If you listen to the naysayers, America is in a dangerous, vulnerable place right now. We keep losing manufacturing business to overseas competitors, factory activity is at a 28-year-low, and the only thing we know how to make any more is dinner reservations. Also, if you haven’t heard, we’re in a recession.
But how bad can things be, really, when we have not one, not two, but three cable TV series about bakers who make extremely complicated and expensive cakes? Ultimate Cake Off, in which “cake artists” compete against one another for a $10,000 prize, soon debuts on TLC, where it will give cake fans a second slice of cathode deliciousness alongside the network’s recent hit, Cake Boss. Meanwhile, the genre’s pioneer, Food Network’s Ace of Cakes, just started its latest season.
Remember the cakes of yesteryear? They came in two flavors: chocolate and yellow. With the exception of weddings and those occasions when strippers needed temporary shelter, nothing too fancy was required — a round, double-layer cake with some frosting and maybe a sloppily scribbled “Happy Birthday!” would suffice. In contrast, the cakes featured on Ace of Cakes and its brethren have moving parts. And their own internal plumbing systems. And they never look anything like a cake.
Instead, they depict a possessed demon-child whose mouth drips edible puke and whose head spins around in circles like the girl from The Exorcist. Or semi-active volcanoes from which smoke billows forth. Or Pac-Man machines, fire engines, steak dinners, Yankees hats, you name it. We may not be able to make TVs out of capacitors and picture tubes any more, but if you want one made out of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter cream frosting, no other country on earth can match our manufacturing expertise or zeal. These cakes aren’t just baked — they’re designed, fabricated, detailed, project-managed.
Clearly, we haven’t quite lost our desire or ability to build things just yet. And now that we’ve pimped all our cars, we’re pimping our cakes. At the start of every episode, the build team huddles around a meeting table to discuss the latest project. There’s a certain comical element to these pow-wows – it may actually now take more people to assemble a cake version of a Ford Mustang than it takes to assemble a Ford Mustang. But jobs at Charm City Cakes, the shop featured in Ace of Cakes, or Carlo’s Bakery, from Cake Boss, seem like pretty sweet gigs. In many respects, manufacturing expensive, complicated cakes resembles old-fashioned factory assembly-line work. Labor is divided into compartmentalized roles, the hours can be long, and the work looks a little monotonous – there are only so many ways to crack an egg, after all.
But the workflow is dictated by humans rather than machines, and of course there are obvious elements of creativity, craftsmanship, fun, and novelty involved. Pundits and politicians may lament the loss of manufacturing jobs to China, and the negative impact that has had on American workers, but if the workers hand-gluing silicon chips to circuit boards all day in Chinese toy factories ever get a chance to watch Ace of Cakes or Cake Boss, one can’t imagine their taking in the spectacle with anything but envy.
Whether or not these cake artisans enjoy the high wages and robust benefits of unionized Detroit auto line workers in the heyday of American manufacturing isn’t a subject these shows appear to discuss, but certainly some people out there are doing pretty well for themselves, even in these tough times. At Charm City Cakes — located in that favorite haunt of profligate millionaires, Baltimore — the minimum price for a cake is $1,000 and the shop is currently booked through October; at Carlo’s Bakery, in the foodie heaven of Hoboken, the kinds of cakes they feature on Cake Boss start at $10 to $15 per person and can go higher depending on the intricacy of the project.
The customers aren’t waiting around for once-in-a-lifetime events either, like their second marriage. They’re dropping big bucks simply to give their zombie theme fests and random office parties that extra visual deliciousness a plain-old cakey-looking cake can’t deliver. Or to put it another way: Isn’t America incredibly awesome? Even in our worst times, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people here are feasting on cakes more elaborate than anything French royalty ever dreamed of, much less tasted. Somewhere in Paris, Marie Antoinette’s head is spinning in its grave with envy. • 30 July 2009