February 2018

The Nation Reviewed

Take the cake

By Helen Sullivan
Take the cake
One baker’s verdict on the marriage survey result

When I arrive at Abla’s Pastries in Granville, Western Sydney, it’s not yet eight o’clock in the morning and already the temperature outside is closing in on 40 degrees. Around the corner on South Street, builders in dark cafes chew on breakfast banh mi and squint out at the light. Most of the other stores are still closed, but Abla’s, famous for its Lebanese sweets and wedding cakes, is open for business, and it’s tiled and cool. Waiting for Charlie Abla, I leaf through Al Mestaqbal (The Future), an Australian Arabic newspaper picked up from a messy pile at the entrance, and spot the multilingual Merry Christmas ads from Liberal and Labor politicians. Two cops listen politely to a man concerned about the accuracy of the local speed cameras while they wait to order their coffees and baklava.

At the time of my visit, it has been two weeks since Australia became the 26th country in the world to legalise marriage equality, two years after the United States, via the courts, made the same decision. As seems increasingly common, the conservative movement in Australia took its cues from America as the issue was debated. In particular, conservative leaders attempted to import the heated rhetoric of free speech and freedom from discrimination, which has now reached the US Supreme Court in the form of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The case has its origins in the refusal of shop owner Jack Phillips to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig. Phillips also refuses to make cakes for Halloween, and cakes using profanity or containing alcohol. He argues that his wedding cakes are art, a form of religious expression, and therefore, by refusing to make them for same-sex couples, he is exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. In September last year, the Trump administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Masterpiece Cakeshop.

Australia has its own political history with cakes. Ahead of the “unlosable” 1993 election, the then Opposition leader, John Hewson, was asked how the cost of a birthday cake would change if his proposed GST plan came into effect. Hewson, with a PhD in economics, gave a meandering, inept reply, confusing everyone about the tax implications of the hypothetical cake’s various decorations. It was a killer moment that, if it didn’t cost the Liberal Party the election, certainly helped turn the tide in Labor’s favour. One might think, therefore, that politicians would avoid sweet foods when it came to the marriage-equality debate. And yet.

Ahead of the postal survey results, Liberal senator James Paterson released a bill that would allow bakers, florists and other wedding-related businesses to refuse to “participate” in same-sex marriages by not selling same-sex couples their services. “No” campaign spokesperson Lyle Shelton said of Paterson’s bill, “Anything less than that will see basic freedoms eroded.” The rights of theoretically anti-homosexual cakemakers were regularly cited and fiercely defended, but in the end the Paterson bill was a failure – Liberal senator Dean Smith’s original bill was passed with no amendments.

The survey’s results revealed that the highest proportion of “No” voters lived in Western Sydney, which is also where one in 11 Australians lives. The very highest was in Blaxland (73.9 per cent “No”), a Labor heartland seat. The nearby seat of Parramatta, home to Granville and Abla’s, returned a 61.6 per cent “No” result.

Has Abla’s ever refused to make anyone a cake?

Charlie sits down and explains the cake business. Abla’s sells christening cakes, First Holy Communion cakes, birthday cakes, and weddings cakes as well as wedding desserts: “Because a lot of the wedding cakes these days are fake cakes.”

Fake cakes? I’m shocked. He grins. “They’re fake. They’re made out of foam.” Have I seen the type of wedding cake that hangs from the ceiling, “like a legless table, like a chandelier?” he asks.

Let’s say you come in wanting a five-tier cake, Charlie says. “Do you want this stencil design? Do you want a criss-cross? Do you want diamantés? Do you want pearls? Do you want flowers? What sort of flowers do you want? Do you want draping coming down? How would you like this designed? Do you want this tier to be gold and this tier to be white? What colour icing do you want?” Seven or so years ago they made a 10-tier cake, 1.5 metres wide at the bottom (he stretches his arms out), with two large swans at the front of it, kissing. “If there’s a will, there’s always a way to do something for someone.”

Then you’ll be handed the dessert menu. “Chocolate mousse, chocolate mud, red velvet, caramel mud, cheesecake tiramisu. Whatever you’d like, I can accommodate for your needs.”

Abla’s makes the desserts and a fake, foam cake with a real top tier. The bridal party ceremonially cuts the top-tier slice, and the wedding cake, like a prince on his pretty throne, is then carried – hopefully with some well-acted groans – by staff back to the kitchen. Moments later, plates of dessert arrive and the crowd is none the wiser. The real top tier is put into Tupperware and stored in the freezer to be eaten a year later.

Abla’s has been selling cakes and pastries for 33 years, since it was founded by Charlie’s father, who moved to Australia from Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. Charlie grew up helping at the store. Would Abla’s refuse to make cake for a gay couple? No. “Recently, when same-sex marriage passed, I had a couple come in, they ordered a cake. Business as usual. If someone’s going to come in and buy a cake you can’t— you’re not going to refuse them.”

He doesn’t think there’ll be a surge in business as a result of the law. “If you’re gay or you’re lesbian and you’re going out with your partner, and you want to celebrate something for him, you’re going to come in and get a cake to suit your needs,” he says. “Same-sex couples have always been around. Every year we celebrate the Mardi Gras. I mean, how long has the Mardi Gras been going on for? The difference is that this year it’s legalised – they become Mrs and Mrs or Mr and Mr and so on.”

But it’s not all sugar swans and sparklers. I asked the manager of an industrial bakery in the Blaxland electorate about his views on same-sex marriage. He had voted “Yes”. “I mean, let them get married!” he said over the phone excitedly – but he wouldn’t go on the record for fear of the effect it might have on his business. As Rachael Jacobs and Denise Abou Hamad wrote in The Huffington Post following the survey result, “The ‘No’ campaign went hard in Western Sydney. They saw it as their core demographic, assuming residents were religious, traditional, conservative and scared of change.” The Anglican Diocese of Sydney donated a million dollars to the “No” campaign, and the Coalition for Marriage, as part of its own efforts, supplied door-knocking resources that alluded to the US Supreme Court cake case.

In the lead-up to the survey results, mental-health awareness organisation beyondblue saw a 40 per cent increase in the number of people asking for help. Following the results announcement, the LGBTIQ community learned that close to five million people don’t support their right to equality, and same-sex couples living in some electorates realised they’re more likely to live next door to someone who voted against marriage equality than to someone who supported it.

I follow Charlie to the pastry store’s factory, a two-minute drive away. Four-metre-high boxes of dates form towers beside tubs of clarified butter. It’s five days before Christmas, and seven bakers complete the various stages of yule log roulades in the shape of the piece of wood traditionally chosen to be burned on Christmas in Europe. One baker mixes batter in a giant “planetary mixer”, another carefully rolls the Swiss roll sponge. A third baker places silver pine trees, snowmen and several breakdancing Father Christmases onto logs piped with pale hazelnut icing. He poses for a picture. The cake will be placed in the fridge housing other yule logs, some decorated with a metallic green “Happy Christmas”, one bearing a “Happy Birthday”. The air smells like sugar. Outside, cicadas chirp and whirr.

Helen Sullivan

Helen Sullivan is a Sydney-based freelance writer. She has appeared in The New Yorker and The Guardian

@helenrsullivan

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