April Gertler has her work cut out, she says, justifying to an audience in Ireland why she has concluded that soda bread is the country’s national cake.
That there could be a national cake at all is a preposterous notion, the Berlin-based American artist says. “The idea that you could pinpoint one cake to define a whole island seems pretty ridiculous to me.”
But, at the same time, she says that the simple recipe can tell a story about the island’s culture, with each ingredient shedding some light on its character from the Great Famine onward.
The story isn’t necessarily grounded in irrefutable facts. Her research was intensive, she says, but she stresses, her readings are subjective.
“I am not an anthropologist, a scientist or a sociologist,” she says. “But I feel like, to be honest, as an artist, I have a certain liberty. I am coming to this with my own lens.”
She is due to present her case for soda bread at the Temple Bar Gallery on 1 October.
The hybrid lecture and performance, titled “Take the Cake: Soda Bread” is the latest installation in an ongoing project from which the name derives.
Analysing feminism, women’s work and post-colonialism, Gertler’s “Take the Cake” assigns to different countries cakes that reflect on these subjects and the histories of the nations in question.
Soda bread isn’t a longstanding feature of the Irish diet, Gertler says.
The earliest recorded recipe dates to 1836, published in the Farmer’s Magazine, according to the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread.
“Baking soda really only came to Ireland around 1847, 1850,” she says, suggesting there might be a connection between the increase in its consumption and the Great Famine.
“That is a personal analysis,” she says. “Historically speaking, I’ve not been able to find it written down anywhere. But I think there is a correlation.”
As part of her research, Gertler also consulted with 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. “In her estimation, it is really about the crumb. The crumb is moist.”
Gertler didn’t want to come up with a lecture which simply argued in favour of this claim. Her interest lay in using it as an opportunity to discuss cultural practices. “I’m really using soda bread to collect stories.”
In one example, she looked into the butter-making process, viewing this as an ideal place to explore Ireland’s past through a feminist lens. “Because butter was primarily women’s work.”
She was drawn t0 butter-churning chants, the songs sung by female workers to help them keep rhythm.
As part of “Take the Cake”, she collaborated with musician Claudia Barton, who composed her own churning-chant for the performance.
Have Your Cake and Engage with It
Gertler’s background is in photography and collage, with her hybrid style of performance stemming from an interest in social-practice-based work.
That means working with an audience and putting them at the heart of a piece, she says. “By engaging with an audience, the work is completed.”
“Take the Cake”, her latest project to operate along these lines, grew out of a different recurring event she used to stage, known as “Sonntag”.
For “Sonntag”, Gertler and her partner would bring artists to show their works in private apartments. “That apartment would not be ours or the artists,” she says.
Once the artist had presented their own work, Gertler and her partner would respond by making the artist’s favourite cake – and then share this with the audience there.
The audience gets a chance to connect with the artist, Gertler says. “They can look at the work, talk with the artist and eat their cake.”
“Sonntag” fulfilled Gertler’s desire to find a way of resonating with her audience by stepping beyond visual presentations.
“Take the Cake” evolved out of a sense of frustration she felt during “Sonntag”, she says. “Everyone, just in a gendered way, assumed that I was always the baker of the cake.”
“I got fed up, because my partner – who is a man – always made the cakes with me.”
Through “Take the Cake”, Gertler sought to explore where such assumptions came from. She wanted to understand the history of cake but to do so by discussing this while baking the dessert simultaneously.
“So, it’s a bit of a multitasking nightmare,” she says.
Terms of Consumption
“Take the Cake” has been brought to Dublin as part of a local series, organised by cultural producer and curator Julia Gelezova, titled “Terms of Consumption”.
Through her project, Gelezova has been exploring Irish cultural identity through the visual arts and its connection to food history and culture.
“Food had always been something I was passionate about but it was never something I really considered as a critical practice,” she says.
As a curator, she says, she had noticed that the two practices were overlapping more and more, with artists using food as a medium for expression.
Realising that, her vision for “Terms of Consumption” became a means through which to grapple with her own questions of a national identity, she says.
Born in Okha, a town in Sakhalin, an island in eastern Russia, Gelezova moved to Ireland at the age of nine.
“I consider myself Irish, because I grew up here,” she says. “So, I would have a lot of questions around the formation of my identity and what an Irish identity is.”
For “Terms of Consumption”, Gelezova says, she has chosen artists from a mix of backgrounds, wanting to see how they would connect with Irish culture and history.
In July 2021, in collaboration with PhotoIreland, Gelezova organised a show titled “Bite the Hand That Feeds You”, which reflected on social and global issues, such as hospitality, colonisation, hunger and overconsumption.
Among the artists on the bill was April Gertler, who Gelezova had hoped could produce an Irish version of “Take the Cake” during the exhibition’s month-long run.
“But it was still during 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 episodes, dwelling on what that answer might be.
An online series alone didn’t satisfy Gelezova, she says. “I thought it was a good opportunity to get April back to finish the project now.”
Slices of Memory
In April 2022, Gertler travelled to Ireland to research soda bread. It was, during this visit, she says, that she tasted for the first time a loaf baked by someone else.
During the trip, she spoke with 32 people – artists and culinary experts – about their relationship with the bread.
The result is a book, Bread Banter, filled with personal anecdotes, handwritten recipes and sketches of the food.
Gertler wanted to see how many variations on the simple recipe she could find by talking with a wide range of people, she says.
Even though it has only four essential ingredients: flour, bicarbonate soda, buttermilk and salt.
“I’ve tried to tell people to be very loose with the idea of what a recipe could be.”
Artist Jennie Moran’s recipe has oats, Greek yoghurt, seeds, nuts and fruit. Her book entry discusses learning to bake soda bread while studying at the National College of Art and Design.
“It is nice to think about bread recipes being passed down through families,” Moran says. “It’s also a luxury.”
She herself didn’t have such a family tradition, she says. Her mother worked, and as an only child, Moran taught herself cooking after school.
In college, she learned to make soda bread. It was simple, she says, but easy to ruin during the mixing stage.
Each 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 beyond seeing it stocked on supermarket shelves. Her own contribution to the book was a far more irreverent affair.
Instead of a recipe she wrote, “Google ‘best soda bread Dublin’”, recommending that the result should be served with wild garlic pesto, the garlic sourced from Phoenix Park.
The breads she grew up with were darker, denser and harder to source in Ireland, she says. As such, she fully grasps the rationale as to why soda bread could be classified as a cake.
“It’s very cake-like,” she says. “It’s sweet. It falls apart. It has that same crumble. That’s always been my impression.”