How and where and when do we code our beliefs into our ambient environments? The above cakes engage in an active dialogue with individual consumers through their decorations, a dialogue in which each party contributes to the story of the other. For the consumer, the selection of cake decoration is both a public statement of beliefs and priorities, and an internal statement of aspiration; that is, the decoration both defines and is defined by the person who chooses it.

(In a system in which one must present an image, a narrative, an idea about oneself, there is no way to opt out of the system: Even serving a blank cake sends a message, albeit a quieter one than a topped cake.)

Things are, I think, more interesting for the cake, which doesn’t really care what decoration is put on it. For the cake, all messages are equally valid. The same is true for the corporation selling the cake, as long as the message turns a profit. From the cake’s point of view, a cake is a cake is a cake.

(Might some of these decorations have purely symbolic value? For example, how often does someone order the Bible-and-chalice decoration? Is its inclusion in the book—the cost of printing the page and providing that option—contingent upon the cost of inclusion being less than cost of exclusion i.e. boycotts or angry religious groups?)

But these cakes, by being frosted with their used-under-license perfectly reproduced trademarked images, raise questions about consumer preference in the age of mass production. I happen to be reading Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, by the anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz, for a class of mine, and I think these cake decorations are an example of Mintz’s theory of how various forces conspire to compel us to vest the material world with meaning. Mintz writes:

The daily life conditions of consumption have to do with what I called inside meaning; the environing economic, social, and political (even military) conditions with outside meaning. Inside meaning arises when the changes connected with outside meaning are already well under way.

These grand changes ultimately set the outer boundaries for determining hours of work, leisure, and the arrangement of time in relation to the expenditure of human energy. In spite of their significance for everyday life, they originate outside that sphere and on a wholly different level of social action. [… Once these outside conditions are set,] people alter the micro-conditions as much as they can and according to their emerging preferences—the where, when, how, with whom, with what, and why—thereby changing what the things in question signify, what they mean to the users. New behaviors are superimposed upon older behaviors; some behavioral features are retained, others forgotten. New patterns replace older ones. [1996, 20-21. Italics original, emphasis added.]

In this case, the rise of a national popular media culture (shared recognition of sports teams, fictional iconography, television characters, etc.), coupled with the adoption of standardized franchise business models, along with the decline in cost of edible printing technology and its according widespread adoption, conspire to enable a set of circumstances inside of which consumers are ultimately able to vest the end-products (cakes) with individualized and specific meaning.

These cakes take the same form and are put to the same use as earlier, more traditional or conventional birthday cakes, allowing consumers to shift what they consume without shifting how they consume it. New behaviors are thereby superimposed on old as the new type of cake is dropped into an existing paradigm of celebration.

The big question is: How is the idea of the birthday affected by the image on the cake? Does the image co-opt and overpower the traditional meaning of the birthday, or does the birthday simply make a minor adjustment to accommodate a cosmetic change?