Two months into Donald J. Trump’s presidency, as new reasons to gather in solidarity and resistance arise almost daily, the sight of people carrying protest signs verges on the status quo. What you see less often on the way to a rally is someone carrying a cake.
The idea for Protest Cakes came to Illinois-based Tess Wilson, a former Blue Bottle pastry chef, in mid-air. En route to San Francisco on Jan. 28, the same weekend crowds of people gathered at airports across the country to protest President Trump’s first travel ban, Wilson wondered if she could bring her particular skills -- making inventive thematic desserts -- to the protest movement.
“It came in a flash,” Wilson says. “We could make cakes to serve at protests and express our displeasure in the best way we know how, while also nourishing the people fighting the good fight.” She just had to convince her old coworker and frequent collaborator, artist Leah Rosenberg, to join her.
Rosenberg’s answer was an immediate yes. “There was no time to spare,” she says.
Protest Cakes made its debut a week later at the “No Ban, No Wall” rally at San Francisco's Civic Center with the “Seven Nations Cake,” featuring ingredients from the countries subject to the initial travel ban. In one Instagram post, the round cake (absent a hefty slice), sits on a table with a pastel-hued City Hall in the background. “Democracy is hungry work!” reads the caption.
Wilson and Rosenberg embrace the opportunity to bring comfort and levity to such gatherings. “I feel without cake and puns, what’s the reason to live?” Rosenberg says, pointing to a particularly groan-worthy example, the “I’m Peach Mint [Cake],” which she brought to the Feb. 11 Ocean Beach protest.
“Cake lets us do something,” Rosenberg says. “It’s this universal thing that people can access and experience.” But Protest Cakes goes beyond nourishment, incorporating the sober realities of G.O.P. policies -- and the effects they have on ordinary Americans’ lives -- into the very ingredient list of each cake.
“There’s so many different ways that we can get information into cake,” says Rosenberg.
Case in point: the “Contraception Cake,” a buckwheat cake topped with buttercream frosting and “pills” arranged in the colorful circle of a monthly supply of oral birth control. Rosenberg made the cake with natural ingredients used by women around the world and throughout history before reliable contraceptives became available (a list that includes honey, wild carrot seeds, lemon and blue cohosh).
But did it taste good? "It was delicious!" says Rosenberg. She delivered one to the Valencia Street herb shop Scarlet Sage, where she sourced some of the ingredients, and presented the other to her roommate as a birthday cake.
Contraception Cake: made in protest of the GOP’s plan to defund @plannedparenthood. Made with ingredients used around the world to prevent pregnancy before reliable contraceptives became available: honey (Egypt) and neem (India) buttercream on @davidlebovitz’s buckwheat (present-day U.S., apparently) cake with wild carrot seeds (Greece/China) and lemon (Italy/Jewish communities), topped with blue cohosh (Native Americans), papaya seed (South/Southeast Asia), rue (Greece/Latin America), and tansy (U.S.) buttercream “pills,” served on a bed of cotton (Egypt/U.S. South). #itmightbeeasiertojusttakeapill #iwishallbirthcontrolwasbuttercream #patentpending #plannedparenthood #protestcakes
Other cakes act as a form of data visualization. In the video for the “14 Million Sprinkles Cake,” ten pounds of rainbow sprinkles rain down on an unassuming white cake. The name references the estimated increase of 14 million uninsured Americans in 2018 under the Republicans’ now-withdrawn American Health Care Act.
Cheeky hashtags accompany the post: “#itsactuallyonlyonemillionsprinkles #wehadtosaveourmoneyformedicine #justwatchthisvideofourteentimes.”
“The fact that this is only one million puts the numbers in perspective,” says Wilson. “And then you think, each one of those is a person whose health and life is affected.” She says making the cakes helps channel her anger and anxiety into a productive (and tasty) format.
“We found this way of expressing our dissent and I’m not sure where I would be without it,” she says.
White House Kitchen Garden Cake, made in celebration of the 8th anniversary of the White House Kitchen Garden groundbreaking ceremony and the fact that the garden will be preserved. There’s an endless amount to protest right now, but it’s important to celebrate the triumphs, however small. And to take a moment to acknowledge how very, very badly we miss Michelle Obama. #dontforgettowaterplease #eatyourveggies #celebrateyourvictories #pretzelsforfences #plantyourseeds #selfcareisrevolutionary #letsmove
For people still trying to find a way to bring their particular skills to the protest movement, Rosenberg and Wilson are encouraging.
“Right now is the best time to be vocal and active,” says Rosenberg.
“And to not get complacent,” Wilson adds. “What can you do as a citizen based on your resources?”
Follow Protest Cakes on Instagram and look for them at your next Bay Area protest rally.