by Lucy Valena
From my first semester in the gastronomy program, I’d pretty much decided I would write a thesis. As a project-oriented person hoping to do independent academic writing in the future, it seemed like a good challenge that would help me prepare for the next step in my career. Additionally, I was feeling unsure as to whether or not I would apply for a PhD program after finishing my master’s degree, but knowing there was a chance I might want to definitely solidified my choice.
Since the history and symbolic aspects of food are what that I find most fascinating, wedding cake seemed like a natural target for my research. I had also written a paper about wedding cake history for the intro class, so I at least knew something about the previous work that had been done on the topic.
Wedding cake has survived for such a long time (at least 300 years), and it shows no sign of going away; my question was, simply, why? The project ended up taking me all over the place: my research included reading historic cookbooks, interviews with producers of fake wedding cakes, and analysis of mainstream television. In order to really address my findings the way I wanted to, I had to cobble together theory from three different thinkers.
In the end, I found that wedding cake has survived because of its flexibility and constant shape-shifting. While its physical form has changed so much over time, the value ascribed to it has remained the same- a mixture of commodity fetishism and ‘tradition’, or what I call ‘congealed precedent’. These factors have allowed the wedding cake to remain fashionable and also symbolically important over the ages.
Writing a thesis was the most intellectually stimulating thing I’ve ever done. It was very difficult, and for the last few months of the year I spent working on it, I had the uncanny feeling that my project was eating me alive. I am a painfully slow writer, and I ended up rewriting the paper at least five times before I finally felt it was done. However, getting through it, seeing the challenge and rising up to meet it, was very empowering and invigorating. Since I got my undergrad degree in studio art, before this I had never written anything more than twenty pages (aside from the failed novel I keep in a drawer in my desk). After this experience, I have confidence and excitement about other research and writing I would like to do independently, a task I now feel I have the tools for. Obtaining those tools was my main reason for going to grad school in the first place, and with that in mind, I feel great about the experience.
In the time I was writing my thesis, I got married. In addition, I sold my business of five years, and subsequently underwent the somewhat dramatic lifestyle change of no longer being self employed. Sometimes, life is like that, and everything shifts all at once. If I could do it all again I may have timed things differently, but there was also something magical and liminal about that intense year. Its almost as if I was transformed into a different person, in a time that was bookended by the beginning and finishing of this project. I’m still not sure if doctoral work is in my future, but if it is, I know that I will be much more prepared for it because I wrote a thesis.
Read more of Lucy’s writing and follow her many baking adventures at her blog, Ink and Lemon.