Let them eat mayhem

Pub date September 21, 2010


CULTURE/LIT “I work in advertising,” says Shannon O’Malley. “I just want to make people read my evil shit.” The evil shit O’Malley refers to isn’t a sales jingle, but recipes for apocalyptic cakes. Want to know how to make an Agent Orange Carrot Cake? Rachael Ray, Paula Dean, and even Sandra Lee probably can’t help, but O’Malley has just the right ingredients to tantalize your “cyst-ridden pus hole.” A collaboration with photographer Keith Wilson, her colorful picture book Apocalypse Cakes: Recipes From the End will be published by Running Press in the spring of 2011 — for now, you can feast on some appetizers from the tome (and order recipe cards) on her website. I recently met with O’Malley to discuss the sweet and the deadly. We were at a cafe, but neither of us ate dessert.

SFBG I guess I look at apocalyptic cakes from an arty angle, and also from a nihilistic one.

Shannon O’Malley Yeah! Fatalist gluttons! [Laughs]

SFBG I like the juxtaposition of something tasty and sweet with something harsh and disastrous.

SO Me too.

SFBG How did the first cake come about?

SO Not from any preoccupation on my behalf. I’m not a good cook, I don’t bake cakes. It happened because in December of 2008, it was my partner’s birthday. She’s obsessed with the apocalypse and actually wrote her undergraduate thesis on zombies. She got me into reading J.G. Ballard.

When you’re with someone who talks about something a lot, it sort of seeps into your brain. Her birthday came around, and I didn’t want to buy her something, I wanted to make something for her. Around the same time, she was obsessing about cake, so that whenever anything went wrong, she’d say, “I want cake.”

The whole week before her birthday I thought I’d make her a cake cookbook — a zine of fucked up cakes. But I thought that was sort of vanilla, excuse the pun. The night before, I started to really ask myself what she liked, and I thought of the apocalypse. Cake and the apocalypse — it made perfect sense. I stayed up all night on the computer making this eight-page color zine called Apocalypse Cakes. I started thinking about the plagues, and just took this shitty JPG I found on the Internet of red velvet cake, and called it Raining Blood Red Velvet Cake.

I did all the writing and Photoshopping and layout. I started at 11 p.m. and basically stayed up all night because I loved it so much.

At the time I was living in Austin, and I went to Kinko’s before I had to go to my ad agency job. I bound it and made a couple copies. That night I gave it to her for birthday. Then I started showing the zine to my friends and being like, “Look what I made — isn’t this funny? Aren’t I fucking funny?” That’s when I decided it should be a book.

SFBG Is that when you began your blog?

SO Yes. At first I thought it would only be text. But then I got with my friend Keith Wilson, who is a filmmaker here in town, and he said, “No, you need pictures.”

He and I got together, and our first two cakes were the Raining Blood Red Velvet Cake and the Branch Davidian Texas Pecan Pie. We made them at my house. We set the Branch Davidian Texas Pecan Pie on fire in the yard in front of my house. He styled it. He’s super meticulous and way more object- and space-oriented than I am, and he has a great eye for macabre details.

SFBG How did your Photoshop project compare to images that were set designed?

SO It totally changed things. Keith adds something that on my own would give me trouble. I don’t want to go through the trouble to make things just-so, but he totally gets into that. His mom was a caterer, and that helped him with his food assembly skills.

SFBG Do you often have the name of the cake first and go from there?

SO It started with me having all these different names and themes. Some of the early ones included the Sodom and Gomorrah Fruit Cake — traditional apocalyptic myths from the Bible. But then I started to branch out and Keith and I would talk. He’d say, “A lot of people think that immigrants coming to the United States is apocalyptic — why don’t we do an immigration cake?” So I came up with Immigration Mayhem Mexican Chocolate Cake. We started riffing off of each other and decided the recipe should be in Spanish, so honkies can’t read it.

Now, either of us can have the original idea. I name them and do the write-ups and pay for the production, and on Saturdays, he comes over with his camera and we art direct the set together. He snaps the photos, and then I retouch them. We’ve done that for eight or nine months.

SFBG Do current events have a larger presence within the project than they did initially?

SO Definitely. Now it has become more overtly political. The Immigration Mayhem Mexican Chocolate Cake looks at certain people’s fears of their world crumbling. In addition to a cake with a swarm of locusts, we also have President Palin Half-Baked Alaska. Some of them come from our political perspective, and some of them are just stupid and gross and fun. Like Whore of Babylon Fruit Tart. Science fiction is also inspiring. We have a meteorite cake, and one about insurgent robots.

SFBG What does your girlfriend think of the project now? Does she give feedback?

SO She loves it. She’s been integral to it. When it was just a blog, a local art show had a call for entries and I thought, “Man, I wish I could enter a blog in the art show.” I thought that maybe I could have a computer at the gallery so people could browse the blog. She collects vintage cookbooks and has all this retro cooking imagery, and she said, “Why don’t you make old-timey recipe cards?” I don’t know if you’ve seen this one: Jonestown Kool-Aid Cake.

Once I got started working with the cakes, friends would come up to me and say things like, “What about Jonestown?” An old roommate suggested that cake. You know one day they’re going to build condos where the compound was in Guyana.

At a certain point I realized that every region has its apocalypse. The Seismic Haitian Mud Cake — that isn’t the end of the world, but it’s their fucking end of the world.

SFBG Do you find the format of a recipe lends itself to your sarcasm and sensibility?

SO The template has helped me. I know how long each write-up will be and that I have to make a recipe. But I’m apart from the text — when you make something that resonates with people, it sort of becomes its own thing. People get excited about it, so it’s gotta be made.

SFBG What are some of your favorite cakes?

SO I really like the China World Domination Red Bean Cake. It was conceptual, it was easy to make — I bought the cakes at a Chinese grocery store — and it makes fun of people who are xenophobic.

SFBG Since you began working on this, has the apocalyptic materialized for you more often?

SO I’ve always been into the archetype of the murderous housewife — situations that seem so perfectly dainty and wonderful, but have something dark behind them.

SFBG Like John Waters’ Serial Mom.

SO Exactly. I was just thinking of Kathleen Turner, and how John Waters’ movies are about seeing how shitty the strait-laced people are from the perspective of the people of the underworld. I like the dichotomy of, “You think it’s nice, don’t you? Well, it’s not.”

When I was writing a lot of this, I was working at an ad agency, and I was constantly bombarded with product names and messages about why products are awesome. There are write-ups where I talk of specific company names. One cake that we did for the book is all about the ubiquity of antidepressants and other blockbuster pharmaceuticals like Lipitor. It’s called Big Pharma Nut Cake.

People talk and write to me about the apocalypse more. Someone will say, “Hey, I found this article about the Super Hadron Collider and black holes.” But do I see the apocalyptic in the everyday? Not really.

In writing this book, I had to learn about the ten plagues of Egypt. The apocalypse hasn’t come to me — I had to go to it. *