Gerhard Jenne looks back at some risqué cake commissions and points to the importance of moving with the times.
The bakery in Northern Ireland that recently refused a gay wedding cake commission on moral grounds (see news item on this website) clearly does not operate in the enlightened business environment that now exists in 21st-century Britain. Civil partnerships are legal in Northern Ireland and a gay marriage, although currently only legal in England, Wales and Scotland, is more or less the same thing, but by name. At this rate I suspect they might have trouble inscribing birthday cakes for women bishops too.
I’m sure the same bakery would also have trouble fulfilling the most bizarre Christmas cake order I ever had to execute. On top of a royal-iced fruit cake we had to model a 3D Santa Claus – nothing unusual as yet, but this one clearly had too much sherry and was mounting his beloved Rudolph. None of us are advocates for zoophilia but we all saw the funny side and simply got on with it.
And this was only the beginning. Perhaps my moral standards are quite low as, after 30 years in the cake business, I have yet to refuse a cake commission on the grounds of its content.
Top of the obscurity list must be a ‘tasteful’ request for a pile of excrement on a stack of books. I cannot remember what the inscription was, we just thought, ‘How can we make it look as real as possible?’ Some dark chocolate cake blended with chocolate buttercream and loose ganache extruded in a skilful way did the trick. The customer was very happy indeed. I don’t think it had anything to do with coprophilia, but even if it did, I would have just shrugged it off and probably thought, ‘Is there a Halloween theme here?’
The mother of all challenging commissions must have been a cake to celebrate a charity auction for Eve Enslers’ Vagina Monologues, held at the Old Vic Theatre quite a few years ago, but the story surrounding it has gone into local lore. From Kate Winslet to Gillian Anderson and Kevin Spacey, big Hollywood names were going to attend and it had to be something special. This was, I must admit, the first time I was slightly at a loss, as I have only had limited experience with the subject matter. Word soon got out and the neighbouring barber’s shop furnished me with a brown envelope containing a rather graphic magazine. Research done, I opted for an artistic interpretation in the style of American painter Georgia O’Keefe. What was interesting was to see the reaction of our female cake decorators as they felt very uncomfortable with the subject matter – exactly what Eve Ensler is addressing in some of her monologues. Our cake was enormous in size as in success and raised a staggering £850.
For hen parties we get the occasional feast of debauchery. The last one would definitely have raised a few eyebrows in Newtownabbey. Our orders are nothing like the 1990s, though, so maybe the internet and its free supply of imagery has something to do with it. Who needs 15 inches of pink throbbing marzipan, when the real thing is only a few clicks away. Our cake display book’s ‘adults only section’ is long gone.
On a far more civil level, we have been getting requests for same-sex partnerships cakes for many years. The challenge for us is how to personalise or make a cake interesting for any couple, including same-sex ones. A romantic floral theme might not be for two hairy bears wanting to marry; on the other hand it might just be the ticket. To have Bert and Ernie seems rather sweet and I’m glad to hear another bakery stepped in to save the couple’s day.
This whole row has not only highlighted a certain bigotry, but also how unprepared businesses are in keeping up with the times. Staff training should focus on choosing the right words to describe partners – be it for weddings or birthdays. And even if we wanted to let someone down, there are gentler, less hurtful ways to say so, without the need to hurt anyone’s feelings.