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Double Check: Is Everything Cake?

 

On July 8, the food site Tasty posted a 3 minute and 55 second video with the caption “These Are All Cakes,” showing a knife cutting into several different unnervingly realistic objects and revealing them to be made, in fact, of cake.

 

 

Tasty, a subsidiary outlet of Buzzfeed, specialises in making viral videos of recipes and food items, but even for them, this one was a big hitter. The video has reached nearly 30 million views, and sparked thousands of cake jokes in response.

 

 

It’s not even the first time things have been cake, similar videos have bounced around the internet for years, but some combination of the sheer virality of that one video in particular and a kind of collective pandemic-induced mania has taken hold, and birthed the suspicion that nothing is safe…. anything, everything could be cake. Things in the Tasty video that turned out to be cake include: a Croc sandal, a delicately perforated roll of toilet paper, an aloe vera plant, a bar of soap complete with bubbles, a hand soap dispenser bottle, a pair of bananas, a pepperoni pizza, a coconut, a board of grilled vegetables, and a pile of fluffy towels. The hyper-realistic cakes in the video were made by Turkish baker Tuba Geçkil, who has amassed a huge following on Instagram by posting her creations.

Mostly, people seem to be concerned that the cakes are loosening their grip on reality, which is perhaps already somewhat tenuous following weeks of full or partial lockdown in many countries. If an unassuming toilet roll or a houseplant could turn out to be a cake, what else could? Is anything safe? At Logically, we are committed to helping you judge what’s real and what’s not on the internet, and the cake issue is no exception. We invited back our resident culinary expert Olivia Potts, and regular contributor and philosopher Tom Whyman, to figure out if everything is really cake or not.

First up is Olivia, chef and author of A Half Baked Idea, how grief, love and cake took me from the courtroom to Le Cordon Bleu, who helped us out with another food based investigation, into Robert Pattinson's quarantine pasta recipe.

 

Hi Olivia, thanks for coming back to help us out with another food-based Internet conundrum. I guess the most pressing question is, how much of the world that we previously thought was not cake, is in fact cake?

Everything is cake. That table? Definitely a cake. Your cat? Cake. Take a bite out of your cushion? It’s cake.

 

Can you tell us anything about food illusions in general? What’s happening when we try to make some foods look like other foods, or other things altogether?

People love food illusions. It’s something that chefs and cooks have been doing for hundreds of years: we know that in Roman times, rabbits were prepared to be eaten then made to look like mythical creatures. ‘Entremets’ used to be made for feasts in the Early Modern period to amuse noblemen – roasted fowl redressed to look like the original swan or peacock, or depicting full scenes of knightly behaviour. It’s a culinary art form.

People lost their collective minds when Heston reinvigorated a recipe from the 1300s to make his now famous Meat Fruit, a savoury chicken liver and foie gras parfait, coated in a mandarin jelly, to look like a real life mandarin orange.

 

Why now? Cake illusions have been around for a while, why do you think the concept is taking off in this way at the moment?

We’ve always been fascinated by things that look like other things, or things that look true to life. Paintings that are so detailed they look like photographs, those painted men in Covent Garden who look like statues: we can’t get enough of them. And illusion cakes are super labour-intensive. You can’t make a cake that looks like a Croc sandal as quickly or as easily as you can make a normal iced round cake. It’s its own skill. But it’s also fun: the moment of reveal or realisation, the wow moment is fun. It’s like being a child seeing a rabbit pulled from a hat for the first time.

I think there’s a real pay-off when that knife slices down into the cake: cake decorators often use a mixture of Rice Krispies and marshmallow to make shapes for cake decorating as it’s highly mouldable, or decorate dummy polystyrene ‘cakes’ with icing, but it’s not the same isn’t it? We want the satisfaction of the slice-though.

And as for why now, well, we’re all quite bored aren’t we? The highlight of my day is my husband sending me a GIF of a dog and a cat becoming friends. And cakes that look like hand sanitizer are funny.

 

Do you reckon these cakes are even any good as cakes, or is the whole point for them to look freaky rather than taste good?

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the priority for these cakes is appearance over flavour. There are a lot of considerations d for cakes like these which you don’t have for ‘normal’ cakes: the cake needs to be carvable, without disintegrating, so it tends to be quite dense and dry. You don’t want it too tender, or to have any little delicious nubbly bumpy bits in the sponge, like nuts or chocolate or dried fruit. It’s unlikely to be the greatest cake you’ve ever tasted.

It also uses a lot more fondant than a normal iced cake, and it’s fondant which has obviously been pretty manipulated and handled by the time we’re seeing what looks like a roll of loo paper or an aubergine.

Fondant has mostly fallen out of fashion now, because it’s one-note sweet, unflavoured, and has a very distinct texture. Most people now opt for buttercream-coated cakes. A lot of people really, really hate fondant. It’s all mouth and no trousers. I’ve seen it described as ‘the devil’s sugary Play-Doh.’ If we’re being kind, it can feel a little like the cake is the means to the illusion's end.

But then you have chefs like Cedric Grolet in Paris who makes incredible desserts that look like the fruit from which they’re made, and they are both visually stunning and ridiculously delicious (please nobody make a Croc sandal cake that also tastes like a Croc sandal).

 

If you could make one non-cake object into a cake, what would it be?

The rich. Then I can eat them.

 

We also spoke to Tom Whyman, a regular Logically contributor and philosopher, to ask what is happening in people’s minds that makes the cakes seem plausible as everyday objects, and by extension, everyday objects seem like they might be cakes.

 

Hi Tom. Speaking as a philosopher: might everything be cake? If so, then what?

Let me answer that by citing a famous argument from the philosophy of perception. The philosopher A.J. Ayer argued that the possibility of perceptual illusions meant that we could never be in direct contact with reality. He used the example of a stick half-submerged in water, which looks bent. This experience, Ayer said, was one in which we are directly aware of something bent – but there is no bent physical object anywhere to be found (if we pick up the stick and examine it, it will look straight). So, whenever we have an experience which purports to be of the external world, we are directly aware not of the world as such, but something else. Ayer called the stuff we’re directly aware of ‘sense data’.

You could definitely use cake illusions to argue something similar. Thanks to these videos, we must now think: any experience we have of any normal object in the world has been revealed to be possibly one of cake. So if we experience a book or a hand or some toilet roll or whatever, we might well think: maybe this isn’t really what it purports to be. Maybe I’m just experiencing some book-like sense data. There is no actual, physical book here: there is in fact only cake.

 

Why do you think people are becoming aware of the possibility that everything might be cake now?

I remember learning from a friend’s research that prisoners kept in solitary confinement (think the worst of the worst American prisons, where some prisoners are kept in a single, isolated cell for 23 hours a day, with only a single hour for exercise) often end up hallucinating – the theory being, that people in this situation are so deprived of sensory stimulation, that their brain can’t cope: it ends up filling in the gaps where experiences would be for itself.

Well: while the conditions currently being enforced by no means amount to compulsory solitary confinement, it is certainly true that under lockdown, the world has become a much more isolated and lonely place for a lot of people. I’ve seen lots of people talking about how this has distorted their experience of time: living the same day over and over again, days dragging but time itself somehow sped up (what day is it? Friday already?). But perhaps too it is contributing to a sense of the erosion of the distinction between fantasy and reality. Reality is sustained, in part, by the fact that it can be experienced not only by ourselves, but other people. If there is no-one else around, or only a couple of others… what then?

But even for people who have not spent lockdown isolated from human contact, or live somewhere that is mostly out of lockdown and ‘back to normal’, I think there is a general sense at the moment that reality is in a sort of accelerated state of collapse. Political and economic turmoil, job losses, the Arctic Circle on fire... Here I think the cake meme has a sort of libidinal appeal: what if instead of collapsing into chaos and death… everything is just collapsing into cake? The collapse of reality suddenly becomes something sweet and pleasant.

 

Is this purely an online thing? Do you think if people saw these cakes in real life, they would have anything like the same effect?

I don’t know how convincing these cakes are in real life – I’m not a baker. But I would assume the effect is more impressive on video – the creator can control the light, and how they’re shot.

‘Everything is cake’ is an online phenomenon, through and through. But of course, nowadays, our sense of reality is heavily mediated through what we experience online: we carry the online world wherever we go ‘irl’, in our smartphones (and even if you personally don’t, almost everyone else around you does). Social media in particular is responsible for accelerating the present sense of reality collapse: through social media, we are constantly exposed to a quite bewildering flood of information. If nothing else, it gave us President Trump, so it’s difficult to know what it could give us next.

 

So what’s the official Logically verdict? Clearly a non-zero percentage of things that we previously didn’t think were cake are cake. We don’t think that figure is high enough for us to start worrying about the whole of reality collapsing into cake just yet, although it’s never a bad thing to be vigilant, and have a napkin at the ready just in case.

 

You can buy Olivia’s book here, and read her blog here. You can read Tom's work for Logically here and some of his other work here.

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