can encourage these animals to chase you.

Alligators may be the only predators you have a shot at beating in a race, although they rarely pursue prey on land. (But watch out if you’re in the water: They ambush. If one latches on you, put up a fight and it might decide to ditch you, Ms. Levin’s experts said.) If you come upon a predator, back away slowly, turned sideways, avoiding eye contact. “The goal is to appear as unthreatening as you know you are,” Ms. Levin said.

No Selfies

This should be obvious, but getting near a wild animal in the name of an Instagram-worthy selfie is setting yourself up for trouble. Earlier this year, a tourist in India was mauled to death when he tried to take a selfie with a wounded bear, and in recent years, several tourists in Yellowstone who got too close to bison to snap a selfie were gored or injured by the 1,000- to 2,000-pound animals.

And Please, Don’t Feed the Bears

Or the sea gulls or the coyotes or any animal, really, other than your pets. If you do, they may not leave you alone in the hopes of getting more food. Seagulls, for one, are bold birds and will swipe your sandwich or a slice of pizza right out of your hand. And, in some destinations, feeding these birds may mean a hefty fine ($500 in Ocean City, N.J., for example).

Worse, the more you feed wild animals, the more they grow accustomed to humans, and stick around people instead of foraging for their own food — which leads to people treating them like pests and trying to poison, trap, or kill them. In general, it’s better if wild animals retain a healthy fear of (and distance from) humans in densely populated places.


Why Everyone Needs a Good 10-Foot Charging Cable

Picture it: You, lying across the couch, snuggled underneath a blanket with your phone, scrolling through social media or texting your friends. You roll over only to feel that tug — you know the one — that reminds you just how short your charging cable really is.

There are too many tweets to see and Instagram posts to like to be limited by a short charging cable. So, in collaboration with Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews products, we’ve picked out the best 10-foot charging cable.

Why It Matters

It’s tempting to pick up whatever you find at a store that’s cheapest, but you’re going to need a cable that lasts a long time for the amount of wear and tear it gets. Sure, you might not trip on the charging cable every time you get up but it happens — and it’s worth investing in a product that’s up to the task.

“Almost every device we use on a daily basis needs a cable to charge, so investing in a cable that’ll last is a good idea,” said Nick Guy, a senior staff writer at Wirecutter. “We’ve found that you don’t have to go overboard and spend too much money though.”

Another reason to buy one? Your friends and anyone who comes into your home will thank you (seriously)! No one will need to crouch in a corner or sit on the floor while waiting for their phone to charge with the shortest cable alive (we’re looking at you standard charging cables). It’s a big people-pleaser and life-enhancer, and for whatever reason, relays to your friends that you’re somewhat of a capable adult who buys long-lasting and durable tech products (at least that’s what I tell myself).

The Best Cables to Buy

Time and time again, Mr. Guy finds that Anker makes winning charging cables. His reasoning for choosing Anker is clear: The company makes solid, lasting products that work well — both inside and out. (Wirecutter even had an electrical engineer tear apart lightning and micro-USB cables to make sure they were up to par.) While we stand by the recommendation, we’ll also include other products that Wirecutter called out as the best to choose from.

If you’re looking for a micro-USB 10-foot cable, feast your eyes on the Anker PowerLine (also available in a six-foot model). It’s relatively cheap (retailing for about $7 from Amazon at the time of writing) and like all Anker products, it comes with a 18-month warranty. The cable also charges and transfers data incredibly fast, has a “hard-plastic casing holding the plug,” and is built to withstand “more than 10,000 bends.”

For an iPhone-friendly option, Wirecutter recommends the Anker PowerLine Lightning cable, available for $12 on Amazon. It’s extremely similar to the micro-USB model, except it can handle only about 5,000 bends and doesn’t charge the iPad Pro as quickly. If you need something that can connect to USB-C products, like the MacBook, the six-foot USB-C to Lightning from Apple is a good fit and retails for $25.

Anyone who needs a USB-A to USB-C cable, like owners of newer phones that run Google’s Android operating system, can find a solid, reliable option in Wirecutter’s favorites: The Anker PowerLine USB-C to USB 3.0 cable, available for around $12 on Amazon in a 10-foot model. It also comes in three- and six-foot lengths. Alternatively, you can opt for Google’s USB-A to USB-C cable available for $20, which is thinner and designed to withstand breaking apart.

The prices for these cables are budget-friendly and worth it, if you’re looking for something based on utility and not looks.

“Anker’s standard PowerLine cables are more or less identical on the inside to its more expensive premium cables,” said Mr. Guy. “Those are only worth it if you want a nylon-braided exterior or lifetime warranty.”

Do yourself a favor and don’t opt for a more super-expensive or fancy branded cable. It won’t be worth it when it eventually falls apart. Walk the line between budget-friendly and durability, and you’ll be just fine.

Ann-Marie Alcántara is a tech journalist who covers e-commerce and consumer tech. You can find her work here or follow her on Twitter: @itstheannmarie

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A3 of the New York edition with the headline: Here to Help; Why Everyone Needs A Good 10-Foot Charging Cable. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


What the Mystery of the Tick-Borne Meat Allergy Could Reveal

Another unusual aspect of meat allergy is that it can emerge after a lifetime spent eating meat without problems. In other food allergies, scientists think that children’s immune systems may never learn to tolerate the food in the first place. But in meat allergy, the tick seems to break an already established tolerance, causing the immune system to attack what it previously ignored. One way to understand how the parasite pulls this off is to consider its bite as a kind of inadvertent vaccine. A vaccine teaches an immune system to pursue a pathogen it otherwise wouldn’t by exposing it to weakened versions of that pathogen — an attenuated measles virus, say — or bits and pieces of dead pathogen. Vaccines also often contain a substance called an adjuvant, which is designed to spur the immune system into action.

In similar fashion, when the lone-star tick feeds, alpha-gal leaks from its mouth into the wound, exposing the victim’s immune system to the sugar, prompting the immune system to remember and pursue alpha-gal. But exposure to alpha-gal alone probably doesn’t achieve this feat. Commins, who is at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill, has identified a candidate, an enzyme in the tick’s saliva called dipeptidyl-peptidase that works as an adjuvant. It’s also common in bee and wasp venom. This enzyme, Commins argues, is what tells your immune system to see alpha-gal as the type of threat that warrants the itching and swelling of the allergic response.

Once sensitized, some victims find that they can no longer tolerate beef, pork, lamb — even milk or butter, foodstuffs with only very small amounts of alpha-gal. Several factors can also affect the severity of the allergic reaction, or if there is an allergic reaction at all. Grilled meat is less allergenic than other methods of preparation that preserve more of its fat. Fatty meat leads to more alpha-gal crossing a person’s gut barrier into his or her circulatory system, triggering a stronger immune reaction than leaner cuts. A study of German patients also found that alcohol imbibed with meat can push people toward an allergic reaction, as can exercise; both actions make the gut more permeable, exposing the immune system to more alpha-gal.

As it happens, an immune response to alpha-gal is also what drives, in part, the rejection of tissue transplanted from animals to people. Scientists have developed genetically modified pigs meant to supply parts that can be grafted onto human bodies without eliciting an anti-alpha-gal immune reaction. Now, as awareness of the meat allergy spreads, there has been talk of using such alpha-gal-free pigs for food — pork chops your doctor can prescribe if you find yourself allergic to meat.

A recent study by scientists at the National Institutes of Health, which included Commins and Platts-Mills as co-authors, linked allergic sensitization to alpha-gal with a greater risk of arterial plaques, a hallmark of heart disease. It’s unclear whether having alpha-gal antibodies specifically increases your risk of developing plaques or whether some other factor increases a person’s risk of heart disease and sensitization to alpha-gal. But if it turns out that meat allergy pushes people toward cardiac arrest, it would imply that encounters with the lone-star tick contribute to the leading cause of death in the United States.

The big, unanswered question is why meat allergy is on the rise today. Commins estimates that at least 5,000 cases have been diagnosed in the United States, and many more probably remain undiagnosed. In some tick-heavy regions, the prevalence of meat allergy is estimated to be at least 1 percent of the population. Ticks are not new. Neither is the human consumption of meat. Why the sudden problem for so many? One possibility is that the ticks have changed somehow. Maybe they’ve acquired a pathogen we don’t understand yet, and this infection is causing the allergy. Or perhaps, Commins says, changes to the insect’s microbiome, the collection of symbiotic microbes that it carries in its body, have somehow made its bites more allergenic.

The idea is plausible and could nicely explain how an arachnid that has been around for a long time could begin causing a new set of complications. Scientists have long debated where the alpha-gal in the tick originates: Does it come from the blood a tick sucks from other mammals and then regurgitates as it feeds on people, or does it come from the tick itself? Shahid Karim, a vector biologist at the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, told me that the answer might be neither; the sugar probably comes from the microbes that the tick carries within it. So it’s entirely possible, he said, that changes in its microbiome could, by increasing the amount of alpha-gal humans are exposed to in tick bites, make the lone-star tick more likely to induce meat allergy.


The Wildest Roller Coasters of 2018


From steep spinning coasters to single-rail sensations, the most innovative thrill rides of the new season.

The new hybrid roller coaster Steel Vengeance at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.CreditCedar Point

If you thought roller coaster design couldn’t get more innovative, 2018 has a little something to show you. From coasters that plunge you on a single rail to trains that spin while launching you uphill, this season’s coaster class offers surprisingly fresh and record-setting ways to ride. Here’s a look at four of the most thrilling, a few of which I sampled this season.

ImageThe first drop of Wonder Woman Golden Lasso.CreditSix Flags Fiesta TexasWonder Woman Golden LassoSix Flags Fiesta Texas, San Antonio, Tex.

When approaching this roller coaster, it’s hard not to be astonished by its look: With a wispy flat yellow track that twists and turns through the sky in all kinds of iterations, it really does evoke Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. The coaster, manufactured by the Idaho company Rocky Mountain Construction, is built on a single I-beam rail, which means that the train’s wheels hug the sides of one rail of track, rather than rolling over two tracks like most coasters.

These tracks are narrow and the trains are too, carrying only eight people total, and with riders sitting single file in bobsled-style cars that straddle the track and put you right in the middle of it. That may be bad news for those who like to share the experience with a buddy, but if you are in front, it gives the impression that the coaster is all yours.

Although only eight people can ride at a time, the trains load quickly. Indeed, in the station, you get in the car while it is slowly moving on the track to keep the flow constantly going in and out.

An overhead shot of the coaster.Published OnJuly 17, 2018CreditImage by Six Flags Fiesta Texas

The ride, which is positioned inside of quarry walls and occasionally rises above them and over a man-made pond, is both fast and smooth. The track seems like it’s barely there, but the compact nature of the ride makes it feel even faster and more immediate. After the first drop, you glide through each element (including an impressive, tightly-wound 360-degree roll), never slowing until reaching the too-fast conclusion. With this coaster (and the similarly designed RailBlazer at California’s Great America), an experience has been crafted to feel more personal than most rides.

Riders on Time Traveler at Silver Dollar City.CreditJada Yuan/The New York TimesTime TravelerSilver Dollar City, Branson, Mo.

Take everything you’ve known about roller coasters and start spinning it — that will get you close to understanding what a thrilling surprise a ride like Time Traveler is. This coaster is a huge investment (to the tune of $26 million) for Silver Dollar City, tucked in the Ozark Mountains. It’s also a record-breaker in a few different ways, billed as the fastest, tallest and steepest complete-circuit spinning coaster in the world.

I had the benefit of riding it my first time with the 52 Places Traveler columnist Jada Yuan — and we basked in its wonders together, including the 10-story drop that starts the ride while your train has already begun to spin.

At Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., The Times’s Mekado Murphy and Jada Yuan ride the fastest, steepest, and tallest complete-circuit spinning roller coaster in the world.Published OnJune 1, 2018

There’s a lot going on, but somehow it all makes sense and you’re able to keep a sense of where you are in the ride. Sort of. The train has you seated in four-person pods with two seats on each side facing away from each other. Mack Rides, its German manufacturer, has programmed the cars to spin in a controlled manner using magnetic technology, so you’re not twirling at nausea-inducing levels.

While that still might sound terrifying, the ride is actually built more for fun and families than it is for sheer white-knuckle thrills, and feels more free-spirited when it’s in action.

As the car spins, you have the opportunity to interact with the other riders, which is not common on a roller coaster. I loved being able to see how others are enjoying the 95-foot tall vertical loop along with you.

This is a coaster worth repeat rides — in the front, middle and back — because you really do get three different interactive and physical experiences in each position. The back is the one for those looking for maximum intensity: Having the full weight of the train pull you down the first drop while you’re spinning in the back is a priceless feeling.

Steel Vengeance uses wood from a previous coaster.CreditCedar PointSteel VengeanceCedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio

If a mad scientist got his hands on some roller coaster track and started building it using every tool at his disposal, it probably still wouldn’t feel as crazy and intense as Steel Vengeance. It’s a bit of a Frankencoaster, with wood used from the old Cedar Point coaster Mean Streak and a steel track and layout that have been completely refashioned. The resulting hybrid comes from the same manufacturer as Golden Lasso, Rocky Mountain Construction. While that company has become quite the expert at coaster rehabilitation and reconstruction, it has reached new heights here, creating the world’s tallest hybrid at 205 feet (a hypercoaster), with a mind-blowing 90-degree first drop.

Speeds get up to 74 miles per hour and are relentless, only once slowing to give you a moment to catch your breath. The hills and drops and inversions just keep coming, as if they’re being invented on the spot, almost feeling like you’re in a roller coaster time loop.

I live for airtime, those moments of weightlessness you feel in your gut that pull you right out of your seat. Steel Vengeance features a whopping 27 seconds of airtime, an astonishing amount for a ride that lasts all of two and a half minutes. And it also manages to pack in four inversions, sending riders twisting through what feel like vortexes of wood and steel.

The wood on this ride does a nice job of shielding its elements, keeping riders surprised. It’s one of the few coasters I’ve ridden that dares you not to be completely exhilarated by everything it accomplishes.

The dive coaster HangTime at night.CreditKnotts Berry FarmHangTimeKnott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, Calif.

Ah, the dive coaster. It’s a sinister type of ride that takes you up the lift and, right before you go down the first hill, pauses, forcing you to look directly down at your fate. Then comes the plunge. As fun as these coasters are, there are only a handful of them in the United States, and before this year, there were none in California, one of the most coaster-populous states. HangTime, a cute little aqua-colored sensation, has arrived to change that.

With its surf theme and its inversion-heavy track, the ride offers a welcome new addition to Knott’s coaster lineup. The train has four rows of seats that each sit four across. But you’ll want to be in the front row to best experience its wonders. It starts you off with a vertical lift, which has you on your back staring at sky while you rise to the top.

Then there’s that pause before you do a beyond-vertical drop and proceed into a series of curves and loops that takes you back and forth in dizzyingly fun ways. And some serious “hang time” comes at the top of what the ride’s German manufacturer Gerstlauer calls a “negative-g stall loop,” which has you momentarily floating upside down at the top of it.

But one of its best elements just may be its lighting scheme at night. HangTime has lighting along its entire track, giving the impression that it is glowing in the dark. This clever element turns it into a completely different ride worth tackling again when the sun goes down.


And Nobody Noticed It Was a Fake Cake

I was deep into a mother-of-the-bride role, marching with military determination to Kleinfeld Bridal on 20th Street and Avenue of the Americas in New York. I was joining forces with my two daughters, Alessandra Plump, the bride-to-be, and my younger daughter, Gabriela Plump. Our goal was to find the perfect wedding dress for Alessandra that day.

Then, along the way on West 22nd Street, I happened on a store called NY Cake.

“We do customized dummy cakes,” read a sign in the window.

I knew this was a day for action, not distraction, but I couldn’t resist. I stepped inside to find a baker’s paradise: cookie cutters; candy molds; icing tools; edible glitter; pastry fillings; cake stencils; sprinkles; ribbons; blocks of fondant icing; and sugar paste sculptures of garlands, cherubs, fruits and flowers.

And cakes, dozens of cakes, all constructed with Styrofoam and decorated by hand: an “I Love New York” skyscraper cake, a bright red Chanel handbag cake, a many-layered black-and-white striped wedding cake with blue flowers, a theme cake from the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” a stiletto shoe cake. Some had been made years before.

“Can anyone make a fake cake?” I asked Richard Mansour, one of the managers, whose 48-year-old sister, Lisa Mansour, founded and owns the business.

“Of course!” he said.

“How much does it cost to make one?” I asked.

“You can make one for a couple of hundred dollars,” he said. said. That would cover the materials; a lesson, which is required if you make the cake onsite, would be more. (Groups classes start at $100 for the basics up to $400 for advanced decorating; private lessons are $300 an hour.)

It was a sign. I have never loved traditional, tiered wedding cakes. The portions can be skimpy, the slices slapped carelessly onto plates. By the time cake is served, many wedding guests have long finished eating and are deep into dancing.

Even worse, wedding cake often tastes stale. That’s because a lot of bakers make and freeze them, ice them frozen, then let them sit and harden for a couple of days so that they won’t fall under the weight of the layers or crack during transport. Even dowel rods installed inside the cake are no guarantee.

And boy, are wedding cakes expensive: anywhere from $6 to $15 a slice depending on the number of tiers, types of filling and frosting, and custom decorations in a city like Washington, where Alessandra’s wedding was taking place. That meant $1,000 to $2,400 worth of cake for a party of 160 or so, even though the menu at the wedding location we had chosen came with dessert.

By the time I got to Kleinfeld Bridal, I had a plan. I told Gabriela that she and I could have a mother-daughter bonding day decorating a dummy cake that we’d then take to the wedding in Washington.

“Mom, we’re here to buy a wedding dress, not to discuss cakes,” Gabriela said dryly.

Alessandra is an efficient shopper and we bought her dress that day. Soon afterward, Gabriela and I were scheduled for a daylong cake decorating session with Lisa.

We turned up one Saturday morning and Lisa escorted us into a glassed-in kitchen with stainless-steel tables at the back of the store.

Since our cake was not edible, I thought we were going to decorate it with pearls and rhinestones stuck on with Super Glue. After all, I had seen that in 2017, an eight-tiered cake decorated with more than 4,000 diamonds by a bakery in Chester, England, had been valued at $52 million.

No way, said Lisa. “It’s dangerous to decorate with rhinestones and pearls,” she said. “People will try to eat them.”

She showed us decorated models, including a silver-gray and white marbleized fondant-covered cake with silver sparkles; and a sleek geometric Art Deco confection in shimmering gold. We decided on a round, four-layer cake using pearlized fondant and rose-gold paint.

“Are you ready to get dirty?” Lisa asked.

We put on white pastry chef jackets, and said we were.

To start, each layer needed to be covered with edible glue so that the fondant icing would stick to the Styrofoam. Lisa told us to slather the layers with the “glue” — a.k.a. Crisco.

Then she opened a five-pound sealed block of white fondant, essentially an edible sugar paste with the consistency of Play-Doh. She lightly dusted an aluminum counter with cornstarch and sliced the fondant into smaller pieces with a serrated-edged knife. She showed us how to knead the fondant with our hands and roll it out with stainless steel rolling pins.

Gabriela passed the fondant slab several times through an electrical rolling machine to flatten it to a thickness of one-quarter-inch. Lisa helped her center the fondant over a round Styrofoam form and over its sides, taking care to prevent folds by lifting the fondant away from the cake and easing it down with one hand. She used a pizza cutter to trim off excess fondant at its bottom.

“You have to gently feel where the bottom of the cake is, like a caress,” Lisa said.

After we prepared four layers in different sizes, we stacked them into tiers. Gabriela sprayed the layers with an edible pearlized paint that gave it a silver glow. We chose rose-gold paint powder, mixed it with lemon extract, picked up paintbrushes and went to work.

There was not enough time to learn how to make flowers out of sugar paste (that would have to come on Day 2), so we used two bunches of white roses made in advance. We painted parts of the flowers in rose gold, leaving the leaves green. We pinned the flowers on the cake, and edged the bottom of each layer with satin ribbon. For the final touch, we sprinkled our masterpiece with ultrafine edible glitter.

“This was very therapeutic,” Gabriela said with a smile.

“That’s what my mom always says,” Lisa replied.

The story of NY Cake began in the Mansour family home on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Lisa’s mother, Joan had learned candy-making skills from her mother, a schoolteacher who had made hand-dipped filled chocolates, pecan logs and toffee in a makeshift factory in her basement in Salt Lake City.

In those days, cake decorating was not yet in vogue in the United States; Joan wrote away to England and South Africa for books on the subject. Soon, she was making and decorating birthday cakes for friends and family as a hobby while she raised seven children. Lisa’s father, Joseph, ran a sundries and cosmetics store in Rockefeller Center.

“All my friends would say, ‘These are so nice. Can you make one for me?’” she said. “But I didn’t have time. So I said, ‘Come over and I’ll teach you. One thing led to another.”

Soon, Joan Mansour was giving cake decorating lessons to neighborhood women gathered around her dining room table in the evening. “My father would come home tired and there’d be all these women deep into butter cream and piping and sugar roses,” Lisa said. “Finally, he said, ‘Enough.’”

When the pharmacy at the back of her father’s store moved out in 1980, her mother moved in. They put a small sign for the business, which was called the Chocolate Gallery, in the corner of the front window; advertising at first was done by word of mouth.

In 1989, the Mansours were forced out of their space when the lease came up for renewal and the rent was about to triple. Joseph Mansour retired; Lisa, a business major at Brooklyn College, decided to quit school to go into business with her mother. They found a space on West 22nd Street. “There wasn’t a soul on the street in those days,” Lisa recalled. “We went from Radio City to a street where a lot of people were sleeping on the sidewalk. It was all we could afford.”

Five years later, they moved to a larger, 4,000-square-foot space where they were located when I met them.

Over the years, NY Cake has become a cake-decorating mecca. On the day I was there, decorators from Argentina, Jamaica, Virginia and Texas came into the shop. Every year, Lisa Mansour organizes a NY Cake Show in which thousands of people from all over the world come and decorate cakes.

In early June, NY Cake moved out of its space at 56 West 22nd. It will reopen in a 7,000-square-foot space in early September a block away at 118 West 22nd. The new space will have a cafe with custom-decorated cakes and cupcakes, a wider range of products, a kitchen with ovens, refrigerators, freezers to make real cakes and a formal Cake Academy that will teach a range of baking skills, including how to make croissants. Lisa’s younger sister, Jenny Kashanian, who runs the wholesale, mail order and website services, will move to the new site from the Yonkers warehouse.

“We’ll be altogether again,” Lisa said. “Just like when we were kids.”

Gabriela and I put the cake we had decorated into a secure box; a cousin drove it to Washington. It was on display throughout the wedding, and people who weren’t in the know had no idea it was not real. When it came time for the cake cutting, Alessandra and her husband, Mathew Brailsford, held a knife over the top of the faux cake and then cut into designer cupcakes frosted in white.

And we did have a real cake. My close friend Carol Giacomo contributed two carrot sheet cakes made from scratch. They weighed more than 20 pounds, but she hand-carried them safely from New York to Washington on the Acela. She iced and layered them with thick butter cream frosting on site. Everyone said her cake was delicious.

As for the fake cake, it now sits in the living room of the newlyweds’ one-bedroom apartment.

Elaine Sciolino is the author of “The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs.”

Continue following our fashion and lifestyle coverage on Facebook (Styles and Modern Love), Twitter (Styles, Fashion, and Vows) and Instagram.


How to Minimize Pancreatic Cancer Risk

Dr. Li added, “The distribution of fat also plays a role — the higher the waist to hip ratio, the greater the risk.” She found that cancer risk was greater the earlier in life a person becomes obese, and survival time was shorter among those who were still obese when the cancer was diagnosed.

Obesity is also the leading risk factor for the development of Type 2 diabetes, in which the body resists the action of insulin, prompting the pancreas to produce more and more of this hormone. Insulin promotes cell growth, providing a link between diabetes and the development of pancreatic cancer.

However, the relationship is complicated, to say the least. In a 2011 report in Molecular Carcinogenesis, Dr. Li noted that “diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance is present in 50 to 80 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer.” She said, “Diabetes is both a cause and consequence of cancer,” although which comes first — diabetes or cancer in the organ that controls blood glucose — is not crystal clear.

A European study of more than 800,000 people with Type 2 diabetes found this disease is sometimes an early sign of an otherwise hidden pancreatic cancer.

In studies at the Mayo Clinic, elevated glucose levels, a condition called pre-diabetes, were detected in some patients two years before pancreatic cancer was diagnosed. In these patients, Dr. Li explained, diabetes is actually a symptom of the hidden cancer. It is a type of diabetes called 3C, caused by a diseased or damaged pancreas, and medical researchers are now looking for ways for doctors to readily distinguish between Type 3C and Type 2 diabetes.

The lag time between the development of diabetes and diagnosis of cancer is a potential window of opportunity that may enable cancer detection at an early, curable stage, Dr. Li said.

If a biomarker for the cancer was identified, it may be possible to find cancer in these patients when the tumor is too small to be seen on a scan and before symptoms develop. For example, an antibody might be used that targets a molecule on small tumors.


Should I Forgo Gay Sex to Donate Blood?

Name Withheld

Your letter touches on a number of issues. Let’s start with the blood ban. The American Red Cross disallows blood donations from a variety of candidates, including: anyone who in the previous 12 months got a tattoo from an unregulated tattoo parlor, had sex with someone with hepatitis, received a blood transfusion or visited a malarial region; anyone who has anemia or uncontrolled diabetes; anyone who spent six months in Britain, cumulatively, between 1980 and 1996; and anyone who was ever a nonprescription IV drug user. Consistent with F.D.A. guidelines, it also disallows blood donations from men who have had sex with men in the previous 12 months.

Is this policy discriminatory? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of new H.I.V. diagnoses among M.S.M. (men who have sex with men) is more than 44 times as high as it is among other men. Donated blood is tested, and the tests have a low false-negative rate, but they don’t work when the donor has been infected only recently. Activists ask why straight people who engage in risky sexual behavior aren’t subject to the categorical exclusion that applies to M.S.M. who don’t. Others ask whether donating blood, as opposed to receiving blood, is properly considered a right, and whether the prohibition is a significant source of stigma.

In ways that the legal scholar Frederick Schauer has explored at length, a good many laws, rules and protocols proceed from generalizations, and all can be faulted for being underinclusive and overinclusive. Everyone knows that people’s capacities decline at different rates, but the F.A.A. requires commercial pilots to retire at 65, citing age-related losses in vision, hearing and cognitive abilities and an increased rate of sudden incapacitation by a heart attack or a stroke. Age-of-consent laws mean that the difference between consensual and nonconsensual sex may be measured in minutes. Traffic safety is a major reason for speed limits, even though one motorist may be able to drive safely at higher speeds and another can’t drive safely at the speed posted. Plenty of 16-year-olds would cast votes more wisely than many 60-year-olds, but the United States won’t let them. For that matter, many 16-year-olds are better drivers than those 60-year-olds, but their car-insurance premiums lump the good ones in with the bad.

These rules are hard and fast; the reality they govern is anything but. In some cases, we might decide we can replace a demographic generalization with individual assessments or testing programs — as the AARP has urged in the case of the F.A.A.’s mandatory retirement age. (Of course, a test would also give you an arbitrary cut off.) In other cases, the fixed rules, however imperfect and arbitrary-seeming, may be our best way to manage risk and uncertainty. I can’t tell you what the optimal policy would be for M.S.M. blood donation. But making discriminations isn’t always discriminatory, and it isn’t a knockdown argument against a rule to say that it excludes good candidates and includes bad ones. Generalizations like these, paradoxically, have to be appraised one by one.

A second issue relates to your particular approach to moral accounting. You suggest that if you were not to give blood, you should do your part by urging others to do so in your place. I confess to being puzzled by this logic. There are many ways to do good in the world. Even if you think, as some do, that we have a duty of benevolence, it is a so-called imperfect duty — a duty to engage in some benevolent action or other, not in a particular one. So it’s a mistake to think that not giving blood means you must get someone to replace each pint you might have given. You have no duty, as you note, to make a donation at all, and you can expand your overall altruistic contribution in a wide variety of ways.


A Burger, but Better – The New York Times

What makes a burger a burger? Is it, most essentially, a grilled or griddled meat patty? If so, where does a kebab end and a burger — that most American of foods — begin? At a moment when “American” has become shorthand for “white” and “kebab” a slur directed at Muslims, I feel moved to ask these questions. Especially because I grew up eating both burgers and ground-beef kebabs, and have strong opinions about each.

When I was young, one Sunday every month or so, my mom would load my brothers and me into our station wagon and drive 80 miles north to Orange County, where we’d meet our extended family at a Persian restaurant for lunch. Whether there were five of us or 15, everyone always ordered the same thing: chelo kebab, the Iranian national dish of chargrilled meat seasoned with onion and saffron, served alongside a heap of saffron rice and a grilled tomato. We ordered and spoke to each other in Persian, laughing loudly at the table — things we couldn’t easily do at other restaurants. When our food arrived, I’d generously butter my rice before smashing the tomato into it. Then I’d eat alternating bites of tender ground-beef kebabs, sopping rice and herbed cucumber yogurt until I couldn’t take another. A full belly and the heat of the bright desert sun streaming through the windows usually put me to sleep on the ride home.

I spent other weekends at birthday parties and cross-country meets where someone’s dad was always grilling preformed burger patties that came stacked in a plastic sleeve. Though I never cared much for the meat, I always took a cheeseburger from the platter because the glossy plastic quilt of melted American cheese enchanted me. I somehow knew even then that the real artistry of burger-making lay in careful assembly. My technique was precise: mayonnaise on the bottom bun, then the cheese-covered patty, then a crisp leaf of iceberg, sliced tomato, pickles and finally ketchup on the top bun. This order was nonnegotiable; there had to be sauce on both buns to ensure a maximally juicy burger.

My burger and kebab consumption continued to reflect my two distinct worlds until 14 years ago. Then, on the side of a dusty road in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, I tasted a chapli kebab, a thin, heavily spiced patty said to be named for its resemblance to a chappal, or slipper, for the first time. I’d just watched the cook season ground beef with chopped tomato, cilantro and fresh and dried chiles. He then flattened it into thin patties before slipping them into a shallow pool of bubbling oil. As he tended to the glowing coals beneath the wide steel pan, the kebabs browned on the surface, remaining tender inside. Once they were cooked, he slid two patties onto still-steaming naan and drizzled the whole thing with green yogurt chutney. He also handed me a small plate of chopped cucumber, tomato and onion, which I promptly dumped on top of the kebab before rolling up the entire thing and taking a saucy bite. Spicy and creamy, crunchy and chewy — the mix of textures and flavors was irresistible. It was a burger, but better.

Not long after I left Pakistan, the Taliban tried to take control of the region, now called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and American travelers have been advised to avoid it ever since. The improbability of a return has made the memory of that chapli kebab ever more precious. Knowing nothing I might cook could ever measure up to the memory of that shockingly spiced patty, the warm, elastic naan or the pleasure of that first bite, I haven’t dared to try.

But recently I started to wonder — what if I combined what I loved most about burgers and kebabs into a chapli burger, slathered with ketchup and spicy herbed yogurt, topped with cucumbers, onions and tomatoes? I might not have fresh naan and a steel pan over coals, but I can easily find fresh burger buns and iceberg lettuce. I asked Ahmed Ali Akbar, host of “See Something Say Something,” a podcast about American Muslims, what he thought. “It’s funny how few people think of kebabs as patties, but that was by far the most common way we ate them in my house,” he said. “We never, ever made burgers. We just made chaplis, threw them on a bun and ate them with tamarind chutney.”

Inspired, I put forth another idea: What if I stirred tamarind paste into ketchup? “Yum,” he said simply. I interpreted that as permission to experiment and moved on to ask him what defines a chapli kebab. After checking with his aunties, Akbar, 30, reported back, “We have a consensus: To be a true chapli, it’s got to have crushed pomegranate seeds, chopped tomato and onion, egg and spices mixed into the beef.” And what about the corn flour I kept encountering in recipes? Could I omit that? “It’s just there to bind,” he said, “but I can’t guarantee you won’t have some uncle all up in your email if you leave it out.”

As I set out to cook, I realized the technical difference between burgers and kebabs is a simple one: Burgers are plain grilled meat, typically seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper. Kebabs are flavored with any number of things: chopped or grated onion, herbs and spices, fresh chiles, egg or tomato. A burger is a black dress; a kebab is a Met Gala gown. When I finally tasted the juicy, flavorful hybrid, I understood with pain and sadness that it was the exact version I’ve longed for at every classic American cookout. And it — or something like it — is what I would have offered if only anyone had asked. But I’m done waiting to be asked; I’m making something delicious for myself — and for everyone else who has been squeezed to the margins alongside me.

Recipe: Chapli Burgers | Herbed Yogurt | Tamarind Ketchup

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The New York Times Magazine delivered to your inbox every week.