“Generally, the cake is an object to celebrate passage and transformation. That may be what defines ‘cake’ for us, given that we’ve given that name to sweet festive baked goods in other cultures that don’t resemble the typical western idea of a flour-based frosted cake. In Chinese culture, the moon cake, a dense concoction of lotus paste and salted egg yolks, is an inseparable part of the mid-autumn festival. It is a harvest festival that celebrates the change in seasons as well as changes in the lunar spectacle. Other state changes include aging from 10 to 11, a decision to marry two people and their families together, the passage from employment to retirement, etc. The occasions which we choose to celebrate also reveal our norms and priorities. “Louise Chow
Description of the Work
Louise writes about her thoughts, process, and research that informed her performance piece; The Transubstantiation of Betty Crocker.
Project: Inedible Cakes, Exhibition Booklet
The Transubstantiation of Betty Crocker
I don’t have birthday cakes anymore. I am unsure of the last time I have eaten a birthday cake, specifically the kind that marks, with icing ink, the age of the recipient. As a child the birthday cake is offered as a celebration of growth and change. If you “are what you eat,” or absorb the power of the meal as in some cultural traditions (specify), then a child devouring the cake marked “Jennifer, 11,” symbolizes an acceptance and internalization of a different stage of life. I have grown up knowing an older generation of adults, particularly women, who have shied away from acknowledging their number. Certainly it is in contrast to the brazen declaration of age that the worded birthday cake presents. The birthday cake is a relic of childhood and may be considered a childish thing to receive and celebrate around. And the fact that we attempt to mark the complex change, growth, and decline of a human being by assigning numbers speaks to a limitation in our thinking.
Generally, the cake is an object to celebrate passage and transformation. That may be what defines ‘cake’ for us, given that we’ve given that name to sweet festive baked goods in other cultures that don’t resemble the typical western idea of a flour-based frosted cake. In chinese culture, the moon cake, a dense concoction of lotus paste and salted egg yolks, is an inseparable part of the mid-autumn festival. It is a harvest festival that celebrates the change in seasons as well as changes in the lunar spectacle. Other state changes include aging from 10 to 11, a decision to marry two people and their families together, the passage from employment to retirement, etc. The occasions which we choose to celebrate also reveal our norms and priorities.
Increasingly food, particularly desserts, don’t have to be eaten in the traditional way at all. We “eat” plenty with our eyes as we scroll through our instagram feeds, without having to experience any longer term physical change of state in our bodies or in the object we are visually consuming. The trendy, visually spectacular dessert that gets photographed and then destroyed (possibly as food waste) is something that the influencer culture (obsessed with youth and class signifiers) enables. Regardless of the fate of the actual physical cake, the images that are produced stay preserved on social media platforms, their contents no longer subject to decay or any other form of transformation. Like the written word, this kind of photography and culture around images is an attempt to make permanent and static a reality that is actually in constant change. The only dynamism present on these images is the upward tick of likes and other easily numericized social media interactions.
The decadence of a cake may be what limited it to a food for ceremonial function. A well presented cake is a labour of love, that also doesn’t serve much in the way of nutrition. Not an everyday food. Nowadays, concerns about health – or concerns about appearance in the guise of concerns about health – also positions cake as an occasional celebratory treat. A treat, like what we use to train dogs, is of course gifted to the deserving, either as a victory prize or a reward for practicing some asceticism. Warnings about one’s heart health pull us away from cake. Warnings about one’s waistline may be more effective. Women are under particular pressure to maintain a certain flat-bellied physique, represented by BMI numbers. Ironically then, it is women who are associated with the domesticity of cake baking. She lives to serve cake, but the cake is not meant for her (how would she keep the wasp waisted silhouette of the 50s housewife?). She offers a part of herself up, all dressed in draped frosting and pearls of sugar. She may appear the housewife but she is divorced from her appetites. Her labour and her body are one, and receive no nourishment.
The relationship of women to cakes isn’t just one of being the one to bake and serve, women are also served as cakes. While now it would mostly be frowned upon, it wasn’t unusual for powerful men of influence to mix a celebratory meal, with entertainment spectacle by stuffing various living creatures into food. Of course, a popular choice for stuffing would be a live young woman. An unusually large cake would be presented and appreciated, then -surprise!- a woman pops out the top, presented, and appreciated amusedly as if she were a flock of distressed blackbirds escaping a pie. The borders between cake and woman blur.
If a budget bachelor party were to replicate this show of power, they would forgo the cake entirely, opting for a flimsy and cheap cardboard approximation as necessary set decoration around a young scantily clad woman. The men who gaze are, really, terrified that she will likely die wrinkled and bloated and accompanied by a bedpan, in the same ugly fashion of their own likely deaths; they would rather no reminder of that. It is better if she is consumed while young and beautiful, like the ideal last days of a cake. Women do not benefit from this willful ignorance.
Considering the the guilt around cakes and the dangers they pose to our waistlines, perhaps they are better off as beautiful inedible spectacles. A dessert could be an immaculately crafted fake and it may still serve its modern function. If we aren’t really interested in the eating of cakes (in every survey I’ve read on the matter, the majority of people would prefer to consume pies anyway), then what is the function of the cake as representation?
Marxist theorist Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle opens with this: “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.” The traditions of recognizing change through ritual and celebration, which almost always involved the consumption of symbolic foods, occurred before the demands of economic growth and productivity forced us to operate under a standardized and globalized concept of atomized time. To grow the wheat and other ingredients for a cake, or practically any kind of food product, we depend on detecting and responding to physical changes in the environment, like the change of seasons. What was a change that was lived and physically sensed, has receded into specific numerical representations like that on a calendar. So it is for measurements of age, and of health. Our attempts to order, control, and commercify our universe have separated ourselves from the experience of it. That experience is in truth about change, whether it be growth or decay.
The reduction of the lived experience of something like gathering together to eat cake, into shared images of people gathering together to eat cake, has been used to by those entities with the most power over distribution to consolidate more power. To these corporate entities, scale and the ability to grab a large audience are crucial. Something that cannot be distributed en masse, is unlikely to dominate a global market.
In Robin Sloan’s “An App Can Be A Home-Cooked Meal”, he describes the experience of building an app meant for an extremely small audience – his family. Today it is hard to imagine hearing someone talk about developing an app without some goal around distribution and profit. But Robin compares his process as similar to home cooking as compared to large scale commercial cooking. He writes:
“The exhortation ‘learn to code!’ has its foundations in market value. ‘Learn to code’ is suggested as a way up, a way out. ‘Learn to code’ offers economic leverage, a squirt of power. ‘Learn to code’ goes in your resume. […] But let’s substitute a different phrase: ‘learn to cook.’ […] The list of reasons to ‘learn to cook’ overflows, and only a handful have anything to do with the marketplace.”
That sort of human experience is difficult to distribute, but images and other half-baked replicas are easy and long lasting. Accepting decay is antithetical to the goals of profiteers, who perform such acts of life support (or necromancy?) like keeping franchises such as Star Wars alive forever. The only sense of change to be acknowledged by these corporate entities is growth, so they celebrate with cakes covered in numerical data points, as if they were children, as if they were human.
Those who lose are people like those, often women, who labour at home in their kitchens. That which is small scale and localized – and what’s more local than the domestic sphere – has not been the recipient of capital. Even where it seems to be, in the instagram feeds and youtube channels of home bakers, their capital still depends on those higher powers that govern distribution. That’s only after compressing the domestic sphere into easily distributable images. And unfortunately the powers that be behave similarly to those men who entertain by hiring a young woman to fold herself into a cake, before popping out in her so-called birthday suit. Women’s participation in this mass market image culture – or, as Guy Debord puts it, the Spectacle – is mostly to be seen, and consumed.
Those powerful distributors would then claim that they’ve followed the set rules of the universe and this is the natural hierarchy of money and power. They will point to their datasets and algorithms (of their own design), and claim that this clockwork (more objects of our own design) universe has spoken: the labour that is local and human scale is not actually valuable. And like the change in seasons and shifts in weather that actually govern the cycles of life on our planet, the value of that human scale work is not really accurately reducible to numbers and data.
Neural networks can now “see” the images we’ve created and reproduce incredibly convincingly the energetic brushstrokes of painters, or chimeras of human faces that pass very well as human. When one’s face is represented by pixels, each of those pixels can constitute data. The ease of further reducing an image into data, results in the use of that data to justify the spectacle itself. The consequence for the spectacle’s losers is an evolution of what was already a poisonous refrain. What was once, “her earnings are low because her cakes are ugly,” is shifting to “her cakes are ugly because her earnings are low.” There is no critical analysis of quality here.
The cake may be ugly, but was it edible, or delicious, and did it bring people together cozy and nourished? It’s difficult to tell when measuring a number of hits and likes, from a copy of a picture of a picture, of a cake whose physical form has been forgotten. What is hidden in a visual culture that fetishizes objects and representations of objects, is who stands beyond the margins of the picture frame. Who baked the cake, who ate the cake, and what happened to those people? Those material concerns become immaterial and fade in time, swept over by layer after layer of glistening, ever fresh white icing.
– Louise Chow, February 2020