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The question

I've been married to my high school sweetheart for 33 years. Her parents and I get along great.

Her mother is a professional cake decorator. She teaches classes on cake decorating. Thus, any time there is a birthday or anniversary, it is expected that we ask her to provide the cake. They always look great, but the problem is they taste like crap. I end up choking it back buried in ice cream, avoiding the icing, which is akin to caulking. My mother-in-law seems to have no sense of taste. My wife says she's always had this problem when it comes to cooking anything, and that I need to just accept it and keep eating the cake, because her mother will be gone some day. My taste buds beg to differ and long for the days of my late mother's cakes. Should I say something, or follow the advice of the love of my life?

The answer

No offence (though I'm being a hypocrite using that term, as I'm always telling my kids: "Saying no offence before a rude statement does not in fact change anything"), but that is one of the most minor, footling problems we've ever received here at Damage Control headquarters.

Though it does raise the larger issue of what to do when people around you have absolutely no talent, or indeed an anti-talent, for what they do or would like to do for a living.

Of particular concern is the fact she does it for a living. Me, I've been a writer all my life and one of the most vexing aspects of it is when someone with zero talent and no prospect of success comes to me and says: "Do you think this is something I should pursue as a career?"

I try always to be honest, if diplomatic. Because nothing is worse than going after something and then being rejected and turned down with your e-mails unreturned, year after year after year.

I feel like I'm doing them a favour but they don't always love me for it.

Luckily, though, so far anyway, it doesn't sound as if your mother-in-law has asked your opinion on her cake-decoration career.

If that moment comes, be honest. It's amazing and surprising to me she's come as far as she has with so little skill and ability.

Because if her cake is as terrible as you've suggested, then it's sure to limit her prospects and horizons eventually, and perhaps even cause her heartbreak and unhappiness as she sees other cake makers thrive and get ahead and she keeps having to deal with rejection, unreturned e-mails, closed doors, disappointment and a glass ceiling.

However, in the meantime, obviously you can't have your mother-in-law's cake and avoid it too.

In your shoes, I would say: In order to keep the whole machine running smoothly, and to make your mother-in-law as well as the person you describe as "the love of your life" happy, just ask for a slim slice of caulk – I mean, cake – and choke it down, as you have been, slathered in ice cream.

Though to play devil's advocate, it sounds quite calorific, and as someone perpetually trying to lose weight, there is nothing I like less than eating something I know is fattening and bad for me – and that then turns out to taste terrible! That kills me.

If you did want to eschew your mother-in-law's cake altogether, I'd say you were within your rights to say, "Thanks but no thanks, I'm trying to watch my weight."

And then ostentatiously pat whatever part of you that you would like to see become a little smaller over time (and let's face it, most of us have at least one or two of those).

That is something everyone, especially these days, when we're all so diet/health-conscious, should understand and be able to sympathize with. I think the time has come and gone when the turning down of something as sugary and fattening and full of empty calories as cake could possibly cause the person proffering it any kind of offence.

In the meantime, quietly and to yourself only, thank whatever deity or entity you believe oversees your existence, that a) your mother-in-law hasn't asked your opinion on whether she should take her cake-making career to a whole new level, b) asked if you would care to invest in such an enterprise, c) that a problem as minor as the relative merits of your mother-in-law's cake is not only worthy of your time and attention, but is so concerning that you might actually write in to your friendly neighbourhood advice columnist to weigh in with his thoughts.