Instagram Creators Launched Zine That Explores the Rich History of Cake

The pandemic brought with it a boom in buttercream. As pastry chefs shifted to social media-dependent micro bakeries, and artists changed their mediums from ceramics to cake, and amateurs picked up piping bags as pastimes, social media feeds filled with more cake than ever. And not just more cake: more interesting cake, more thoughtful cake, more experimental cake, more cake as meme, more cake as art. Instagram became the greatest way to play with the idea of what cake can be.

Instagram is also how writer and editor Aliza Abarbanel, formerly of Bon Appétit, and baker Tanya Bush of got their intro, later meeting up in person when Bush had extra cookies to share. In December 2021, they organized a holiday bake sale at Brooklyn’s KIT, which benefited the mutual aid groups Breaking Bread NYC and EV Loves NYC. While assembling pastry boxes, they brainstormed what their next creative project would be, until they landed on cake.

Months later, meet Cake Zine, Abarbanel and Bush’s self-published interrogation of cake and all its complexities and contradictions. Cake Zine’s first issue, Sexy Cake, now available for pre-order for $22 plus shipping, considers cake through the lens of sex, gender, and desire, and allows creators from across the cake world to situate their baking in a broader context.

Across its pages, Sexy Cake ranges from slightly esoteric (baker Lexie Smith’s meditative essay on the history of phallic pastries), to provocative (a retrospective interview with former-professional cake-sitter Lindsay Dye), to seductive (poet Annika Hansteen-Izora’s Recipe for a Nude), to downright smutty (excerpts from Literotica). Here, Abarbanel and Bush explain why cake is ideal for this kind of exploration.

Eater: What drew you to cake as an area of interrogation, and how is that related to your individual cooking practices, if at all?

Tanya Bush: I’m a baker and a grad student. I was interested in thinking about dessert more critically and creatively, as something beyond the bite at the end of the meal. I also work for an organization called Tables of Contents; it explores the connection between food and literature, and that’s shaped the way that I approach food. Cake has this incredibly rich history and enormous symbolic power. It’s a rallying point for communities for celebration, and it’s something that I make all the time. There’s savory cake, there’s fake cake, there’s austere cake; my Instagram feed is rife with opulently frosted, multi-tier cakes. I was interested in peeking beyond the visuality of the thing.

Aliza Abarbanel: I am a freelance food writer and editor, though I write about other things as well. I’m definitely somebody that enjoys cake but I consider myself more a home cook than a home baker — when I make a cake, it’s probably not a cake but brownies instead. Like Tanya and a lot of people that are consuming food content online, I was noticing a lot of the unconventional, opulent, maximalist, or frankly, kind of weird cakes that come up on Instagram but are also driven by real-life interest. I felt like [cake] was everywhere and had so many different meanings that were interesting to explore.

As you write in the intro, society has come to equate “a piece of cake” with things that are easy, or even by extension, simple. Why do you think that, historically, we’ve seen cake with this kind of dismissive approach?

TB: I feel like food and dessert and sex were often linked as a forum for male seduction; a cake was designed for maximum husband appeal. It was packaged and sold to women as a way of prescribing their role in the household, and obviously, that dynamic has continued in different forms over time. Some of what our zine is trying to do is turn those tropes on their heads and endorse baking for our own hedonistic pleasure, instead of thinking about it as the sort of simple thing to be offered up to a husband or as a mode of seduction.

AA: That phrase is kind of focused on the consumption of cake, like it’s easy to eat a slice, and it’ll be a fun, light thing. One of the many things we were interested in was focusing not just on the consumption part of cake but on the process of making it. [That] can be very complicated, whether that’s in the sense that baking is chemistry and it can go wrong, or that the motivation behind baking can be more complicated than just the experience of eating.

In terms of those complicating factors, why do you think there is such a strong connection between cake and sex?

TB: Both food and sex are basic desires; you can’t really avoid them. The act of eating is often compared to the act of having sex: Both are endowed with the power to arouse desire, to satisfy a craving, and I think the arc of the experience is similar. There’s the anticipation of a good meal, or a sexy time. There’s the foreplay leading up to the culmination of the final event; you’re smelling the cake baking in the oven. Then, there’s the actualization of the whole thing: the hopefully euphoric experience of eating it, and the pleasure and satisfaction at the end of it all.

A cake topped with a candle sculpted to look like a shirtless Robert Redford

AA: Something that comes to mind for me is something Lexie Smith wrote about in her essay about phallic pastry: wedding cakes. [They’re] a big thing if you’re talking about cake and sexuality, especially in the traditional cis-heterosexual Western wedding where, in theory, there’s supposed to be a purity component, and then the wedding bed and all of that that happens afterwards.

You also write in the zine’s intro that your research began with newspaper archives and looking at recipes and ads. I’d love to hear more about your research process and how you decided to hone in on looking at cake in that way.

TB: I studied history in undergrad, so I think about cake historically. I was reading cookbooks from the mid-20th century and thinking about the ways that women’s sexual roles can be prescribed through food: where making food is not only a domestic duty, but a metaphor for the right kind of sexual behavior. There are all these recipes for a happy husband, or “this is the cake that’s gonna please your man.” I was interested in food, and dessert specifically, as laden with all these gender roles and traditional sexual roles. I went to Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks in the East Village and started paging through all these cookbooks with hyper-sexualized women on the covers presenting these opulent desserts. That felt like something we needed to be contending with contemporarily.

AA: It was so rich to go through the Library of Congress archive, or something like that, and see the ways that media was framing cake and recipes. Historically, companies like Jell-O or Betty Crocker would run an advertisement with a recipe in a newspaper or a magazine, to incorporate their own product that was, in theory, simplifying the process of baking and the duties that a lot of women had, to be providing a cake at a meal. [I was interested in] the way that [media was] talking to women and advertising. There’s a collage at the front of our zine that [includes] an advertisement that says “I’m shameless the way I hold my men… with cake appeal!” It’s selling this fantasy that you get the guy without having to spend hours baking something.

In your conversation with Lindsay Dye about her cake-sitting performances, she mentions that she preferred when people had a preconceived idea about the experience, and then left feeling a different way. How do you want this zine to change people’s preconceptions of cake?

TB: A lot of people that want to buy this probably already spend a lot of time thinking about cake in different ways, but I do hope that people will think more about the intentions behind wanting to have cake and marking an occasion in the first place. Maybe if you’re somebody that only bakes cake for the people in your lives’ birthdays — which is something that I do like to do — you also can make cake for yourself. Or you can interact with cake in a different way, or think about cake more in general, not [only] as something you want to eat but as something that can contain so much inside of it.

You touched on social media earlier, so I’d love your thoughts on how you see online spaces, and especially Instagram, changing the way people perform and present cake.

TB: I spend a lot of time looking at cakes on Instagram, which does feel to me sort of like culinary seduction — like I am constantly looking at these strange, maximalist, wacky creations and yearning to try them. There’s this recent history of very sexualized close-ups of food, which [offer the] vicarious thrill of indulging in that way. I think it’s giving way to more artistic exploration. We’re not tasting everything that we see on Instagram, so it’s incredibly visual, which I think is an exciting, empowering mode of expression for a lot of people and a wonderful way to share creations in a very supportive space.

AA: After working on the zine for the past three months, it’s like my Instagram is only cake. As not a reluctant baker but definitely an infrequent baker, I would think [at first] that I’d be more intimidated to make a cake after seeing so many people do it professionally and have such a unique perspective on it. I think on the flip side, I’m more empowered to bake a cake and to not think about it having to look like a super high-finish, buttercream-frosted, multi-layer cake that you would see at a bakery on Fifth Avenue, but that I could totally just go crazy with it.

What do you see as the appeal of pursuing this project as a self-published zine? What can we expect for the future?

TB: One of the things that I was really missing [before this project] was a forum for young creatives — folks with multi-hyphen bios — to be able to explore food in a more conceptual, critical way. I think that this project has really given us that. Our writers are probing cake’s rich history and there’s fertility traditions and gender roles and ritual and all of that, but we did ultimately want to make something that mirrored the pleasure of dessert and the climax of the evening. The independence and collaborative environment of a zine was the perfect place to do that.

AA: We’re planning on doing a counterpart in the fall that will be Wicked Cake, something on the darker side. I wanted [the themes] to contrast. [For this first issue,] we were really hopeful that in spring, everything would be blooming and people would want to be outside, and it felt like trying to build a headspace for people to think about food in this lush, indulgent, and hopefully exciting way. It felt like we can do a Cake Zine that’s Sexy Cake, and there will be more sex and more cake in all of our lives — and who doesn’t want that?

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.