Artist proposes soda bread as Ireland’s national cake


April Gertler has her work cut out for her, she says, explaining to an Irish audience why she’s concluded that soda bread is the country’s national cake.

That there could be a national cake is an absurd idea, says the Berlin-based American artist. “The idea that you could identify a cake to define an entire island seems pretty ridiculous to me.”

But, at the same time, she says the simple recipe can tell a story about the island’s culture, with each ingredient illuminating its character since the Great Famine.

History is not necessarily based on irrefutable facts. Her research has been intensive, she says, but she stresses that her readings are subjective.

“I am neither an anthropologist, nor a scientist, nor a sociologist,” she says. “But I feel like, to be honest, as an artist I have a certain freedom. I come at it with my own lens.

She is due to present her case for soda bread at the Temple Bar Gallery on October 1.

The hybrid lecture and performance, titled “Take the Cake: Soda Bread” is the latest installation in an ongoing project from which the name derives.

Analyzing feminism, women’s labor and post-colonialism, Gertler’s “Take the Cake” attributes cakes to different countries that reflect these topics and the history of the nations in question.

Collect stories

Soda bread isn’t a long-standing feature of the Irish diet, says Gertler.

The first recorded recipe dates from 1836, published in the Farmer’s Magazine, according to the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread.

“Baking soda didn’t really come to Ireland until around 1847, 1850,” she says, suggesting there may be a link between its increased consumption and the Great Famine.

“It’s a personal analysis,” she says. “Historically speaking, I haven’t been able to find it written anywhere. But I think there is a correlation.

As part of his research, Gertler also consulted culinary experts, including chef Darina Allen and historian Regina Sexton.

Sexton, she credits with giving her the idea that soda bread could be a cake. “According to her, it is really about the crumb. The crumb is moist.

Gertler did not want to offer a lecture that would simply argue for this claim. His interest was to use it as an opportunity to discuss cultural practices. “I really use soda bread to collect stories.”

In one example, she looked at the butter-making process, seeing it as an ideal place to explore Ireland’s past through a feminist lens. “Because butter was first and foremost a women’s job.”

She was drawn to the songs of butter churning, the songs sung by the workers to help them keep the rhythm.

As part of “Take the Cake,” she collaborated with musician Claudia Barton, who composed her own churning for the performance.

Have your cake and engage with it

Gertler has a background in photography and collage, with her hybrid performance style stemming from an interest in social practice-based work.

It means working with an audience and putting them at the heart of a piece, she says. “By engaging with an audience, the job is done.”

“Take the Cake,” her latest project to work along these lines, grew out of a different recurring event she used to stage, known as “Sonntag.”

For “Sonntag”, Gertler and his partner would bring artists to show their works in private apartments. “This apartment would not be ours or the artists’,” she says.

Once the artist had presented his own work, Gertler and his partner would respond by baking the artist’s favorite cake – and then sharing it with the audience.

Audiences get the chance to connect with the artist, says Gertler. “They can look at the work, chat with the artist and eat their cake.”

“Sonntag” responded to Gertler’s desire to find a way to resonate with his audience by going beyond visual presentations.

“Take the Cake” evolved from a sense of frustration she felt during “Sonntag,” she says. “Everyone, just in a gendered way, assumed I was still the cake baker.”

“I got fed up, because my partner – who is a man – has always baked the cakes with me.”

Through “Take the Cake”, Gertler sought to explore where these assumptions came from. She wanted to understand the story of the cake but do so by discussing it while preparing the dessert simultaneously.

“So it’s a bit of a multitasking nightmare,” she says.

Terms of consumption

‘Take the Cake’ was brought to Dublin as part of a local series, curated by cultural producer and curator Julia Gelezova, called ‘Terms of Consumption’.

Through her project, Gelezova explored Irish cultural identity through the visual arts and its connection to food history and culture.

“Food has always been something I was passionate about, but it was never something that I really considered an essential practice,” she says.

As a curator, she says, she had noticed that the two practices increasingly overlapped, with artists using food as a means of expression.

Aware of this, her view of “Consumer Conditions” became a way to grapple with her own issues of national identity, she says.

Born in Okha, a town in Sakhalin, an island in eastern Russia, Gelezova moved to Ireland when she was nine years old.

“I consider myself Irish because I grew up here,” she says. “So I would have a lot of questions about forming my identity and what an Irish identity is.”

For “Terms of Consumption,” Gelezova says she chose artists from diverse backgrounds, wanting to see how they would connect to Irish culture and history.

In July 2021, in collaboration with PhotoIreland, Gelezova hosted a show called “Bite the Hand That Feeds You”, which reflected on social and global issues, such as hospitality, colonization, hunger and overconsumption.

Among the artists on view was April Gertler, who Gelezova hoped could produce an Irish version of “Take the Cake” during the month of the exhibition.

“But that was still in Covid times,” Gelezova says. “So we had to find a way to do it remotely.”

Gertler researched the concept of a national cake via Zoom, Gelezova says. The result was two podcast episodesdwelling on what that answer might be.

An online series alone did not satisfy Gelezova, she said. “I thought it was a good opportunity to bring April back to finish the project now.”

Memory slices

In April 2022, Gertler traveled to Ireland to research soda bread. It was during this visit, she says, that she first tasted bread baked by someone else.

During the trip, she spoke with 32 people – artists and culinary experts – about their relationship with bread.

The result is a book, Talk about breadfilled with personal anecdotes, handwritten recipes and food sketches.

Gertler wanted to see how many variations of the simple recipe she could find by talking to a wide range of people, she says.

Even though it only contains four essential ingredients: flour, baking soda, buttermilk and salt.

“I tried to tell people to be very loose with the idea of ​​what a recipe might be.”

Artist Jennie Moran’s recipe features oats, Greek yogurt, seeds, nuts and fruit. Her book entry discusses learning to bake soda bread while studying at the National College of Art and Design.

“It’s nice to think of bread recipes passed down through families,” Moran says. “It’s also a luxury.”

She herself had no such family tradition, she says. His mother worked and, as an only child, Moran learned to cook after school.

In middle school, she learned to make soda bread. It was simple, she says, but easy to mess up during the mixing phase.

Every morning she made two loaves for breakfast, and these she served with seaweed and a boiled egg.

Gelezova, meanwhile, says she has no childhood memories of soda bread other than seeing it stocked on supermarket shelves. His own contribution to the book was a much more irreverent affair.

Instead of a recipe, she wrote, “Google ‘best soda bread Dublin'”, recommending the result be served with wild garlic pesto, the garlic sourced from Phoenix Park.

The breads she grew up with were darker, denser and harder to find in Ireland, she says. As such, she fully grasps why soda bread could be classified as a cake.

“It’s very cake like,” she said. “It’s sweet. It crumbles. It has that same crumble. That’s always been my impression.

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