A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges.— Benjamin Franklin, 11 September 1773
Of Cake and Empire
In ‘Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One’, Benjamin Franklin sardonically likens the British Empire to a great cake, about to crumble at the edges. Written in 1773 and based on American grievances against British rule, Franklin's essay takes the form of a satirical letter to ‘all Ministers who have the Management of Extensive Dominions’, advising them on how best to go about losing an empire. Advocating unbridled tyranny, the letter is effectively a recipe for rebellion. The American Revolution was not the only social uprising in which cake was linked to an overindulgent sovereign power. Around the same time, on the cusp of the French Revolution, Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions (published in 1782) recalled the words of ‘a great princess’, who upon learning that the peasants were starving and without bread, declared, ‘Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.’ Although these words, commonly translated as ‘let them eat cake’, are often attributed to Marie Antoinette, there is little evidence that the Queen ever uttered them. She was, in fact, still a child when Rousseau's Confessions were being written, and she is never explicitly named. Nevertheless, she lost her head along with the King, and in subsequent histories the comment became synonymous with corrupt sovereign rule and the decadent excesses of an out-oftouch ruling class.
In the early 1980s, at the height of the liberation struggle in South Africa, Penny Siopis served up a decadent suite of elaborately painted cakes. Temptingly seductive, the thickly painted confections threaten to topple from tables propped up in unnatural perspective, tipped as if to lure us further. The cakes seem about to slide from their painted surfaces into our ravenous mouths. Since classical times, cakes have been the treats of choice at ceremonial or milestone events, particularly birthdays, weddings, special anniversaries and religious holidays. Cakes are the sweet stuff of wishes and hopeful expectation for the future; delectable reminders of familial celebration and ritual, they transport us back to childhood and the innocence of youthful desire.