Let Them Eat Fakes

Trompe l’oeil cakes, which imitate mundane objects, serve not only as uncanny tricks, but also as sly commentaries on commodification and consumption.

By Ligaya Mishan

Photographs by Kyoko Hamada

WHAT DO YOU FEED A KING, dulled to every luxury beyond want? In the city-state of Venice in 1574, the young Henry III, then king of Poland and en route to becoming king of France, was welcomed with a banquet, just another in the hundreds of his life. But when he reached for his napkin, it shattered, a handful of dust. The whole setup was fake — the drape of tablecloth, the platters and knives. All were molded out of a powdered sugar paste likely made with rose and orange blossom water and tragacanth, a resin from a plant indigenous to the Middle East and Asia: the yields of trade and Western expansion. A year before, Venice had ended a war with the Ottoman Empire by grudgingly ceding Cyprus, the site of its cane plantations, and the price of sugar was high. To waste so much of it was a show of power. It hardly mattered, then, that this was a feast of nothing, too sweet to eat. The pleasure lay in the surprise, the beautiful lie.

For centuries, the West has delighted in the treachery of food in disguise, from the intricate sotelties of the Middle Ages, presented to aristocrats between dinner courses — a pastry stag, say, with an arrow in its side, which when plucked let loose a gush of bloodlike claret — to the grand edible monuments and landscapes erected for public festivals in Italy in the 16th through 18th centuries, with swooping arches of bread and cheese crowned by suckling pigs and mock trees hung with fruit and haunches of game. Part of the entertainment was inviting the public to ransack the displays and scrabble for mouthfuls among the ruins, while nobles of the court applauded from afar: a literal hunger games. These fever dreams were meant to evoke the mythic Land of Cockaigne, a utopia that first entered European literature around the 13th century, where custard rained down from the sky, roofs were tiled in bacon and garlic-roasted geese and stewed larks, tasting of cloves and cinnamon, flew straight into your mouth — where no one, highborn or low, had to suffer to make a living to ease their hunger. It was a fantasy of abundance at a time when, for much of the population, food was no certainty. (Inevitably, a disapproving tone crept in, and by the 16th century, Cockaigne was a cautionary tale of gluttony and sloth.)

Centuries later, we’re still mesmerized by these little duplicities, the more so in our compulsively visual culture, where food is increasingly consumed without actual eating, experienced through a screen. Between or even in lieu of meals, we sate ourselves on the theater of ever-proliferating TV cooking shows while trawling Instagram for brightly staged still lifes of brimming-over burgers and neon macarons. This disembodiment was exacerbated during the pandemic, when many restaurants were forced to shut down and dining with anyone beyond immediate family — eating as occasion, as opposed to mere sustenance — all but ceased. What a happy distraction, then, when last summer, BuzzFeed’s Tasty shared a video on Twitter that opened on a close-up of a knife looming over a red Croc sandal with its bulbous toe box. There was barely a moment for the viewer to register the banality of the shoe before the knife, wielded by a black-gloved hand, cut it brusquely in half, revealing layers of yellow and pink cake.

More objects followed, each the work of the pastry chef Tuba Geckil of Red Rose Cake in Istanbul, and each startlingly realistic: a roll of quilted toilet paper; a bar of soap, frothy as if just used; two ripe bananas, black-flecked and joined at the stem. All fell to the blade.

Other pastry chefs in recent years have made a fetish of illusion, from Cédric Grolet at Le Meurice hotel in Paris — whose rough-skinned lemons turn out to be white chocolate shells sprayed with gold powder, masking interiors of poached lemons and yuzu ganache — to Sarah Hardy of the Edible Museum in Colchester, England, with her anatomically precise chocolate brains and hearts. But Geckil’s objects, so staid and ordinary, struck a chord. Within days the video earned nearly 30 million views, and some commenters shot their own videos, thrusting knives into objects in their own homes, wondering if everything was secretly cake, even themselves. (One meme appropriated a clip from Ben Cullen, the self-appointed BakeKing, of Chester, England, showing a tattooed hand holding a knife and slicing into another tattooed hand — cake! — before blithely chopping up the arm.)

Yet no one was really fooled. Tasty’s tweet introducing the video gave the game away from the start: “These are all cakes.” The knife is the focus, disrupting the illusion before it even has a chance of duping the viewer. Left intact, the objects would remain just objects, latent and unexceptional, beneath notice. Only once exposed as fake do they take on value. The awe is all in retrospect. And this may be why these camouflaged cakes charmed so many, that what appears to be a small-scale but still subversive undermining of reality — at a time when we’re contending with far bigger and more dangerous deceptions: the widening gyre of disinformation; a stock market unmoored from actual worth; the ever more remote promise of social mobility — is in the end no threat at all. The point is not the trick but our seeing through it, which confirms the human capacity for recognizing truths and our dominion in interpreting and shaping the world around us. Maybe nothing is real; maybe everything is a joke. But at least we’re in on it.

THE EARLIEST CAKES were distinguished by a lack of dimension. To the ancient Greeks, they were plakous, from the word for flat. Archaeologists have found remnants dating back 6,400 years, in a lakeside Neolithic village in what is today Switzerland, where the seeds of the opium poppy were crushed into a paste (some have theorized for narcotic use) and smoothed over hot stones to bake. For millenniums, so-called cakes were basically bread, save for a faint sweetness (from milk or honey, for example) and a plumping up with some form of fat. Not until the mid-19th century, with advances in flour milling technology and the invention of baking powder — which bypassed the need for leavening with yeast — did cakes gain the buoyancy we know today.

Maybe nothing is real; maybe everything is a joke. But at least we’re in on it.

Nevertheless, sweetness and fat were enough to lend cakes an aura of the extraordinary and earn them a ritualistic role in our lives. In “Cake: A Global History” (2010), the British cultural historian Nicola Humble notes a shared lineage with religious offerings: Cake is essentially a compacted form of the rich ingredients — grain, nuts, milk, honey — that were traditionally poured out on altars to be devoured by the divine. Nutritionally unnecessary and yet more than a dessert, it’s almost always celebratory, present at major life events, marking the passage of years as well as the binding contract of marriage. “Cake is one of those foodstuffs whose symbolic function can completely overwhelm its actual status as comestible,” Humble writes, although it is also emphatically and often excessively sensual, smeared with icing and disgorging creamy fillings: “food layered on food.”

Icing, and with it the prospect of ostentatious design, came late to the party, an innovation of the mid-17th century as sugar production increased and prices dropped — a direct result of human trafficking, as native Africans were forcibly shipped to the West Indies to work the cane plantations. White cakes were explicitly favored, the British social anthropologist Simon R. Charsley has written, because the whiter the icing, the higher the amount and quality of sugar, bespeaking luxury. This was true for all cakes, whatever the occasion, until the color, historically deployed in the West to evoke cleanliness and purity, eventually became the signature of weddings in the 19th century, with the snowy cake standing in for the bride in her immaculate gown and the ceremonial cake cutting re-enacting the loss of virginity.

And so attention shifted from the cake itself to its facade. British royal weddings set the standard with fluted columns, cathedral arches, swags and filigrees all rendered in royal icing, a compound of powdered sugar and egg whites that clung like cement and stiffened into a shield over a layer of almond paste or marzipan. Cakes could be homey comfort, piped with impressionistic butter cream flowers whose lax edges practically begged to be smudged, or a pageantry of precision — a divide that widened toward the end of the 20th century with the rise of fondant, also known as sugar paste, plastic icing and ready-to-roll icing: a modern version of a traditional French confection of boiled sugar, today typically mixed with liquid glucose or corn syrup and gelatin and glycerin for pliancy, and as supple as clay.

The trouble is, fondant is undelicious, chalky and chewy, particularly in commercially premade form, so much so that diners often just peel it off the cake. But apparently that is the price of artistry. For with this kind of moldable icing, a cake can become anything: the Colosseum, an Hermès Birkin bag, a Croc. Above all, fondant makes it possible to hide a cake’s cakeness. The crumble, the yielding, the sumptuousness, the sheer joy of cramming it into your mouth as quickly as you can — all are sealed off under that smooth, perfected surface, which invites touch but allows no entry, no gratification. The cake has disappeared.

DECEPTION AS AN ART form goes back to at least the fifth century B.C., when the Greek painter Zeuxis is said to have produced a picture of grapes so vivid, birds pecked at the canvas. European painting from the Renaissance through the mid-19th century was committed to faithful representation, in part as a way of honoring God’s manifestation in “the smallest detail of earthly creation,” the German art historian Sybille Ebert-Schifferer has written. But trompe l’oeil, French for “deceive the eye” — a genre born in the Netherlands in the 17th century as a subcategory of still life — took this a step further, from representing to being, depicting objects so convincingly, a viewer might be persuaded that there was no painting; that the thing painted was the thing itself.

The cake is a cake, whatever its makeover, with a primal promise of comfort.

“Might” is the operative word, for no evidence suggests that viewers were ever truly conned. Nevertheless, the whiff of uncertainty was titillating, and trompe l’oeil proved hugely popular, even as critics scorned it as a gimmick and worse, a morally suspect enterprise, whose goal was simply to replicate the most mundane and trivial of items without the edification of beauty or heroic narrative. “The mind … derives its pleasure not from the contemplation of a truth but from the discovery of a falsehood,” the English art critic John Ruskin declared in the first volume of “Modern Painters” in 1843. Not long after, with photography ascendant and painting shifting away from straightforward mimesis, trompe l’oeil lost its hold on the public imagination.

Yet here it is today, resurrected in sugar, and arguably once again crystallizing the anxieties of an era. For trompe l’oeil was never just a gotcha. Emerging around the same time as bourgeois capitalism, ultrarealistic still lifes both reflected and abetted a culture newly bewitched by commodities. As the Canadian American art historian Emily Braun writes in the catalog for “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition,” an exhibition she is co-curating that will open next year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sometimes these paintings were small frauds that pointed to larger ones, “from government sleight of hand with paper currency to false promises of advertising.”

We remain in thrall to our purchasing power and how it defines us, especially as commodities have become untethered from reality, mediated through shop windows and iPhone screens. Part of the appeal of trompe l’oeil cakes, notably those modeled not on luxuries but on plebeian goods, is how they recalibrate value. Technically, it’s the cake that undergoes transformation, cut into shape and camouflaged, but for the audience, the narrative goes the other way. What we think is merely utilitarian is exposed as something else entirely — a provocation, an exercise in the ridiculous, an unasked-for treat.

“IF YOU CAN EAT IT, IT’S NOT ART,” the American humorist Fran Lebowitz once said. Yet art has historically used food as both subject and, in recent decades, materials, like the ink of boiled-down Coca-Cola in paintings by the Chinese conceptual artist He Xiangyu or the bed carved out of more than 500 loaves of bread by the British sculptor Antony Gormley, who used his teeth to bite and shape, then ate the leftovers. In turn, chefs have claimed the mantle of artists and cast plates as staged tableaus. Trompe l’oeil was a fixture of molecular gastronomy, which gained renown in the 2000s with tricks like dropping olive juice into a bath of sodium alginate, creating an olivelike orb that trapped the juice at its center, ready to burst in the mouth — the Spanish chef Ferran Adrià’s famous liquid olive.

But where in traditional trompe l’oeil, attention is drawn to the materials — the paint, the canvas — in avant-garde cooking, the opposite happens: The ingredients are often broken down beyond recognition and assigned startling new textures, leaving only flavor as a clue. In detecting the deceit of a trompe l’oeil painting, you become an accomplice to it; your perceptive powers are validated by your ability to decipher the artist’s scheme. (This is Ruskin’s critique, neatly summed up by the literary scholar Caroline Levine: “Imitative art is dangerous because it teaches us to enjoy our own authority.”) Presented with a liquid olive, lacking knowledge of its origin story or the tools that make it possible, you are nothing but a witness. You aren’t invited in with a handshake and a wink; you’re supposed to be mystified.

The riddle of the trompe l’oeil cake is simpler. It’s solved in an instant, with a stroke of the knife. And the materials matter: The cake is a cake, whatever its makeover, with a primal promise of comfort. Maybe the lure isn’t the cleverness of the deception at all, but the cake as endgame — the reward that makes all the absurdity (of a cake that looks like a bottle of hand sanitizer, of life in general) worthwhile. “You will be baked, and then there will be cake,” says the singsong robotic voice midway through the video game Portal (2007), as you run a gantlet of puzzles and try not to die; later, the voice taunts, “I’m going to kill you, and all the cake is gone,” and it’s not clear which fate is worse.

So while some commenters framed last summer’s cake video — in jest, but only just — as an ontological crisis, calling into question the nature of reality, it’s more interesting to read it as a jubilant shattering of illusions and illusion-making itself. The knife destroys the pristine veneer of fondant and, in so doing, liberates the cake within. Already, a small subculture of bakers have started defying the norms of cake decoration and the quest for seamless, tranquilizing Instagram perfection (what the Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls “art in the age of Like”). As the essayist Alicia Kennedy writes in “On Cake: And the Shifting Aesthetics of Perfection,” bakers like Bronwen Wyatt of Bayou Saint Cake in New Orleans and Joey Peach of Flavor Supreme in Chicago shun artificially smooth and impeccably finished surfaces, instead topping their cakes with thick ripples of butter cream as tall as Elizabethan ruffs, shards of pomegranate studded with seeds, pulp spilling viscously out of a passion fruit’s cracked shell and even cryptic scraps of lettuce.

Of course, most of us will never taste the trompe l’oeil cakes enshrined on Instagram. Fulfillment is forever withheld. Yet something else is gained: Reality is destabilized, but instead of proving hollow and empty of meaning, it’s flooded with possibility. Nothing is fixed; transformation awaits. Braun notes that our relationship to our possessions has intensified during the pandemic, as we’ve been “pushed into proximity” with them in lockdown and isolation. With our worlds shrunk, “our imagination has to dwell within the things around us.” We are left to commune with the inanimate, to uncover its secrets. Just a little nick with the knife, because you never know. Oh, let it be, let it be cake.

Food styling: Miko Kaw Hok Uy. Prop styling: Victoria Petro-Conroy

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