Winter 2013-2014

The Icing on the Cake: An Interview with Nicola Humble

Baking festivity

Jeffrey Kastner and Nicola Humble

A reliable centerpiece of celebration across both history and cultures, cakes descend from the earliest forms of ritual activity—offerings, often of grain, honey, or milk, or some combination of the three, poured over or left at altars. Though what is called a cake varies widely across communities, most function as a simple sweet treat offered to round out a meal. Yet the more elaborate examples—created for weddings, birthdays, holidays, and other sorts of ceremonial events—reside in a strange zone between foodstuff and object, made to be admired as much as eaten. And in some ways, it is this distinctive character—their status as a symbolic focal point of festvities—that, more than any particular culinary form, defines them as the inimitable cornerstone of special occasions. Nicola Humble is a professor of literature at the University of Roehampton, London, and the author of Cake: A Global History (Reaktion, 2010). Jeffrey Kastner spoke with Humble by phone.

Cabinet: You begin your book by noting how hard it is to pin down just what a “cake” is. How exactly do we know one when we see one?

Nicola Humble: Well, I suppose one of the questions is who “we” are. Fundamentally, what I discovered was that the definition of cake is cultural. There are overlaps between what various cultures understand to be “cake,” but what is defined as cake and what is defined as a mere relative of cake—what the lines are between cake and bread, for instance, or cake and pudding, or cake and biscuits—is finally a cultural distinction. In the Anglo-American tradition, the key thing is that a cake is raised with something other than yeast, whereas that’s not true in the European tradition. Many of the most famous European cakes are yeast-raised, what the English would think of as sweet bread. And it’s also very much a distinction regarding the role that the food plays. It seems to me that cake is about precisely not being good for you, about being excessive, unnecessary, celebratory; it can serve as a centerpiece and its key meaning lies in its object status. It’s food that gets to sit around being looked at for quite a long time, and so it’s those sorts of attitudes—as much as anything to do with how it’s made—that I think are crucial.

Happy birthday, sweetie. I love you and I will stuff you with sugar. Photo from Betty Crocker’s Cake and Frosting Mix Cookbook (1966).

And many of the very early cakes also functioned in some sense as objects, as artifacts to be employed in ritual activities.

Yes, and that’s very important. Cake used in various sorts of religious rituals seems to have gone back to the Neolithic period. If we look at cakes in antiquity, they’re very often religious offerings not designed to be eaten at all, but rather to be sacrificed—essentially giving the best things, the richest foods, to your god. There’s always an issue with translation here—classicists translate a number of different food groups as cake. Often they are what I suppose in another time period we’d refer to as buns, sweetened little bread objects. There seem to be various types of classical cakes that are important and they often derive from earlier forms of religious offerings, where you would pour milk or honey or grain over an altar, and many of the earliest cakes are compacted forms of poured offerings—grains of wheat, say, bound together with honey and milk. And they’re “cakes” because they are compressed, in the same way a “cake of soap” is; something smushed together into a flattened, rounded form. So, literally a compound of good things. And there are all sorts of different cakes used in celebrations and processions in honor of various gods: mulloi, for example, which were made from sesame and honey in the shape of a woman’s genital organs and carried in Syracuse in procession for Demeter and Persephone. So even very early cakes took on symbolic form, which is part of the importance of what cake does.

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