Review: ‘Cake: A Slice of History’

Red and white wines arranged on the table behind her, a display reinforced by custom-made cupcakes configured in black and white tiers on the neighbouring stall, and one thing was already clear: it may have been Dr. Alysa Levene’s first commercial book launch, but she seems to know what makes a successful first day. Taking the title of her book, Cake: A Slice of History, as inspiration, the entirety of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford was temporarily transformed into a literary bakery for the launch of a book throwing new light on the (not so) humble cake. ‘Familiar cakes are the makers of memories’, reads the blurb: ‘What does cake mean for different people? How have we come to have such a huge variety of cakes? What had to happen historically for them to appear? And what can they tell us about the family, and women’s roles in particular?’

Of course, not everyone in the audience had come for the titular treats, but for Dr. Levene herself, who seems to have her own fan club. The enthusiastic former Oxford Brookes student (where Levene now teaches) told us anecdotes of classroom tea-times, field trips, and the exceptional devastation wrought on child welfare in industrial-era Britain. Cake: A Slice of History is a strong departure from the tone of Levene’s previous work, which focuses primarily on the welfare of family units in 18th and 19th century Britain.

41FTUPazLiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Levene provided the audience with a fast-paced and fascinating tour of cake through British history. Chronologically, this began with the well-known tale of Alfred the Great on the run from viking invaders in 871 A.D. Troubled and alone whilst in mid-retreat, he stumbles across a peasant woman’s home, where he takes refuge for the night. In return for her hospitality, all the woman asks is that he mind the cakes cooking on the hearth, and remove them lest they burn. Alfred agrees, and the woman retires to sleep. However, poor Alfred is so troubled by the latest tactical downturn that he forgets the cakes entirely. From here, it’s easy to imagine the old woman waking to the scent of smoke, and the ensuing hail of charred cakes she rains down upon his troubled head.

This was just a taster from Dr. Levene, who proceeded to whip up more hypotheses and counter-narratives than any linear timeline could possibly contain. The most distressing of these is that Levene doesn’t necessarily believe Alfred ever burned any sugary treats in the first place. How likely is it, after all, that the old woman would have any sugar in 871 A.D., resident in Britain’s only surviving stronghold against a near-century of Norse invasion? Not very, according to Levene, not very likely at all. She immediately distances “cakes” in the story from their common image today — these were likely quite heavy, dense bits of oat and flour, with perhaps a bit of egg or butter for sweetness. In fact, they may have only been “cake” in shape, a subtle point of interest about cake’s tenuous definition that continues well in to the present. Why else call soap bricks ‘cake soap,’ if not for their visual signifiers? It’s certainly not the resemblance in taste (unless one hasn’t rinsed the mixing bowl).

Levene went a step further to posit that the items on the fabled hearth may have actually been bread or other such simple bakes, turning into cake over time as the story was retold again and again, transforming into a quiet comment on gender and social roles. How great can Alfred the Great be, really, if he can’t mind a few cakes, if he is unable to perform even the most basic tasks umbrellaed under “women’s work?” So began Levene’s discussion of cake as a vehicle for social commentary. Who knew?

This rhetorical question – “Who knew?” – epitomizes Levene’s talk, and presumably her book: a treasure trove of interesting facts encountered from a number of angles by a confident scholar with a sweet tooth. Being a book launch (on its day of publication, no less), it was disappointing not to have heard much of anything from the pages of Levene’s attractive tome. Across the entire session, she only consulted the book once – to read a quote from a ruling at the infamous Jaffa Cake trial (“Is it a cake or a biscuit?”). Spoiler alert: it’s cake, proven largely (and with a straight face) by how biscuits and cake go stale in opposite ways. Biscuits, when left out, get soft. Cakes, when left out, grow hard. Jaffa Cakes, unconsumed, fossilize, so they must, in fact, be cake. This kind of factoid was, of course, exactly why the audience was there, but Levene generated an air of guilt for having to consult the book at all, as if she’d wished to have written down or memorized the quote in advance. For anyone in the audience who cares to read the text, this complete lack of visibility to the author’s written tone was a disappointing omission for an otherwise pleasant launch. 

But on the whole, the audience didn’t seem to mind the text being kept behind a veil, and readily probed Levene with questions. “What’s your favourite cake?” (Victoria Sandwich); “How do you feel about cake and the Women’s Institute?” (They are the gatekeepers of tradition); “Do you have mixed feelings about the way the resurgence of interest in baking on British television has tended towards glamorizing a 50s era mentality that glosses over the legitimate struggle felt by women in the homes at the time, including the fetishization of old style values and rigid gender roles?” (To her credit, a pause, then equally lengthy reply). All of which demonstrated the breadth, depth, and scope of Levene’s sugary task. Even without a proper sample of the book, it seems fair to say there are plenty of nutrients tucked away beneath its frosted sleeve.

Zach Burke

Cake: A Slice of History‘ is published by Headline and is available to buy, RRP £20.

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