Troglodyte Spelunker is probably these days best known as the ubiquitous historian of Cake on the BBC’s 3.142 channel. For many years, until her recent retirement, Spelunker was the Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Cake Studies at Oxford’s leading catering college. There she specialised in both the history and theory of cakes, in particular, why there are so many varieties of them.
No doubt, those of us with more than a passing interest in cake studies know of several different forms of cake. For example, from the Victorian sponge through the chocolate éclair and cream horn to those in that grey area between cake and other foodstuffs like Jaffa cakes, cheesecake and carrot cake.
Of course, the philosophy of cake dates right back – as with most philosophical matters – to the Greeks. It was Plato who first postulated that there must be an ideal form of cake. All the other varieties of cake were just its imperfect copies. He believed that once humanity reached a certain level of philosophical understanding of the true nature of cake, then all other cakes would fade away, leaving only the perfect cake.
Later, as Descartes famously postulated, ‘I think, therefore I eat cake.’ Which in turn led to Marie Antoinette’s cry of ‘let them eat cake. This resulted in the French Revolution and the eventual further development of French cakes and pastries into a form that was more pleasing to the proletariat. This brought about the forerunner of the modern consumer society with its myriad cake choices available to everyone at a reasonable price.
However, as Spelunker points out, it was Wittgenstein who said ‘for when we have a mouthful of cake, we must remain silent, lest we spit crumbs out all over our nearby interlocutors.’ Which – to this day – continues to be one of the most profound philosophical understandings of the true nature of cake in the modern world. It, of course, led to the British Logical Cakereist movement. They claimed the only real thing in the universe that could be proved beyond doubt was chocolate cake.
Spelunker believes that it was the necessity of finding the best way of making cake that directly caused the many leaps forward in mankind’s increasing civilisation, as well as some of its darkest days. Civilisation, she argues, arose to first create the necessary bakeries for the making of cakes, while agriculture, pottery, metal working and so on all grew up and around these initially crude cake baking areas. Each leap in technological advancement leading to better cakes, which in turn inspired everyone to find better ways of making even more cake. ‘Thus was civilisation, born, grown and developed,’ as Spelunker said in her Nobel Prize for Bakery acceptance speech in 2014.
Although, there are some – mostly from the sidelines of acceptable academic research – that claim that civilisation is not just about cake. Some even deny that cake has played any role in the development of the modern world at all. Instead, they claim that politics, historical forces, and even great men have made the world what it is. However, those that make such claims are rarely invited to afternoon tea and cake at the better cake shops.