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Mr. President, You Only Get One Piece

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POKE far enough into anything American, and you'll hit political roots. Expend apolitical sentiment or favor in one direction, and the tenacious winds of politics will gather quickly to blow it in another.

As an example, consider the following forgotten footnote in confectionary history, which became a political display of raw power, which proved that even a presidential cake couldn't escape the knife of politics.

Imagine the excitement of Ernest J. Montilio, a renowned Boston baker chosen by newly elected President John F. Kennedy's inaugural committee in 1961 to bake the premier cake for the gala inaugural party. Thrilled by the invitation, Montilio envisioned a splendid confectionary triumph, a huge, 550-pound, multitiered symphony of sculptured frosting covering a light and fluffy cake.

Montilio, of course, was an apolitical choice simply because at the time he was near the top of the list of Boston's best bakers. Kennedy was from Boston, so why not honor a hometown baker, political registration unknown. Skill was the issue here, not political spoils.

But when the local office of the American Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union got wind that Montilio was the baker of the hour, the frosting hit the spatula.

Montilio was nonunion. The spokesman for the union said, probably without realizing the full implications, "We take a dim view of any cake not baked in a union shop." Another union bigwig in Boston said he was "embarrassed" by the situation, meaning the controversy probably would not be a piece of cake to resolve.

Montilio, sure of himself and his skills, bravely countered with, "all my help are experts, and the reason they are nonunion is because I pay them better than union rates."

The union didn't hesitate to do what unions do best. The spokesman said efforts were to be made to organize Montilio's shop "just as fast as we can."

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