Let Them Eat Cake
At times I worry that making cake for a living is not exactly contributing much to society. I hate social injustice and have forthright political views about it. Mischievous friends sometimes claim there’s a contradiction between these views and my career choice, not to mention the amount of time I spend in decent restaurants. If I’m so keen on social equality, they say, surely I shouldn’t indulge in good food when other people can’t afford such pleasures.
Yet actually I think the idea that you shouldn’t have a hedonistic approach to life if you are on the left politically is missing the point. Greater equality means opening up the good things to everyone, not abolishing them.
Good food has been sidelined and sneered at in Britain as a superficial middle-class preoccupation. But it’s not; it’s fundamental to everyone’s well being, and eating well can make us feel that life is worth living – something that the French and Italians seem to understand. At a time when – shamefully – food banks are springing up all over the UK, it can seem frivolous to look beyond satisfying basic hunger. But if one indicator of a good society is how well it looks after its most vulnerable members, then another is the quality of its food supply. In a fair society everyone, regardless of background, occupation or income, has access to good food. And that most certainly includes cake. Most cake available to us now is denatured almost beyond recognition. What does that tell you about our society? We turn to cake when we have something to celebrate, yet we’ve allowed it to become cynically adulterated with hydrogenated fats, humectants and a cocktail of additives. That doesn’t sound like much of a celebration to me.
Of course, not all cake is like this. But the decent stuff is increasingly a luxury product, available only to those who can pay a premium price. Society is becoming more polarised and so is the food that we eat – one standard for the rich, another for the poor.
Several years ago, a well-known food critic wrote an article in The Observer defending factory farming because, he said, battery chickens were necessary in order to feed the poor. It was the only time I have been moved to write to a newspaper. I don’t agree with a two-tier system for education or healthcare; it seems obvious to me that a two-tier system for food, where the poor are expected to eat adulterated rubbish, is equally indefensible.
The idea that a love of good food is incompatible with left-wing values seems to be a specifically British one. I sometimes think of the revolutionaries of 1848, plotting the overthrow of the Habsburg Empire in the coffee houses of Vienna, Prague and Budapest. I bet they were happily indulging in the glorious pastries of northeastern Europe as they debated – perhaps a warm, flaky apple strudel with a pile of whipped cream to the side, or a slice of Dobostorte, with its layers of caramel and chocolate buttercream. That’s the kind of food you build a revolution on.
It’s true that making cake doesn’t exactly put me on the frontline of political engagement, but there is a battle to be fought on the food front too – one where we struggle to reclaim our precious food supply from industrial-style producers who deplete its nutritional value while maximising their own profits. Making a few cakes and biscuits won’t change anything, I know. But there are many other small producers starting up too. What is now simply an alternative offering could become mainstream if we care enough to lobby for political change.
I could choose to bake one of the essentials, like bread – arguably a much more useful contribution to society. But recently I took eight large cakes, left over from a photo shoot, to a drop-in centre for the homeless and there was no mistaking their pleasure. Cakes aren’t an essential, they’re a treat, but giving someone a treat makes them feel valued in a way that an essential never could.
A better world is not just about subsistence, it’s about pleasure – the right to punctuate our lives with small pleasures without a burden of debt and worry. The rich have grabbed more than their fair share of the good stuff already. Let’s make sure they don’t have the monopoly on hedonism as well.