There is nothing that evokes a wedding quite as much as a big, fluffy cake. It acts as a metaphor for the whole celebration — a little fussy, a little expensive, and tricky to get right but incredibly rewarding and sweet when you do. Though wedding traditions, and who is allowed to participate, have changed over the generations, cake remains a must in Western culture.
In her debut romance novel Queerly Beloved, author Susie Dumond makes weddings, and therefore cake, a central part of the narrative. The story centers on Amy, a baker and bartender in Tulsa, OK, who is trying to figure out how to navigate a crush on a new-in-town lesbian working in the oil industry. Through community and baking, Amy navigates being a queer woman in sometimes-conservative Tulsa, and her people-pleasing instincts. Working as a part-time for-hire bridesmaid, she also finds herself managing weddings and bridal feelings while watching ceremonies she worries she’ll never be able to participate in. And through it all, she bakes. She bakes cupcakes and bread and petit-fours, both for her friends and for her fledgling wedding business, in times of joy and in times of stress. It’s the one thing she’s continually able to count on.
Queerly Beloved is not only full of mouthwatering descriptions of confections — it also highlights the role wedding cake has played in modern queer history. In 2012, a year before the book is set, real-life couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins were denied a wedding cake from Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, because owner Jack Phillips said it went against his Christian beliefs. In a lawsuit, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled that Masterpiece Cakeshop had discriminated against Craig and Mullins, though the Supreme Court reversed that ruling. Later, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to make a cake for a customer’s gender transition.
Between baking and Amy working at a lesbian bar, Dumond dives into how food and drink anchor both weddings and queer communities, and provide stability in times of emotional chaos. And, because she’s a baker in her own right, Dumond created a few recipes featured in the book for readers to try in real life, to further transport them into Amy’s wedding world. Find her recipe for the Queerly Beloved rainbow cake at the end of the interview!
Eater: What made you want to set so much of your story around baking?
Susie Dumond: I’m an amateur baker. I worked at a bakery briefly in college, but for the most part I’m self-taught and very enthusiastic and I am always pushing myself to learn more. Baking is my happy place. And when I first started writing this book, I was writing it for myself and I thought, You know what makes me happy? Baking things and eating things. So I’m going to put as much of that into this book as I possibly can. Making my protagonist Amy a baker just made so much sense in figuring out what it was that she liked and what brought her peace and joy, and then also kind of setting up how she could land in the wedding space.
What other research did you do around professional baking?
Working in a bakery was part of my research. I also talked with some friends who had worked a little longer in baking than I had. But also anything that I had her baking in the book, I tried to make myself. There are very few things that she bakes that I have not tried.
That’s so cool! Did you develop the recipes or did you find them elsewhere? I loved the description of the raspberry mint cake.
I’ve always done a blend. I had done raspberry and basil cake and kind of fudged the mint for the book because I thought that it would be good.
That sounds fantastic.
I used to be an entirely online recipe person because I love being able to read the comments to see what people who have tried it at home thought. But I’ve recently gotten very into actually using all the beautiful cookbooks that I have. I used to just have them and would thumb through them and look at the pretty pictures, but I wouldn’t necessarily try the recipes from them. It’s been really fascinating to actually try the recipes from the cookbooks instead of just judging them by their pictures.
Do you have any favorites from the cookbooks you’ve tried?
I really love Claire Saffitz’s Dessert Person. Every single thing I’ve made from it has been incredible. I love her videos, too, so I get to mix the online portion and the cookbook portion. My most recent favorite is Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking. It’s remarkable. There are hundreds of recipes jam-packed in there, and it’s the classics. She’s really saying, “Sure. All these other cookbooks can offer you twists on all these things, but this is the classic way to make cornbread, pineapple upside down cake, whatever.” All the things I’ve made have been wonderful. Also Life Is What You Bake It by Vallery Lomas. She was on American Bake Off and then her season didn’t actually air, so she talks about that being kind of a challenge for her, but still being able to find her way forward in baking. I feel it in the recipes.
Your book takes place in 2013, a year after everything happened in real life with Masterpiece Cake Shop. Were you explicitly evoking that history in this book?
That exact circumstance doesn’t happen in the book, but in my head, Daily Bread, where Amy works, is a place that would have denied same-sex couples. It’s just such a weird clash of feelings around that because bakeries are happy — everything is sweet and lovely at a bakery. They’re a centerpiece in so many romances and rom-coms because you have good feelings in a bakery. And to come to a bakery at the potentially most exciting moment of your life and say, “I want this cake for my wedding.” And then for them to say, “I don’t approve of your wedding and I won’t do it.” It’s horrible. That’s so crushing because it’s supposed to be this big celebratory thing.
I think that’s what really has stuck with people from those kinds of news reports. I definitely wanted that to be front of mind. I didn’t necessarily want to put that exact situation on the page, but I think that seeing Amy get fired from that bakery, it’s kind of reminiscent of it.
The book also takes place before same-sex marriage became federally legal, though obviously there are lots of legislators now that are trying to roll back the clock. What made you want to set this book at that time?
I had some deep conversations with my editor and my agent about that as we were going through the editorial process, because they were like, “What if we were to set it today? By setting it in the past, we almost worry that it creates this illusion that everything’s better now, that was in the past and that’s not the case, obviously.” But the reason that I pushed for, and we decided to ultimately keep it in that timeframe, is because traditional publishing has not embraced LGBTQ books in the way that it does today. And the books that we did see often had really sad endings, and they were almost always New York or LA. So I feel like it’s kind of a lost period in history, in a way; those specific years when we were going through these conversations about same-sex marriage. I remember the very nuanced conversations that I was having with my friends at that time about what it meant and what it didn’t mean and how much more there was to go, when sometimes the media made it out to look like same-sex marriage was the only thing that mattered and once it was passed, things are equal and it’s done.
So I wanted to look at that moment and show that we were already thinking those things at the time and looking down the road at what kind of battles would still come to be. And I wanted to show that moment in a place that you didn’t traditionally see queer stories set. I love Tulsa, it’s my heart place, and I think there’s this idea that queer life in Oklahoma is Brokeback Mountain style — two sad, gay cowboys. And that’s not the case. It’s a very vibrant and wonderful community. So I wanted to highlight that and I wanted to show those complex conversations that were happening at that time.
A lot of this book takes place inside a queer bar called Ruby Red’s, and there’s a lot of conversation about how many of those spaces have been lost to us. Why was it important to you to include that?
Similarly to baking, when I was writing this book and not expecting anyone else to read it, I was like, What’s my happy place? A hole in the wall, grungy gay bar. That’s where I want to be. And there is a particular bar in Tulsa that has some similarities to Ruby Red’s. That is where I was twice a week when I lived there. And it’s just, it’s such a great place for community.
I moved to DC in 2014 and I remember being kind of shocked that it felt like there were fewer gay bars and lesbian bars in DC than there were in Tulsa at the time. DC has some of the highest LGBTQ population, so I was confused. But then I thought about it and it’s because, in DC— I mean, it’s not free of homophobia, but you can pretty much go anywhere on a date with your girlfriend. In Tulsa, you have to think about who’s watching and who else is in the room and what might happen if somebody sees it and reacts to it in a bad way. So those queer bars and those queer spaces were almost more necessary. And because it’s surrounded by a more rural area, people would come from out of town to go to the queer bars in Tulsa.
I’ve been following the Lesbian Bar Project by Lea DeLaria and a bunch of other really fascinating folks. They’ve been doing some fantastic reporting on the situation with queer bars, and particularly lesbian bars, disappearing, and helping to promote the ones that are still around. I think that’s incredible, and even though I know that the pandemic especially has been really hard on these spaces, they’re incredibly important. I’ve seen a couple new queer spaces opening up recently in DC.I think that that’s fantastic to see and I’m excited about the future of queer bars.
Your book does such an interesting job of talking about marriage and tradition, and what traditions you keep and what traditions you can leave behind. But it also sort of seems like no matter what, cake winds up being a part of our celebrations. Why is that? Is cake just inherently romantic?
I feel like I go everywhere with a cake. I’m showing up with cake for anything. It has such a way of making everyday moments feel celebratory, and celebrating love is one of the most fun things to celebrate because there’s never enough of it. I have made cookie cakes for a wide variety of situations. Good and bad. Sometimes bad. I have a picture of one that I made for a friend that says, “Sorry you got chlamydia.”
One of the things that comes up in the book a lot is how Amy is dealing with her own feelings through baking. Early on, there’s a bit where she talks about making peanut butter cupcakes for a breakup, and had some [other things to bake for specific situations]. And that is how I feel about baking as well. That’s a part of me that I baked into the book. If I’m stressed, if I’m overwhelmed, if I’m sad, if I’m scared, there’s always something that I can bake that will make me feel better. Baked goods is my love language, so being able to show people in my life that I care about them—cake. It’s always cake.
Amy goes to all these weddings in this book, and each has its own vibe and menu. What’s the best wedding food you’ve ever had?
I have a very strong memory of one of my cousins’ church wedding that was potluck style. She’d gotten some barbecue as the basics, but everybody brought different stuff. And she didn’t like cake so everybody who came brought a different kind of pie. It was just the most incredible spread of pies that I have ever seen. So I think about those tables full of pies sometimes.
Just a couple of weeks ago, two of my very best friends, a gay couple, got married in Tulsa. And the wedding was at a bunch of places that are mentioned in the book. The ceremony was in the Philbrook Gardens, where Amy goes on a date. And then the reception was at the Mayo Hotel, where there is another wedding reception in the book, and where characters Damien and Joel get engaged on the rooftop. So it was really funny, just ahead of the book, to see all of those places happening in a gay wedding context. And I’ve got to say, that was a gorgeous wedding and the food that was catered by the Mayo, which is this amazing historic hotel in Tulsa, was incredible. I am never excited about hotel catering, but that food was so good.
A colorful, towering cake, perfect for Pride or any other LGBTQ+ celebrations.
For the rainbow cake cake:
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3 cups granulated sugar
7 large eggs, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups buttermilk, room temperature
Gel food coloring*
For the frosting:
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 pounds (32 ounces) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup milk (2% or whole), room temperature
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare 9-inch cake pans using desired method**. Depending on how many cake pans you have, you will likely need to wash and reuse them between baking layers.
Step 2: In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, cream butter until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add 3 cups of sugar and mix until thoroughly combined. Mix in 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract.
Step 3: Add eggs one at a time, mixing after each egg. Scrape down sides of the bowl as needed.
Step 4: In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.
Step 5: Add a third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, mixing until almost combined. Add a half of the buttermilk (¾ cup) and mix until almost combined. Repeat process: add a third of flour mixture, then remainder of buttermilk, then remainder of flour mixture, mixing each time until almost combined and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Step 6: Separate batter into five equal portions***. Use gel food coloring to color one layer each an orange-red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Put each portion of batter in a separate cake pan, spreading for even layers, and bake for 16-20 minutes until cake is light and springs back when gently poked.
Step 7: As each layer is removed from the oven, let cool for 2 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. Let all layers of cake cool completely.
Step 8: Make the frosting. In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, cream butter until light and fluffy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add powdered sugar gradually, about 1 cup at a time. (You may not use the full 2 pounds.) Once the butter and sugar mixture becomes thick and dense, about halfway through the sugar, add the milk, vanilla, and salt. Mix thoroughly, then continue gradually adding sugar until you’ve reached your desired, spreadable consistency. If the frosting becomes too thick, add an extra tablespoon of milk.
Step 9: Assemble the cake. Once cake is completely cooled, place purple layer on a cake plate and top with a thin layer of frosting. Repeat process with other cakes in this order: blue, green, yellow, orange-red.
Step 10: Apply crumb coat. Spread a thin layer of frosting across the top and sides of the cake. Let stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes or in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes, until the frosting is less sticky to the touch.
Step 11: Use the remaining frosting to smooth out the exterior of the cake. If desired, top with sprinkles, edible flowers, or piped frosting.
*Gel food coloring is recommended because you can get a more vibrant color with less dye, and without changing the consistency/taste of the cake. Liquid food coloring can be used in a pinch.
**Cake pan prep: I recommend rubbing the inside of the cake pans with butter, then coating them with a thin layer of flour. Alternatively, you can line the cake pans with parchment paper or spray them with baking spray.
***The most accurate way to do this is to weigh your batter using a kitchen scale and divide the total weight by five to get five equal layers. It can also be done by visual estimation.