Tina Fey speaks, and things happen. She goes on Weekend Update and eats cake in exaggerated political exasperation, and suddenly cakes are a thing. Cakes are protest, and cakes are also false protest, an empty safety pin of a solidarity gesture. Cakes are a litmus test: “This is hilarious!” cried a portion of the internet after Fey’s segment; shortly followed by a well-reasoned contingent wondering whether eating one’s feelings in lieu of activism was, in times of urgency, not actually a terribly productive technique.
The cake happened on television, and television is magic, so now it’s happening in real life. Not, I hope, to the letter of Fey’s recommendation, which would involve otherwise justice-minded people staying home and silent, patting themselves on the back for eating dessert. Instead, cake is really happening where cakes happen: at bakeries, where bakers suddenly have an instantly recognizable symbol for their outrage. Houston’s Three Brothers Bakery is selling cakes decked with American flags and the word “Sheetcaking” for $60, with half the proceeds going to the Holocaust Museum Houston. Boston’s Blackbird Donuts gave away free #sheetcake on August 19, the day of a white supremacist rally in the city, and donated the day’s sales to the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Oakland restaurant Hella Vegan Eats was making “Resist Fascism” galaxy-frosted layer cakes before the Charlottesville protests catapulted the issue to national attention; their newest creation, a “Kill Nazis” layer cake complete with molded-fondant brass knuckles, is currently the toast of Instagram.
If there aren’t already, in short order there will be people who live nowhere near Texas or California or Massachusetts who are furious, just furious, at bakeries in Houston and Oakland and Boston for “being political,” for not “sticking to food,” for “alienating their customers.” This is itself infuriating. Food is politics. It’s always difficult for me to say that without adding “of course” to the end of it: Food is politics, of course. Of course there are political forces pushing and pulling at it, the engine behind everything from the price of grain to the availability of labor to the potability of water to patio zoning to how much sawdust you can add before your processed dairy product is no longer allowed to be called cheese. How can you not understand that?
But so many people don’t, willingly or unwillingly. So many people retain the luxury of seeing food as nothing but pleasure, spilling blood to announce that they don’t care who made it or how you feel about it or what it symbolizes to you, and they don’t care to hear you tell them about it — they only care if it tastes good. What a luxury to not care! What a choice! As Tunde Wey wrote in a searing excoriation of the racism of trend-driven food culture (and the people who create and consume it), “Deliciousness cannot be the entirety of the narrative; it is merely a prerequisite for a wider conversation that considers the broader context.”
Food isn’t the only thing that’s politics — look at anything closely enough, you’ll start seeing the levers and seams, and once you’ve adjusted your eyes to it, it never really leaves your field of vision. People are politics, for example, both the identities we carry and the ways we create space in our lives for the identities of others, or maybe refuse to create space.
Ashley Shotwell of Hella Vegan Eats is being accused of “promoting violence” because she used the medium of her business to reject a political position — endorsed, or at least not believably condemned, by the goddamn President of the United States! — that would celebrate the extermination of the bakery’s queer and nonwhite owners and staff. Folks are mad at Three Brothers for “being political,” perhaps overlooking that the name of the business isn’t just random words thrown together but an actual description of actual human beings, with lives and memories — that the bakery was founded by Holocaust survivors, that the family is responding to a parade of white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” by donating to a Holocaust museum, using the proceeds of a cake that references an SNL bit, which was about the throttling paralysis that arises from watching an illusion of just and faithful governance dissolve like Splenda in hot coffee.
Baked goods are already political, oddly enough. The many-tiered, swagged, and starred cake that Donald Trump sliced into the night of his inauguration made headlines for its uncanny similarity to one baked four years earlier for Barack Obama, an instance of staggeringly high-profile frosting plagiarism. The legal case against the Colorado bakery who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple is headed all the way to the Supreme Court, where the decision is likely to hinge on whether the cake of a man marrying a man is an inherently and functionally distinct confection than the cake of a man marrying a woman. Trump used “the most beautiful chocolate cake” as a shiny distraction from his ineffective bombing of Syria, though the intentionality of his misdirection is up for debate.
Confectionery protest can also be quite active. Last year, anti-fascists threw a chocolate cake in the face of a German MP who was opposed to immigration. In 2011, Rupert Murdoch was the target of a vaudevillian pie plate of cream. In the ’90s, there arose an entire organization committed to baked goods as activism: The zapatista-inspired Biotic Baking Brigade threw pies in the face of dozens of high-profile figures who they saw as aiding environmental destruction and capitalist ends. They hit everyone: Andy Warhol, economist Milton Friedman, logging industry executive Charles Hurwitz, Monsanto chairman Robert Shapiro, and Bill Gates.
As for what I think about the Tina Fey bit — well, does it matter? I don’t think she meant it literally, but it never really matters what a person says; it only matters what other people hear, and more than enough people heard a white woman telling other white people to stay home and leave it to other folks to do the hard, long, dangerous work of protest. Some found that infuriating, while others — like the guy who decided that his way of speaking out against a white supremacy rally in a public park was to invite his friends to a sheet-cake picnic at a different park, 4 miles away — well, for better or worse, they didn’t.
The criticisms of cake-as-protest are clear and logical: It can be an empty gesture, a performance of activism without actually getting much done. There’s value to making a public statement, to be sure, but Instagram allyship doesn’t win wars. If you happen to be a professional baker, however, frosting-borne outrage is a powerful move, a clear statement of your values as a craftsperson, a business owner, or a public figure. Tina Fey’s apathetic gluttony may have missed the mark as satire, but it weaponized the pastry case on a national scale.
Bakers have always been a little subversive, a little punk, the truest artists and maddest scientists of the food world — if chefs are outsiders, pastry chefs are the outsiders to the outsiders. It makes sense that they rise up in protest like yeast. Tess Wilson, one of the women behind Protest Cakes, said she started the project because she’s a pastry chef. It was a way to “express our displeasure in the best way we know how,” she told KQED, by capitalizing on her professional skills to aid a cause she was passionate about — and why not? It’s a mark of passion to use every resource you have at your disposal, every instrument. Woodie Guthrie, shortly after writing the 1941 protest song “Talking Hitler’s Head off Blues,” painted a message on his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
Does a guitar kill fascists? Does a “Kill Nazis” cake put pressure on a senator? Does a pie push back against gerrymandering? Does a pink-frosted cake quoting the future President of the United states bragging about his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s tits actually get anything done? In 1999, three Biotic Baking Brigade members were convicted of battery for pelting San Francisco mayor Willie Brown while the mayor was making a public appearance. ''A pie is not a gun; a pie is not a knife; a pie is not a rock,” Kim Melcheski, a defense lawyer for the “Cherry Pie Three,” told the New York Times. ''A pie is not under any circumstances, a deadly weapon.'' Not a deadly weapon, maybe. But it can certainly be more than dessert.
Helen Rosner is Eater’s editor at large.
This post has been updated to correct the name of Hella Vegan Eats
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