Izzie Ramirez Cake meme reflects coronavirus absurdity in a world where nothing is what it seems

Absurdity is the name of the game now — but at least this absurdity comes with a side of frosting.
Image: Natalie Sideserf cakes
A repulsion-fascination matrix fuels our attraction to viral food videos.Natalie Sideserf; Adrian Lam / NBC News
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By Izzie Ramirez, freelance food writer

Don’t believe everything you see on the internet — those are important words to live by, especially for those of us who are “very online.” Earlier this month, though, a viral video depicting hyper-realistic cakes as everyday items had folks on social media double-guessing every other post, and sometimes even their own realities, effectively launching the next meme: “Is this real or is this cake?”

The meme began the way so many others have before it: with BuzzFeed’s "Tasty" recirculating something completely absurd. On July 8, the brand shared a supercut of chef Tuba Geçkil slicing into items that are presumably not cake — Crocs, toilet paper, plants — and then revealing the delectable dessert center.

While people have been making hyper-realistic cakes for years, they weren’t exactly viral. So what changed? It has a lot to do with our shifting sense of reality, as well as the repulsion-fascination matrix that fuels our attraction to viral food videos.

In the early to mid-2010s, the appeal of food videos — specifically, short instructional or introductory ones — hinged on easy, often trendy, Instagram-friendly foods like avocado toast with a runny yolk or a gooey grilled cheese. But somewhere along the way, food videos made a hard pivot toward spectacle; the more ridiculous and shocking the recipe or the meal, the better, no matter how disgusting it turned out to be.

Somewhere along the way, food videos made a hard pivot toward spectacle; the more ridiculous and shocking the recipe or the meal, the better.

Sometimes these videos encourage absolute stupidity, like this 100-layer lasagna or these cheese and wine shots. Other times, they highlight over-the-top food creations like Jonathan Cheban’s 24-karat-gold-dusted chicken wings. With the exception of Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen videos, which are more about the personality of the cooks, food videos these days rely on a formula contingent on surprise and revulsion.

That’s part of the reason why this round of hyper-realistic cakes is garnering so much attention — we derive immense satisfaction watching everyday objects get sliced. In the same way we cannot look away from Dr. Pimple Popper squeezing a vile cyst, we can’t help but watch someone take a knife to a hand that is actually a cake.

Besides our morbid fascination with this intersection of the weird and the delicious, another big factor behind the success of the cake meme is more depressing: Collectively, our relationship with reality seems to be declining. The coronavirus pandemic has turned many of our worlds upside down, eroding social structures and work-life routines and blending days into weeks into months.

The internet has also played a huge role in warping our perception of reality, as fake news amplifies misinformation and some of our own politicians gaslight us. It’s no wonder we don’t know who, or what, to trust. It’s not enough to say the cake fascination is simply due to boredom or anxiety. The very realities we exist in are subject to interpretation and politicization. Everything and anything feels up for debate.

The very realities we exist in are subject to interpretation and politicization. Everything and anything feels up for debate.

That skepticism is naturally amplified online (sometimes with good reason). We are acutely aware that we’ve lost a lot of control, of both our present and our future. For the past four years — perhaps not coincidentally, around the time excessive food videos became the norm — we have been bearing constant bad news.

Frankly, it’s exhausting. Sometimes, a Croc should just be a Croc. That’s what makes the meme so effective — they are in on just how ridiculous this whole thing is. Some of the memes require familiarity with previous meme formats or pop culture and others turn the joke on its head, like this cake that is actually meat or this Nintendo Switch that turned out to not be cake. Much like the layers of a cake (see what I did there?), the joke is multifaceted: If reality is subjective, why not play along? So what if everything is cake? Wouldn’t it be better that way?

While cake memes are trending now, it wouldn’t be surprising to see another unsettling food item become the next existential meme. The viral-food-video factory is probably cooking one up at this very moment. Perhaps what’s soothing these days is not escapism, but the escalation of spectacle. Absurdity is the name of the game now — but at least this absurdity comes with a side of frosting.