Icing and the Inner Muse
The Canvas of Cake
Story by Jim Duncan, photography by Paul Gates
Cake has always been a transformational agent, the test that makes one a cook. In fact, our English words “cake”and “cook” derive from the same Norse root — kaka.
Cakes evolved from ceremonial religious rites. Chinese moon cakes emulated the harvest moon. Twelfth Night cakes were a ring shape for similar ceremonial reasons — to hide a bean that could transform one’s fate. Ancient Celts made round cakes to be rolled down hills to predict the future — bad luck if they broke apart.
Nineteenth-century inventions (commercial baking powder, refined white flour, and reliable ovens) transformed such rigid concoctions into the soft, crumbly cakes we love today. Railroads and modern mills brought affordable cake-making ingredients to Iowa. By the middle of the 20th century modern cake mixes, such as Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines, transformed small Midwest milling companies into industrial giants.
They also changed America, making it possible for average housewives to bake cakes of a quality they previously had to buy in bakeries. That opportunity transformed cake from a spoil of the rich into a populist food.
Most people still use the word “rich” to describe cake — the single food required to transform a mere occasion into a celebration and a prerequisite to weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and all manner of affairs.
A Career in the Bags
For one Iowa baker, cake has been a vehicle of transformation on many levels.
It has kept Rebecca Bowlsby-Duncan connected to her departed grandmother while allowing her to operate a successful business out of her home and to release an inner muse that could not find expression in other artistic media.
“My fondest childhood memories involve me playing amongst Grandma Pearle’s flour canisters on her farm near Gilbert. I literally learned to bake at her apron strings. The ‘sugar pearles’ I make now are my signature, and I am so happy that she saw that before passing,” recalls the owner of Pearles Specialty Cake Company in West Des Moines.
Bowlsby-Duncan’s segue from Grandma’s little helper to celebrated cake maker took decades.
While working as an executive assistant at Wells Fargo, she baked as a hobby and would share her creations with her coworkers for special occasions. People appreciated the cakes enough that they began requesting them.
“I remember my very first commission. I was paid $15 and I worked two days and nights on it. That taught me that I needed to get better and to get quicker.”
Still a hobby baker in 2005, she fashioned sugar paste orchids that took third place in the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show, an international competition.
Two years later her husband, Jeff Duncan, a restaurant professional, encouraged her to quit her job and bake full-time.
In 2009 she entered the Iowa Premier Food & Wine Expo’s cake decorating competition and finished runner-up with an elaborate cake design consisting of six designer bags with four pieces of jewelry on a chocolate-beaded display stand.
Purse cakes became her signature.
“They are really hot. I do them for baby showers, bridal showers, and birthdays. I donate one each year to the Old Bags charity fund-raiser,” says Bowlsby-Duncan of the annual Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Iowa event. “I am a girly girl, so I really go all out decorating my purses with jewelry and sugar flowers.”
She makes 50 different styles of purse cake, mostly famous-designer look-alikes. “Some men order them as gifts for their wives and girlfriends. They tell me they can’t afford the real thing, so they want these instead,” she explains, laughing. “I don’t know how smart that strategy is.”
Other than what she learned from Grandma Pearle, Bowlsby-Duncan is completely self-taught. Even her bookcase is sparse — just a few old cookbooks she inherited from her grandmother and other relatives, and nothing cutting-edge.
Though she does tout Iowan Diane Roupe’s Blue Ribbon Country Cookbook as a favorite, most of the books she uses are more on the line of church group recipe collections.
“I never went to culinary school, never even took a class. I am proud now to call myself self-taught, so I probably never will. I feel that releases me as an artist because I do not follow any paths.”
As a result, her tools and methods are nontraditional.
“I have found 100 tools around the house that I use now,” she says, describing how she uses a cheese grater to simulate perforation in football jerseys, sewing tools for faux stitching, zipper tools for other fabric marks. She re-creates leather textures with an airbrush and aluminum with edible silver that she mixes with gin and lemon extract.
With three stepchildren, a toddler, and a baby on the way, Bowlsby-Duncan schedules her work week around her family. She usually takes on one wedding cake a week, though she has been known to complete four under special circumstances.
“For that one cake, I work straight through, usually starting on Friday morning with the baking, decorating all afternoon and all night, and finishing Saturday morning for a Saturday delivery.”
In addition, she bakes and decorates two or three birthday, shower, or anniversary cakes during the week and usually teaches two classes, all in her home. “That’s it,” she says modestly.
Bowlsby-Duncan strives to make people think “they are looking at the real thing rather than at cakes modeled after it.”
To that effect, her sushi cakes re-create both rolls and nigiri sushi with chopsticks, wasabi, and pickled ginger —all made of cake and sugar frosting painted with food coloring. Lawbook cakes resemble the real thing, right down to the binding and embossing. A Huck Finn cake re-created a first edition of the classic novel resting on a river raft.
She has also crafted fishing hats, tribal tattoos, sports team logos, cinema scenes, and high-tech tools such as iPads. One cake for a veterinarian included 13 animals.
Roller skate cakes, she says, are the most challenging. “They’re really hard because of the physics. They have to stand on cake-dough wheels. And stay standing up.”
Small details define the good decorators, says Bowlsby-Duncan. One “basket of flowers cake” included a dozen different flowers. A “box of chocolates cake” re-created the box out of cake and filled it with handmade chocolates. She admits to cheating the devil of details only once. “That was for my own wedding cake. I just didn’t have much time, so the bottom three layers were Styrofoam!”
Bowlsby-Duncan does break from reality to create fantasy flowers, such as blue lilies. Such efforts have released her inner artist.
“I always felt I had an artist’s soul, but the truth is I never used to feel like I could call myself an artist. My vision — the way I saw something — never came out on canvas with oils and acrylics,” she says.
“Then I started sculpting with sugar and flour and painting with food coloring, and it just happened naturally. My art looked just like my vision. It’s the magic of the medium. Food coloring has given me the artistic confidence I never had with other media.”