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21 april 2011

I ran across Nicola Humble's Cake while searching for web pages about the Reaktion Books Animal series, my current obsession. Mixed emotions thronged through my being, including "Wow, there's a whole new series for me to read," "Cripes, there's a whole new series I have to read," and "Wait, there's a book about cake?"

There are, of course, many books about cake, but there are few subtitled "a global history," and few that attempt a cultural-studies approach to the substance. Cake is what Marie Antoinette thought we should be eating when we ran out of bread; it's what we want to have and eat too; it's what we would have baked if we knew you were coming. But its potential as a great touchstone for our attitudes toward money, desire, and ceremony hasn't been comprehensively studied till now.

Nor has Nicola Humble exhausted the topic. Cake is only 116 pages long (excluding recipes, notes, and index), and several of those 116 pages are full-page illustrations. Ceremonial cakes are an important element of the book, but while wedding cakes take up many pages, birthday cakes get only a picture or two (one egregious image of a swastika-topped cake for Hitler's birthday, for instance), and little discussion at all.

Nor is the book perfect. Reaktion series books tend to show signs of a rush toward production, and Cake is not exempt. There are some typos. There's also a repeated error that takes some of the fun out of Humble's discussion of Proust's madeleine: she keeps naming Swann as the dipper of the madeleine (89-90), which simply n'est pas vrai.

But these are minor faults in a very thought-provoking book. To study cake is to run up against the misalignment of cultural and linguistic categories. Humble explores these discrepancies with acumen. In England, Humble notes, teacakes are a kind of bread, and tea-bread is a kind of cake (17). Coffee-cake is certainly bread, and the only breads I ever bake – powder-raised variations on banana loaves with raisins and nuts – are distinctly cakes.

If there's a category "cake," it's not exactly culinary and it's not exactly linguistic. It's "cultural," which seems obvious enough: cakes don't exist in nature, so they must be culturally constructed. But that cultural category (pulled together by a term, "cake," which has conflicting meanings across many English-speaking cultures) ranges from gargantuan inedible set-pieces at royal feasts to Duncan Hines out of the box.

Humble reaches the provisional (and much-qualified) conclusion that cakes are special: they are special in bewilderingly different ways, but they are not bread because they are not the staff of life. No matter that you could probably live more healthily on nothing but carrot cake than the average suburban American like me. "Bread" means what keeps you alive; "cake" means what gives you something to live for.

Something special is happening at my office, and I've been given the task of ordering the cake (and trickier, thinking of something to have written on it in frosting). I can think of a long list of good objections to this job. Nobody really likes cake, or at least nobody likes the bland sheet cakes with inoffensive frosting that are the necessary lowest common denominator at large gatherings. Such cakes exist only so that the fewest number of people will hate them. Cake is bad for you, and will draw the obligatory shudders from the dieting, the diabetic, and the vegan. Cake doesn't go with anything but coffee, but many cake gatherings are coffeeless potlucks. Cake is expensive, cake is hard to be hip about, and it has a tendency to crumble off paper plates all over your dress shirts. But one cannot have an event without it.

The icing on the cake in Humble's book is literally the icing on the cake. She spends several pages discussing the technology and symbolism of icing. I have long thought that cake was mainly a necessary evil to be endured for the sake of frosting. Frosting is dessert's dessert. The way I eat some cake is thus: I turn the slice on its side and suffer through as much of its battery underbelly as I can, till the slice reaches a ratio of about four parts frosting to one part cake. Then I begin the real eating. The best thing of all would be to eat cans of frosting with a spoon. Or better yet, go back in a time machine to 1967 and have my grandmother slip me an endless stream of Mixmaster blades thickly coated with buttercream.

Humble, Nicola. Cake: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2010.