This weekend, courtesy of Curator of St Bartholemew’s Pathology Museum, Carla Connolly, a few members of the WI, twenty bakers – including the famed Miss Cakehead - and a selection of medical practitioners, St Bart’s has been transformed into a feast of sickening sponges, monstrous macaroons and bubonic biscuits.
This collaboration aims to raise awareness of St Bart’s Pathology Museum which has recently been under threat, and with an accompanying series of lectures to educate the public about those diseases which continue to plague our society today.
Although food is guaranteed to bring followers, the reasons for this particular meeting of baking and body parts is far more complex, as explained by Carla in her brilliant lecture: Mourning Coffee. As Carla is not only the museum’s curator, but also co-creator of Eat Your Heart Out 2012 and a fully qualified Mortuary Technician, the talk was incredibly informative but interesting with her evident passion for this project.
These syringe shots of rum, cocktail-filled specimen jars and hundreds of cakes may be tasty (coffee sponge with oozing yellow puss was a favourite), but they are primarily educational. Food is a necessity, so we automatically identify with it - even sicknesses have been named after some of our most loved ingredients:
“Maple syrup urine”
“Icing sugar spleen”
“Nutmeg liver disease”
Food is life, and with life comes death so it is no wonder that food has had its part in death ceremonies since the beginning of time: the Neanderthal’s endo-cannibalism, the Druid’s sacrificial decisions dictated by Bannock cakes, the Celtic feast of the dead – or Halloween, ‘Sin Eaters’ in the Middle ages, and finally the Victorian’s more refined take on it all, Funeral Biscuits.
In death, life – and therefore food -should be celebrated; this tradition sadly came to an end after the First World war as obviously there would have been a national shortage of flour, and bakers would have been adding to the death toll through exhaustion, but perhaps it is time we bring back this ritual.
I’m not suggesting we start gnawing on each other’s toes, or that tables at wakes should be stacked with calloused cupcakes or maggot infested muffins; but the Victorian funeral biscuits with their poems of remembrance and beautiful illustrations seem fitting, appropriate, as there is no doubt that investing time and care into making something to commemorate the dead is more meaningful than a party rings and sausage rolls spread. This is something which boutique foods company Animal Vegetable Mineral are advocating, bringing back, and something I rather support: the act of baking is lengthy, considered and therapeutic, and with the funeral biscuit creates a collective mourning - slightly sweetened with a smooth buttery taste.
This weekend of culinary mastery and anatomy celebrates life, acknowledges death and encourages that we learn all we can about the both of them – whilst nibbling on chocolate stool samples and licking sticky strawberry blood of our fingertips.