Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Cake: the short and surprising history of our favourite bakes

Friday, 26 February 2016


This week sees the publication of a new book by Alysa Levene, Reader in History at Oxford Brookes University.

Her book, entitled Cake: the short, surprising history of our favourite bakes, has already attracted a lot of interest.  Alysa says:  “people are generally fascinated when they hear that I have spent the last few years writing a history of cake- they want to know what types of cake I’ve been writing about, whether Marie Antoinette makes an appearance with her famous (almost certainly apocryphal) comment about letting the French poor eat cake, and how much baking I got to do along the way. What they – perhaps surprisingly – never seem to ask is why I got into such a surprising area of research in the first place?" As both a cake-baker and a social historian, Alysa wrote the book on cake (or what she refers to as ‘this most delicious of sweet fripperies’) as she realised they had an enormous amount to tell about modern societies and where they came from. Cake may be a luxury but its ingredients have something very fundamental to tell about the growth of global communications and trade, changes in diet, urbanisation and the move away from nature, and the expansion of technology. If we broaden our view to think about the huge array of types of cake we also need to take in gender roles, migration, community and belonging, the history of rituals, and even feminism.
“What does cake mean for different people? How have we come to have such a huge variety of cakes? What had to happen historically for them to appear? And what can they tell us about the family and women’s roles in particular? I wrote this book to find out the answers.” Dr Aylsa Levene, Oxford Brookes University
Cake tackles all of these themes on its way from the Ancient Egyptians to the modern craze for Cronuts™ (croissant-meets-donut) and gourmet cupcakes. Along the way we meet maverick chefs, cookbook authors who could barely bake, and birthday cakes whose weight would sink a small battleship. In fact, readers will learn, manufactured American cakes were shipped across the Atlantic during the Second World War to keep the morale of the troops up, and queuing for inferior cakes was one of the main grumbles of British housewives under rationing. Alysa hopes that her book will show readers exactly why the history of cake is such a sweet – and surprising - topic. Cake isn’t just a treat to get you through the afternoon; it really does give us a slice of our societal history. Alysa has researched and published articles and books on a variety of topics including the history of childhood, health, the family, and food.  The book launch event took place on Thursday 25 February from 7-8pm at Blackwell’s bookshop, Oxford Alysa will also be at the Henley Food Festival on 1 March, Bath Literary Festival on 2 March and at Aye Write Literary Festival in Glasgow on 19 March where she will interview The Great British Bake Off winner Frances Quinn. Cake: the short, surprising history of our favourite bakes can be ordered via Headline