Straight, No Chaser: All caked out and nowhere to go

Once again Dansk Folkeparti has lobbed a pre-silly season hand grenade into the political debate, and cake has been the weapon of choice.

DF MP Kenneth Kristensen Berth was shopping in his local Bilka when to his horror he spotted a cake iced with the words ‘Eid Mubarak’ that the supermarket chain had produced to cater to its Muslim clientele who wanted to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

This was almost too much to bear, and Berth launched a tirade on Facebook, posting a picture of the cake and a text saying roughly: “Now enough is really enough.” Berth obviously sees the cake as a Trojan Horse – and a precursor to Denmark shortly degenerating into a Muslim caliphate.

In March last year a celebratory cake made by the integration and immigration minister, Inger Støjberg, to celebrate the 50th tightening-up of immigration laws went viral, and the minister became the butt of internet jokes and international criticism.

So what is it about cakes, bread and pastries that is so incendiary? Can a mixture of flour, eggs, milk and butter iced with sugar really be so dangerous?

Burn baby burn
Actually, cakes – or loaves – do have form when it comes to influencing historical events. One of the best-known stories in English history involves King Alfred and some cakes.

Alfred was on the run from the Vikings, sheltering in a peasant woman’s hovel. She asked him to keep an eye on some cakes – or maybe small loaves – baking by the fire. But Alfred was a teeny bit preoccupied with trying to defeat the Danish army and he let them burn. The woman was furious and gave him a good ticking off.

Alfred went on to soundly defeat Guthrum’s Vikings at the battle of Edington in May 878. Guthrum became a Christian and Alfred his godfather. A feast was held to celebrate, but history does not record whether cake was on the menu. I’d like to think it was.

Unfortunately, the cake part of the tale is probably spurious. Professor Rory McTurk of Leeds University says it was stolen from a Norse saga extolling Ragnar Hairybreeks. Ragnar burnt his cakes because he was so distracted by the beauty of his future wife during courting. McTurk adds that “the blatant stealing of the story to serve Alfred’s reputation came more than 100 years later in a monkish chronicle that turned the loaves into cakes and Ragnar’s bride into a swineherd’s wife who berates the king with democratic gusto.”

French fancies
Fast-forward to the reign of Louis XVI in France. When told the peasantry had no bread, his queen, Marie Antoinette, supposedly said “then let them eat cake” (brioche, actually). But since brioche was a luxury item using butter and eggs, the advice has since come to acquire symbolic importance, showing the complete disregard in which the monarchy and French upper-classes held the peasants.

A biographer of the queen says that it was a particularly useful phrase to cite because “the staple food of the French peasantry and the working class was bread, absorbing 50 percent of their income.”

A Mexican wave
The Pastry War – also known as the first Franco-Mexican War – kicked off because of a complaint to Louis-Philippe, the ‘King of the French’, from a Mexican–based French pastry chef named Remontel. In 1832 the chef claimed that Mexican officers had looted his shop in Tacubaya, just outside Mexico City. Remontel wanted 60,000 pesos in compensation, although his shop was valued at less than 1,000 pesos.

In 1838 the French prime minister demanded 600,000 pesos from the Mexicans – a huge sum when the average daily wage in Mexico City was around a peso. When they refused to pay, the French blockaded some Mexican ports and captured the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa in Veracruz. The war ended in March 1839 with a British-brokered peace.

So let that be a warning to politicians of all stripes. Cake is something you touch at your peril. The effects can be more far-reaching than you think!