By Alyson Macdonald
Feminism and cake are two of my favourite subjects, but they’re not exactly an obvious combination. Baking conjurers up an image of a cosy 1950s housewife, or perhaps the more contemporary figure of Nigella Lawson, who gives us more of the same, but with added cleavage and innuendo. All in all, it’s a bit “girly”, and laden with stereotypes that make some women want to run screaming in the opposite direction. Women’s relationships with food can be complicated at the best of times, so this is going to take a bit of unravelling, but stay with me on this because there will be cake at the end.
While men are taking ever greater strides into the kitchen, traditional baking – apart from bread – is one area that they often skirt around. Maybe it’s the lack of exoticism and foodie cred, the dependence on accurate measuring, or all of that fiddly decorating, but cake just doesn’t fit with the image of the fashionable, non-gender specific recipe book. Take a look around the cookery section of any large bookshop and you’ll see that the cake books have their own special sub-category, which is marketed to a female audience with all the subtlety of a tampon advert, reinforcing the idea that these are for girls. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the books marketed aggressively to men are all about barbecue, or other meat-heavy types of cooking (which is about as offensive to male vegetarians as the pink-and-sparkly cake books are to most feminists). Food is symbolic, and, whether we like it or not, the preparation and consumption of certain foods is infused with gender stereotypes. Men get knives and fire, with all the connotations of survival and strength; women get highly processed sugary froth with no nutritional value.
Of course, the irony of this feminisation of sweet foods is that, although women are supposed to enjoy creating these elaborate, sugary confections, actually eating them is something of a taboo. The current ideal of female beauty is thin above all else, and we are constantly reminded of the pressure to meet this standard, but it isn’t enough to just to diet in order to be thin. Regardless of her weight, a woman is also expected to diet so that she is not seen to be overeating. We’re taught from an early age that certain foods, like chocolate or chips, are “naughty”, so many women don’t want to be seen eating these foods in case they are judged as greedy; healthier foods are seen as symbols of virtue, but even those can’t be eaten in too large a quantity. Food, like anything else which hints that a woman is in possession of a flesh-and-blood human body, has to be hidden from public view.
The taboo abound eating has certain similarities with our taboos about sex – you’re meant to want it, but you can’t want it too much, or want too much of it, and there are unwritten rules about how much you’re supposed to enjoy it. This goes some way towards explaining why some women are so careful about what they eat in public view: giving in to your desire for high-calorie food is seen as an admission of the same kind of moral laxity that leads to casual sex. Just as they are expected to be the gatekeepers of sex, women have to keep their other appetites under lock and key as well, as a more polite way of demonstrating self-control. Nobody wants to be thought of as the fat girl who only has herself to blame for her size, or the thin girl who can stuff her face and get away with it – because they are both regarded with about as much contempt as the local slut.
So how exactly do feminists reclaim a food that has been so bound up with the oppression of women’s minds and bodies? It’s quite straightforward really: we eat cake, and we don’t allow ourselves to feel guilty for it. However, just because it’s straightforward doesn’t mean that it’s easy – just as running a marathon is “straightforward” in that you put one foot in front of the other and keep doing it for a little over twenty-six miles, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy task either. It can take years to achieve, but when you manage to stop feeling guilty – even if it’s only some of the time – then you can start to enjoy food properly, without any of the symbolic notions of “virtue”, and the process of cooking might seem less tedious when you can appreciate the end product. Maybe you won’t find baking as hugely enjoyable as I do, but at least you’ll be able to see it from a more neutral standpoint, and perhaps appreciate how useful a skill it is for those who do enjoy it.
Part of my own personal way of putting up two fingers to the patriarchy is to bake cakes to share at feminist meetings. Eating together is a bonding experience, and food that can be easily transported, and eaten without plates or cutlery, can help to create an atmosphere that encourages openness (as someone who’s a bit socially awkward, a tin of homemade cake or cookies has given me an icebreaker at times when I would have struggled to start a conversation otherwise). It’s also an incredibly efficient fundraising tool – a cake stall will have most people dipping into their pockets even before they’ve found out what cause it’s for.
Underneath all of the stereotypes, cooking is just another skill. Yes, it can be a very gendered skill, and we have to acknowledge this, but that doesn’t mean that we have to accept it. Challenge the stereotypes, subvert them, use food to start conversations – as feminists say, “the personal is political”.
In the spirit of this blog, and the writers’ preference for recipes that don’t have to be followed too slavishly, I’m going to let you in on a little secret about something called Cake-In-A-Mug. This is where you take everything you thought you knew about baking and throw it out of the window: it’s a cake that can be made in under 15 minutes, from ingredients that you already have in the kitchen, and which generates almost no washing up. It can even function as a vegan recipe or an omnivorous recipe, depending on your own preferences and what kind of milk you’ve got in the fridge.
Makes enough for one person who likes cake (or you could double the quantities and share with a friend)
Equipment: 1 mug, 1 spoon for measuring (I use a dessert spoon, but please yourself here), 1 fork for stirring
3 spoonfuls of self-raising flour
3 spoonfuls of sugar
1 generous spoonful of oil (neutral-tasting oils, like rapeseed or sunflower, are best – don’t use olive oil because you will regret it)
A few spoonfuls of [insert preference here] milk
Mix the flour and sugar in the mug.
Add the oil and mix it again until the oil coats the dry ingredients (it’ll start to look a bit like wet sand).
(+ a recipe for cake in a mug)
Stir in the milk a little bit at a time until it reaches the appropriate consistency for cake mixture. If you don’t know what consistency cake mixture should have, go for something like a thick soup that’s been left in the fridge overnight.
Next, add something to give it a more interesting flavour: cocoa powder, spices, fruit, bits of chocolate, a swirl of jam or syrup – whatever you like and have to hand.
Now, taste your creation and modify if necessary. If it’s too sweet, add some more flour and milk. Not sweet enough? More sugar. Too bland? More flavours.
Put your cake in the microwave on ¾ power for about 3 minutes. Depending on how powerful your microwave is, this may be a little bit too much or too little, so keep an eye on it. When cooked, your cake should come away from the sides of the mug, and not have any gooey, raw cake mixture left at the bottom, unless you prefer it that way. Voila.