Friday, April 16, 2010

Slipping Mother Goose a Mickey

It's not often that someone asks if the monstrosity on my decorating stand is a bald, naked Mick Jagger. It's even less often that I am able to answer in the affirmative. However, recently this was the case. The monstrosity in question was a nursery Rhyme themed cake. The specific subject was the rhyme about Jack who must be both nimble and quick in order to jump over the candle stick.

Having been born to the generation that can't hear Jump and Jack in the same sentence without immediately thinking of  Jumpin' Jack Flash (the song, not the film), I naturally cast Mick Jagger as my not-so-nimble Jack.

The rhyme doesn't actually say that there is a candle in the candle stick let alone a burning candle but in my mind there is always a candle in the candle stick and it is always burning. So, my Jack who happens to be Mick is getting a bit singed because he doesn't quite clear the candlestick. Not to worry, there is a fire extinguisher and a washtub of water (which is actually poured sugar).

I was concerned about achieving a decent likeness and I felt that in order to get the right look Mick had to have a tongue. I'm both happy and sad with the result. I really liked the tongue but it is barely visible in the mouth. It creates the look I wanted but I also want people to be awed and amazed by the tongue but it sits far too unobtrusively in Mick's mouth.

The cake is decorated to look like an old and worn volume of Mother Goose rhymes on which Jack's trampoline, candlestick, fire extinguisher and washtub are arranged. The cake board is intended to resemble an old desk with graffiti scratched into its surface.

The graffiti includes such gems as, "Humpty Dumpty was pushed," "Your mother lives in a shoe," and as a nod to my friends at Cake Wrecks, "Nuts Allergy."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Whatta Ya In For?"

Do Twilight themed cakes pose any hazards to decorators or consumers? And I'm talking about more than just the dayglow surprise one is likely to get after consuming so much black food coloring. The answer   under certain conditions   appears to be, "Yes."

I come to this question in a roundabout way. I was thinking about marketing    or maybe just about showing off. As a kid it seemed that all any budding artist who wanted to get some positive attention had to do was knock out a respectable Mickey Mouse or Snoopy. The same kid could crank out an original creation and possibly get some ooohs and ahhhs but the real attention grabbers were the well known cartoon characters.

This is understandable if you consider that the other kids had no point of reference for an original creation. Was it expertly or poorly drawn? Even if the drawing was perceived as well executed it still didn't have the emotional equity of a Mickey Mouse, or if the kid was really showing off, Spider-Man (and all those little web lines on his costume). Clearly, the publicity cost/reward ratio for drawing Snoopy was better than that of drawing "this monster-thing I just thought up."

Of course, as adults we   the hypothetical young artist, his equally hypothetical peers, and I   have a greater respect for the creative process and for originality. Except for those times when we don't; those times when we feel the emotional draw of the comfortable and familiar.

When attending a cake show I enjoy watching the other attendees almost as much as I enjoy studying the cakes. Small groups with cameras saunter past the rows of exquisite buttercream roses and fondant swags, periodically stopping to take a photograph. Then they come to the Dora the Explorer Cake. They stop. They point. They whisper. Then they photograph the cake from every possible angle while commenting that they have to email a photo to this person or that, who will, "just die when they see it."

 While these folks might feel unqualified to critique those difficult to master piping and fondant techniques, they know a good (or bad) Dora the Explorer when they see one. They, like the rest of us, are drawn to the familiar. So, as a cake decorator it seems practical and economical to associate my talents and services with icons of popular culture.

However, "cashing in" on the popularity of something like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight stories   you thought I'd forgotten about the Twilight cakes    and/or the actors who portray Meyer's characters on screen raises several questions. First, is it a creative cop-out to hitch my wagon to someone else's popular creation, such as Twilight? And second, how long before I get a Cease And Desist order (or worse) from those who hold the rights to the Twilight franchise?

Now, I know a little about the joys/hassles of product licensing. I am not using the hyperbole of the lawyer who has been practicing for 30 years and says, "I know a little something about the law." I literally know "a little" about what is involved in creating a product around a licensed, copyrighted entity.

I mention this because copyright violation is a growing issue as non-traditional cake decorating grows in popularity thanks to TV shows like The Ace of Cakes. The increased availability and use of materials like fondant and gum paste facilitate the edible replication of famous entertainment icons like Mickey Mouse or the Peanuts gang. The internet makes it easy to share photos of these replications with friends. And simple naivete makes it easy to cross the line into copyright violation.

I don't have any statistics but I suspect that most copyright violators go unpunished and likely unaware of their trespass. While it has been suggested that both sellers and purchasers of unauthorized merchandise can be named in copyright violation suits, it is not cost effective to prosecute every time Mickey or Snoopy is misappropriated for a child's birthday party.

I have noticed, however, that the use of licensed characters is being discouraged or banned by cake show organizers who want to protect themselves and their sponsors from potential law suits. While no cakes featuring copyrighted characters are being bought or sold at the shows, the act of including photographs of  such cakes on an organization's web site or in printed materials can be interpreted as the use of copyrighted characters to promote the organization's enterprise. In other words, the show organizers, sponsors and participating vendors are profiting from the unauthorized use of a protected property.

So, maybe the loftier question of whether or not using established pop-culture icons to demonstrate my mad cake decorating skills is a creative sell-out takes a back seat to the more pedestrian threat of legal action. If I ever found myself in something resembling the Hollywood version of a police station holding cell, filled with tough, menacing cell mates and one of them crowds me and asks, "Whatta ya in for?" I suspect that, "Cake decorating," might not be the ideal answer.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Not a Word Was Spoken

Sometimes the world can be a scary place. Especially when you are cornered by a gang of blood-thirsty mimes. But I don't need to tell you that.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Jazzin' for Blue Jeans

I was invited to participate in the Parade of Cakes, a new addition to the Capital Area Food Bank's 7th Annual Blue Jeans Ball. The event raises awareness and funds to support the activities of the Food Bank.  With the generous support of area restaurants and businesses the Capital Area Food Bank, and it's small army of volunteers, throws quite a party.
This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the Capital Area Food Bank. The 30th Anniversary was one of several possible themes for entries in the Parade of Cakes. Another suggested theme was to highlight items from the Food Bank's Most Wanted Donations list which focuses on those non-perishables that contribute to a nutritionally balanced diet. The list also includes other items like common cooking spices as well as toiletries like toothpaste and deodorant.

I was called in as a second stringer after, as I understand it, another participant hand to cancel. So, with about a week to plan and execute a cake design I predictably latched onto the "Most Wanted" theme as in America's Most Wanted . Thinking in that vein, non-perishables sounded enough like The Untouchables and  I had a kind of crime themed design. The final design had some of the non-perishable items posing for mug shots and something about a bank heist.    

I guess I was about half way through production when I realized that I did not want to trivialize or even hint at the idea of robbing the Food Bank, even in jest. Re-design time. I toned down the crime aspect. I even worked in a stick of deodorant as a nod to the toiletries on the Most Wanted list. I thought no one would go all out on toiletries for a cake design.

 I was wrong. Chef Heather Mackey, pastry chef  for the Marriott Wardman  Park Hotel, created a toiletries themed cake that featured a full tier decorated to look like rolls of toilet paper with a spare roll off to the side. This was complimented by edible bars of soap, a gum paste toothbrush and toothpaste, and the top tier was a box of facial tissue.

I was both pleased to see that at least one other entry took a humorous approach and disappointed that I had been out toiletried by another decorator. Let's be honest, how can you not love a toilet paper cake?

I got to meet Chef Mackey and several other culinary masters from the Marriott Wardman Park. Chef Mackey related some amusing incidents from the creation of the toiletries cake, several involving the reactions of co-workers. I didn't have any funny stories about my cake. Even if I did, could they have been any better than stories about a toilet paper cake? Probably not.

Despite my toilet paper cake envy, it was a great event and I met some really cool folks. Kinda hoping I get the chance to do it again.