This is the time of year to trot out our rituals. We have to eat a turkey on this certain November Thursday and go shopping before sunrise the day after. Maybe we automatically put a spangled tree or a menorah in our houses. Too many of us try to get to the bottom of a bottle in order to flip the calendar over to next year.

But what if we could make a thought or feeling ritual instead of just a series of actions? A seminar class of undergraduate art majors at UNC-Chapel Hill did just that on Monday with “A Taste of Empathy,” a one-evening culinary installation in the Graham Memorial Lounge. The class, taught by elin o’Hara slavick and teaching assistant (and INDY contributor) Amy White, applied some creative groupthink to some big art questions: What is it exactly that we have to express? And what’s the best way to express it?

Students made 10 different cakes, each representing a social issue that they were concerned about such as poverty, racism and domestic violence. Then they held a semi-formal tasting in the elegant campus sitting room complete with a pianist and twin glowing hearths. Held aside, the poverty cake would be delivered to a local shelter after the event.


Prompted by the question “What would empathy taste like?” the students created a public ritual to feel for those suffering from these social ills, taking a different tack from conventional protests or vigils that have perhaps been habituated to or are dismissable by oppressive powers-that-be. They leveraged the foundational social structure of the meal and its hope that understanding can arise from breaking bread together to see if empathy might come from the association of one’s concern for others with the pleasure of eating cake.

The students included Erica Arcudi, Emma Badia, Juliana Blanton, Jesse Coleman, Casey Fahey, Jesse Franklin, Jekka Garner, Emma Hawkins, Kerry O’shea, Kik Ratanajittung, Jenna Rdesinski, Sydney Shaw, Gray Swartzel and Cait Yow.

Before the tasting, they read brief statements about the poetic relationship between the flavors of the cakes and their corresponding issues. Here’s a complete listing of the issues and their cakes:
Substance Abuse: Orange-glazed rum cake
Poverty: Carrot cake
LGBTQIA: Multicolored cake with black frosting
Self-Hatred: Red velvet cake
Mental Illness: Spice cake with Earl Gray frosting
War: Crumble cake
Sexual Assault: Coffee-inspired cake
Technological Apathy: Apple cake
Racism: Marble cake
Domestic Violence: Glazed lavender lemon Bundt cake

Some cakes had a clearer correspondence than others. The wildly peaked “domestic violence” Bundt cake evoked both the domestic industriousness and gender disparity of a 1950s homemaker, with “lavender and lemon to comfort those who have been victims of abuse.”

The Self-Hatred red velvet cake.

Featuring a silver Apple logo on a field of white frosting, the “technological apathy” apple cake mimicked the company’s cool design to point out how people alienate themselves behind their screens, driven home by the fact that the word “apple” recalls a computer first and a piece of fruit second.

The utterly black “LGBTQIA” cake, sparkling darkly with an encrustation of sugar crystals, revealed a dazzling rainbow of inner frosting once it was cut, representing social repression of “lesbian chic” and flamboyance while also co-opting it toward marketing ends.

Other cakes were more flatly metaphorical—the delicious debris atop the “war” crumble cake; the swirled batter of the marbled “racism” cake; the red velvet “self-hatred” cake set upon a mirror rather than a cake stand.

Whether or not empathy was achieved, “A Taste of Empathy” prompted useful thought about how aesthetics and politics can relate. And, after all, you got to eat cake too.