“This is your PhD,” my friends said, proudly presenting a cake decorated with plastic animals. “It’s a farm! And you do farming, yeah?”
Sort of. I research agricultural labour in eighteenth-century England (with an emphasis on the “labour” bit). But there was no labour in this cake-world: no farmers, no dairymaids or ploughboys, no gangs of harvest labourers, no carters or threshers. Human labour was entirely absent. I thought this was quite funny and ate the percy pigs happily.
And yet, the unearthly green icing hinted at something deeper and darker than its inner chocolate layer. Staring into the glowing blue eyes of the monstrous cat-like creature in the centre I realised my birthday cake was not the simple-yet-adorable attempt at representation it first seemed, but in fact a sophisticated and devastating critique of the ideology of the eighteenth-century landed gentry. My friends had (inadvertently) produced a brilliant pastiche of the idealised pastoral scenes found in some landscape paintings, depicting a mythic countryside of ease and abundance populated by fluffy sheep and golden wheat.
In these paintings the only human figures tended to be wealthy landowners or leisurely shepherds. The endless hours of backbreaking toil that cultivated the land and tended livestock were almost erased from the imagination. The cake was ruthlessly mocking those aristocratic patrons who, fresh from reading Virgil and dreaming of a classical golden age, wished to set their own estates in a misty English Arcadia.
From another perspective – leaning in close, at eye-level – the absurd size and arrangement of the toy animals point to a different target: the obsessive breeding of grotesquely large cattle by fanatical agriculturalists which created a mutant army of shuffling beef. Rather than a wholesome farm, the cake displays such beasts roaming the fields of what appears to be a cutesy and harmless Jurassic Park.
The final intellectual assault is delivered by the Kit-Kats that imprison the fields of confectionary. The chocolate-painted biscuits gesture towards the miles of fences used to enclose the open-fields and commons of England that removed a vital means of independent subsistence for many of the rural poor.
The poetic beauty of the cake only finally emerges in the act of eating, when we are encouraged to symbolically re-enact a moment of resistance: to taste the cake we must tear down the abominable Kit-Kats, as rural labourers once tore down the fences that locked away the earth’s common treasury.
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James Fisher is a second year PhD researcher in the Department of History at King’s College London @JamDanFish. With thanks to bakers Eirwen, Tom and Laura.