Cake: A Slice of History (Alysa Levene)

I’ve always liked food history—maybe because as a small child I spent quite a lot of time reading The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, a Time-Life cookbook my mother had, and from it learned quite a bit of history.  Many, if not most, modern cookbooks contain large sections of history, and many food history books contain a lot of recipes, such as Anne Mendelson’s Milk.  So there is significant overlap between the two genres.  This book, Cake, by Alysa Levene, falls more into the history category and less into the cookbook category.  It offers a largely successful blend of well-written data dump and mild social commentary—satisfying, like a cake!

Naturally enough, the book is subtitled “A Slice of History.”  That history is, for the most part, that of the Anglo-Saxon world of cake.  To the extent other countries and cultures show up, it is mostly because their cakes were imported into, or influenced, the Anglo-Saxon world.  Levene begins, in fact, with Alfred the Great, than whom it is harder to get more Anglo-Saxon.   As the legend goes, King Alfred, on the run from the Vikings, took anonymous refuge in a woman’s house.  She asked him to watch the cakes baking over the fire; he, daydreaming of victory over his enemies, let them burn, whereupon the woman scolded him.  Levene’s point is that cakes have a long history, and also that what Alfred burned wasn’t really what we think of when we say “cake.”  It was more like bread, had no raising agent, and wasn’t sweet, much less frosted.  And the instruments of baking were, of course, primitive and hard to control.  The history of cake is the history of how our food got from there to here.

Levene goes through all we know about early baking, back to Classical times.  Such baking could be quite fancy and was highly varied, even within particular cultures.  As with much else, technology and variety, driven largely by ingredient availability, was lacking in early Western Europe, which had lost those earlier cakes, along with machinery and roads.  The renewal of cake began with fruit cakes, which became popular across Europe in the Middle Ages, as international trade increased and specialty ingredients, from sugar to exotic fruits and spices, became widely available.  Here, as throughout the book, Levene alternates history with examples of the cakes resulting from that history, from gingerbread to a still-made-today Easter cake called “Simnel cake,” a fruit cake “covered with marzipan, with a second marzipan layer in the middle, and decorated on the top with eleven marzipan balls representing the Apostles (minus Judas).”  Marzipan is my favorite sweet, and you can buy quality versions on Amazon in bulk nowadays.  I know what I’m doing this weekend!  Anyway, much of this history is cultural history, rather than kings-and-battles history (King Alfred is the rare king mentioned), and Levene does an excellent job of tying specific cakes and history together.

The book then turns to more modern times, when colonialism and slavery made sugar cheap, and foods like pound cake, angel cake, and other refined, risen cakes started coming to the fore.  At first, leavening was provided by eggs and hours of elbow grease; then by chemical agents.  At the same time, starting in the Eighteenth Century, cookbooks began to be written and become popular.  Levene alternates among descriptions of cakes popular through time, some still popular today, the technical methods used to make those cakes, and how those methods changed over time.  This may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I find it fascinating, in large part because my focus in cooking tends to the technical, which is an important element of successful baking, more so than some other forms of cooking.  If you don’t like either history or baking, though, this book probably isn’t for you.

Throughout, but not with an overly heavy hand, Levene weaves the theme of how baking is mostly something done by women (except for professionals in France, who are nearly all men), and tries to analyze whether this is good, bad or indifferent.  To her credit, she doesn’t have a simplistic “woman in kitchen bad” approach; rather, she (channeling Nigella Lawson) notes that a woman can be, by her own choice and to her own advantage, a “domestic goddess,” and there is nothing inherently demeaning about women baking or, for that matter, sex roles in general, even if dictated by culture more than biology.  She notes “the much overlooked fact that women are attached to homemaking and housekeeping even in an era when these things are not fashionable or expected of liberated and career-capable women”—by the choice of those women.  In many ways, after all, baking and cookbooks were methods throughout history by which women were able to flaunt their abilities, and they are obviously methods of nurturing, which biologically is tied more to women than men (not that Levene mentions this last, obvious and indisputable yet not politically correct, point).  Almost all famous cookbooks in history were written by women, and women like Julia Child are indissolubly identified with modern cuisine, so to suggest that necessarily “baking = drudgery for women” is pretty obviously wrong.

Levene covers the 20th Century as well—the wars, the shortages and resulting use of ersatz ingredients, the 1950s, the changing cultural role and symbolism of birthday cakes, and, finally, the recent cupcake craze, which has largely, but not completely, burnt out.  This last she uses to return to the theme of women’s relationship to cake, noting that women dominate the trade and the home production of cupcakes, which she ascribes to cultural reasons, and also notes that cupcakes are a frippery of the affluent.  But that doesn’t mean they, and cakes in general, are not popular for good reason.  In these days of political bitterness, every one of us can get behind a good slice of cake, and then line up for seconds.  It’s time for me to work on my Simnel cake!


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