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Interview: Writer and Cake Artist Monica OConnell, Ph.D.

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True expression doesn’t have to be in words.

head shot Monica OConnell with cake
Monica OConnell. [Photo by Temerity Photo.]
In many ways, Monica OConnell of Curtis & Cake defies categorization.

She writes: In addition to a doctoral thesis on black feminist theory and New York jazz culture in the 1930s and 40s, she is currently writing a book. She is an entrepreneur: After leaving her career in academia, Monica started a one-woman cake business, creating stunning cakes imbued with love and meaning.

She is a music lover, historian, player of the French horn, a pastry chef, academic, and in general, a creative, thoughtful, down-to-earth human with a deep commitment to hospitality.

Monica’s career took interesting turns on her road to professional baking. She earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from New York University, and was executive director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago for eight years. In 2015, Monica left her position and moved to Wisconsin, where she decided to devote the next stage of her career to professional baking. Her passion for baking and hospitality is reflected in each of her thoughtful and beautiful cakes. Read on.

You’ll also enjoy: The Dinner Party CEO in a Time of No Dinners and Monica OConnell’s Apple Rye Layer Cake

rye apple cake spice cake with buttercream and apple decoration

The Interview: Monica OConnell of Curtis & Cake

Editor’s Note: My conversation with Monica OConnell of Curtis & Cake took place on Monday, August 31, 2020, days after the police shooting of unarmed Black man Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the subsequent intense protests and double killing of protesters by an alleged teen gunman. The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the police shooting of Mr. Blake. This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space.

Lisa Ruland: You are in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, which is just 1 1/2 hours from Kenosha. And because some of your work as a cake artist is interpretive of social issues, I just want to dive right in and ask, to borrow from the Christina Sharpe quote you reference [about totality of the environments in which Black people struggle as “the weather”]: How is your “weather” today? 

Monica OConnell: I like the way Christina Sharpe uses that phrase because it does get at the fact that it is always shifting, but is always as much there as the air we breathe. So for me today? I am feeling hopeful because all of this is connected. 

I guess my whole process revolves around recognizing how the personal and political is all woven together. I am feeling hopeful today because I got to see people who care about me yesterday for my birthday, and it’s healing. And I got to celebrate a milestone birthday. These things are important. We are still here. I am still here. I feel good today, but the weather is always cloudy these days, to continue the metaphor, because there are is a growing list of people who are not there here.

You have found a way to express and interpret your grief by creating these truly beautiful and thoughtful cakes. Can you walk me through the cakes you created in honor of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery? They are absolutely gorgeous.

I was reading some articles about [Breonna Taylor] and just trying to get a sense of what a vibrant young woman she seemed to be, and how she seemed to be on this cusp — this verge — of kind of becoming. She was just in her 20s. It is just such a beautiful and magical place to be in your life, and it just made it so much more terrifying and heart wrenching to have all of that just snatched from her. She was just blooming in that very moment, and had all these wonderful things ahead of her. 

So I was just thinking of something fun and magical, adventurous. She was still a baby, so something soft and feminine, and strong colors as well, a sense of humor and whimsy, as I imagine she had. And I was thinking of this shade of Fenty lip gloss I have that would look great on her, and trying to capture that sort of rose gold in the leaves. So just these random, human impressions.

monica oconnell curtis & cake grief cake for Ahmaud Arbery
Photo by Monica OConnell

I have been thinking about your career progression, and how even though a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and then a cake business may seem unrelated, both music and your cakes are actually art forms. Both are eloquent expressions without using words. So there is a commonality in that way.

The through lines of my biography do exist! Especially around Black women and Black women’s creativity; how we are able to create beauty that always has a depth. It is never just about the aesthetics in and of itself. There is deep meaning.

I guess I was just surprised at how powerful a symbol a cake can be. A cake is about love, it’s about caring. These cakes are a meditation. It’s a way to understand that these are my family members, a way to make a connection with Breonna or someone I have not met, but someone I know. It’s a way to explore that. And for me, to create something meaningful like that is a little moment of respite in honor of the fact that I would have liked to have shared a slice of cake with this person.

Southern foodways and Southern hospitality are close to your heart. Food — especially cake, in my opinion — is so much about hospitality, and really just making people happy. It may seem simple, but cake matters. If you think about it, so many milestone memories happen around food and cake: weddings, birthdays, funerals . . . . 

Yes. Cakes are a carrier of tradition and family. I think of Southern cakes, and these cakes transcend the Pinterest of things. There is meaning and tradition baked into them. Cake is this thing that is so special and ephemeral. It is that ephemerality, the reminder of time passing that reminds us to be present, which sounds like a cliche, but there it is. Be present. With the people who matter to you. That’s it.

The Southern element I learned for myself, but my mom shared with me her kitchen practices and is my influence. And they [Southern hospitality and her mother’s] definitely overlapped. And there are things that I have learned through black pastry chefs and bakers. So there’s definitely a stream of that, professionalism and kitchen respect too.

My mom didn’t make that much from scratch and a lot of what she made day to day was more about convenience because she was working, but I watched her deep hospitality and community care and learned from that.

monica oconnell curtis & cake grief cake with birch for mom
Photo by Monica OConnell

You don’t have some lengthy background in pastry. So how did you become so good at cake?

I think some of it, I just have a kind of talent for. I just have come to recognize that recently. Not everyone is built for this work! I have a high tolerance for risk but I also have those Virgo traits of patience and detail orientation that serve well in cake work! I still have these moments where I’m fighting it, like, “I have to write, do something more real and impactful. This can’t be everything, I have to get serious.” But I do think I have a gift and sometimes it feels great just to go with it.

I also took a class with Maggie Austin. That was a real lightbulb moment. Just seeing that so often there is a through line for all these things for me: Just trying to make beauty and pay attention and respect to community and the natural world. I love it.

I have struggled a bit in this department. You have a Ph.D., I have a J.D. We both invested so much time and money in all of this education, and then had careers based on our degrees. I have often felt conflicted about giving that up to do something in food. 

I worry about this less and less, though. Food is important, and it’s how we show love. And that is your prayer and your meditation and you get what you need to get out of it. And it also makes people happy and feel nourished, so great! You can’t really ask for anything more than that.

I want to talk about how Covid-19 has affected your reality as a businesswoman, especially someone specializing in wedding cakes when there just are not big weddings right now, the pivots and adaptations. How has that been? Are you transitioning through this ok?

It certainly depends on the day and the hour. So, yeah. I loved having this as a business, except for all of the business parts! And I had just made a decision to relocate to Savannah, to a position where I would be doing what I loved and creating, but not having to take on some of those business parts, but that fell through with Covid. So it left me in a place where I had no job to go to, but also no business because my lease was going to be up.

So it was like getting a couple of rugs pulled out from me at the same time. It was a deep transitional moment. So I don’t know that the Curtis & Cake reboot will be exactly, but I do still want to keep thinking about the power of cake. And right now I am working on a book.

Oh wow! What is the book about?

It is a personal exploration of some of the ways that Black women create deep hospitality. It evolved partly out of things I think about all the time: Thinking about what a strong influence Edna Lewis has been on me, and things my mom has taught me. And asking, what are these actual practical, everyday differences in the way Black women engage in hospitality and care work? I’ve been thinking of that for a long time and been using the hashtag and phrase “deep hospitality” to express something that transcends — and even stands in opposition to — mainstream, industry-led ideas of hospitality and care.

And another piece of it is just seeing all of the fault lines. Everything with Covid shows all the problems with the food system and hospitality industry. We’re seeing who is bearing the brunt. I am having the time to sit and think about how black and brown folks are always the ones doing so much of the actual work that we call essential, and then the ones who are bearing the brunt of an oppressively unfair and unbalanced system.

So I wanted the book to be a record of my explorations about that. You have to write the book you want to read, and I want to read stories about women doing ordinary, but really extraordinary, care and hospitality work.

I love Edna Lewis and her cookbooks so much. Her cookbooks really read as memoirs, a really special personal history and community. 

Her work ties in all these different threads. It’s personal. It’s about a very specific place and time. Her community [Freetown, Virginia, a small community of emancipated slaves, which her grandfather helped found] happened in a specific moment, for very particular reasons. But to see how that community practiced sustainability and resilience and no-waste kitchens — things we hear so much about now — has always existed in these communities.

It all comes from this place not just of survival, but of thriving, abundance, and using what was around them. It’s about all of us having enough, and knowing we are enough. It’s a kind of magic work that Black women are doing all the time. 

I wanted to also talk about how food and grief are intertwined for you.

My mom died in April, just a few months ago, just as everything seemed to be going wrong. And to have that happen in the midst of this pandemic, where certain modes of shared grieving aren’t even available, has been really really difficult. 

One of the rites of Black hospitality is the Black repast. There is just a way that family and friends remember people together through the visitation and the service, and it is totally interwoven with food. And I didn’t get that food. I didn’t get that fried chicken and my friend’s coconut cake and the mac and cheese, and it’s always something I’m thinking about: how important the food is. Food runs through all of it. With the Black repast, there’s going to be a pound cake. There’s going to be sweet potato pie. There’s going to be potato salad. That consistency, that continuity, is powerful.

And again, I think about the cakes at these things. I’m just always thinking of that. It seemed strange at the time that in the days following my mom’s death, I just wanted to work on a cake design. So hers was my first grief cake, actually. And I just used all sorts of kitchen things that made me feel connected to her and I just was trying to make a tribute, a poem, for her, out of this cake. It had wild rice on it and birch bark, sumac seeds and other things that would make some kind of statement about how beautiful she was.

And then Amaud Arbery. And I don’t know if with the pandemic, I have the time to just sit there with my grief as opposed to just being busy and stuff it down and go to work even though these messed-up things are happening. But I have that time to sit and think about how I am connected to this person and how that could have been me and how his family is not going to eat cake with him anymore. 

I also wanted to ask about naming your shop Curtis & Cake: The “Curtis” is in honor of Curtis Mayfield. So I see it as this special combination of the meaning of music and history and cake. 

What his music is about and stands for, the reminder for me is the connection between personal and political, and also the connection between music and cake and food. They are all additive. You can’t just pull one out and study it on its own. They are all always co-making each other. 

I can’t just be a cake decorator who likes to make flowers. I am always thinking about the people I am making these cakes for: Who are they? What will they be doing with it? What life events or milestones am I a part of here?
And with my cakes, I always think too about the people who taught me. I am a continuation of some deep and rich and abiding traditions. And the humility and the respect that I am reminded to have are important as well. The ampersand [in Curtis & Cake] is an important part of the name, too.
pistachio rose cake from monica oconnell

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