Cakes have been around since the beginning of civilisation. You take some heavy gruel or dough, squash it together while maybe adding some flavouring or leavening agents, form it into a "cake", let it dry or bake it over coals, and there you go. Cakes are as essential as bread, and many cakes are essentially bread. It is not always easy to distinguish between the two, except that cakes are often sweetened, and breads often are not.
But the modern cake came on to the scene only fairly recently. The Renaissance ushered in our modern notions of desserts and pastry-cooking. Cakes would not be pastries, but they would be made by pastry-makers, whether at home or in commercial bakeries, and they would be sweetened, to be served for dessert and to commemorate special occasions. The dramatic increase in sugar production around the world, and the drop in sugar prices, played a large part in this change.
Eventually came devices such as cake hoops (late 17th century) and technologies such as the kitchen range (1780), which made it easier for cooks to hold batter together, control baking temperatures and make "lighter and more delicate cakes", as Nicola Humble puts it. Then, in the English-speaking world, yeast was replaced by eggs and baking powder as raising agents. In France, Germany and elsewhere, the change was not so dramatic: some of the great cakes of the world, such as kugelhupf, savarin and the Christmas stollen, have always used yeast. But in Britain and America, the early 19th century saw the arrival of the cake we usually think of when we think of cake - "soft, light, spongy cakes" - made with baking powder and commonly crowned with icing, and playing a different role in the diet than any other kind of food on the table.
Humble, professor of English literature at Roehampton University, a specialist on the Victorians and editor of a modern edition of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, here makes a contribution to the Reaktion series called Edibles - short but lovingly edited and deftly illustrated books planned to cover 40 different topics, from apple to offal and from hamburger to wine.
Most interesting of all, in Humble's book, is her account of the cultural differences in the use and understanding of cakes. They play a vastly different role in the cultures of China or France than they do in Britain. And in the US and Canada, a whole subculture of cake-making that North Americans now take for granted has evolved - along with a monopolisation of certain aspects of that culture by a huge food industry selling boxed "cake mixes" that have for a long time been a dominant part of North American "home-cooking".
Somewhat surprisingly, Humble is not at her best when it comes to looking at literary representations of cakes, or at their uses in popular culture and cultural commentary. She dwells on Proust's madeleine, but gets it wrong, confusing Marcel, the narrator, with Charles Swann, the hero of Swann's Way (1913). She does not come to terms with what in Proust is not only an embrace of French life, but also a critique of it.
Meanwhile, she makes what seems to be a hasty generalisation: in French novels, cakes are good; in English novels, cakes are bad. No doubt there is some truth to that, as French culture has long had a more positive attitude towards eating than the English, but Humble chooses her examples opportunistically. Miss Havisham's wedding cake in Great Expectations (1860-61) - left to rot uneaten - can never match the "Babylonish pastry" prepared by Marcel's lover to overindulge her guests, in celebration of herself. But what about Mrs Cratchit's plum pudding?
As for cultural theory, she cites Jean Baudrillard on "simulation", and while cakes are obviously simulations in Baudrillard's sense, Humble misrepresents what Baudrillard's theory is really about.
Nevertheless, I can conclude with a hungry compliment. This small book was a lot like a good slice of cake to me, because when I finished it I wished there were more.
Cake: A Global History
By Nicola Humble
Reaktion Books, 144pp, £9.99
Published 5 July 2010