Bake Break: Chocolate Raspberry Cake

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about archival theory and the various questions it raises in terms of how archives affirm or undermine authority, whose voices tend to get preserved or not, and the allure of the archives as a tactile connection to the past, among other issues. Before we move on to the next part of my list though, which addresses digital humanities, I thought I’d take a break from the theory and share this post about a cake.

A little backstory first. I originally wrote this in early February, and it’s rather strange reading it now. Before the pandemic, I usually only baked cakes and that sort of thing for social occasions. Not so anymore. I’ve done a lot of baking since the pandemic started, but aside from Brandon, I haven’t been sharing my baked goods with anybody. The cake I talk about in today’s post, one that was meant to be shared by a group of people, feels like it happened a very long time ago. Future historians take note: sheltering at home in the Covid-19 pandemic alters your sense of time.

Anyway, here’s the original post:

A coworker of Brandon’s recently got a new job at the Valentine Museum in Richmond. To celebrate this new chapter, Brandon asked if I could make a cake for her, as he knows I enjoy baking. After finding out that she has a penchant for chocolate raspberry cakes with cream cheese frosting, I decided to give it a go.

Here’s the recipe, which is modified from a King Arthur recipe for classic birthday cake:

  • 2 cups cake flour (I used King Arthur’s unbleached and unenriched)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder (I used Hershey’s Special Dark, but it’s up to you)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 4 tablespoons (1/4 cups) butter, cut into parts
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the center. Lightly grease two 8″ or 9″ round cake pans. If the 8″ pan isn’t 2″ deep, use the 9″ pans.
  2. Combine flour, sale, baking powder, and cocoa powder in a small bowl.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and almond extract until thickened and light gold in hue. The recipe called for using a hand-mixer at medium-high speed for 2 minutes, but I was able to do this by hand with a little effort.
  4. Add the dry ingredients and mix just enough to combine. Scrape the bottom and sides, and mix again briefly.
  5. Bring the milk to a simmer over medium heat in a saucepan on the stovetop, or in the microwave. Remove from heat, add butter and oil, and stir until the butter melts
  6. Slowly mix the milk/butter/oil concoction into the batter until everything is well combined. Use the low setting on your hand mixer if you’ve got one. Scrape the bowl and mix one more time, briefly.
  7. Divide the batter between the two pans.
  8. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean and the top feels set (38 to 42 minutes for 8″ pans, 26 to 30 minutes for 9″ pans)
  9. Remove from the oven, loosen the edges, and allow to cool for 15 minutes. Remove the cakes from pans onto a rack (right-side up), and let them finish cooling. Cakes should be completely cool before you frost them.

And here’s what I did for the cream cheese frosting (You can also find it here):

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened.
  • 8 ounces cream cheese (the block kind, not the spreadable stuff for bagels)
  • 4 cups’ confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Beat butter and cream cheese until blended, then add sugar and vanilla and continue to beat until creamy and smooth.

For the filling in between the cake layers, I used seedless raspberry preserves, probably between 1/4-1/2 cup though I wasn’t measuring precisely. I got mine from Publix, but any brand will suffice. To keep the raspberry filling from soaking too much into the cakes, I coated the top of the bottom layer and the bottom of the top layer with a thin coat of frosting. I then applied the raspberry filling on top of the bottom layer of cake, placed the top layer over that, and covered the whole thing with cream cheese frosting.

Now for the story behind this cake:

As I mentioned earlier, this recipe is modified from a classic birthday cake recipe from King Arthur Flour, my favorite baking company. The recipe is on their website, but you can also find it on the back of their cake flour box.

This recipe is definitely easier with a hand mixer, but you can do it by hand, like I did. I broke my hand mixer a few years ago, but I’m able to meet most of my baking needs without it. If I start baking cakes more often though, I’ll definitely get a new one.

Two-layer cakes have always been an aspiration of mine. I’ve done lots of sheet cakes and cupcakes, but there’s something about the height and elegance of a layer cake that intrigues me. I don’t bake them often enough to be really good at them, but I always appreciate the challenge.

In retrospect, I would have done three things differently. First, I would have put the frosting back in the fridge before using it, as I found that despite using block cream cheese, it was still a tad runny when I was using it. Second, I wouldn’t have spread the raspberry filling all the way to the edges. When I applied the frosting around the edges, the raspberry filling bled into it, causing an ombre effect. While I actually liked how it looked, it wasn’t what I had initially set out to do. Third, I would have applied more frosting in between the layers. I ended up with more frosting than I needed to cover the cake, so I ended up having a very thick layer on top.

Overall, though, I was pleased with how this cake tuned out. Adding the oil also kept the cake moist, which is another improvement on my previous cakes. Visually, it wouldn’t win any contests on a baking show, but this is definitely one of my better efforts. I mean, it’s upright and evenly coated with frosting more or less, so in my books, it’s a success. Most importantly, Brandon’s coworker loved it, along with everyone else in the collections department, so I’m happy I was able to help make her sendoff a memorable one.

Who knows when it’ll be safe to do this again.

Messy Archives

Last week I talked about a variety of readings that explored the allure of archival research, from the tantalizing yet ultimately impossible pursuit of origins as detailed by Derrida’s Archive Fever, to the seductive yet deceptive appeal of historical artifacts providing an unmitigated connection to the past, as explored in Carolyn Steedman’s Dust. Other authors, however, have explored the challenges of archival research, whether through interrogating the archive as an affirmation of state power and violence, or developing new methods for creating and researching archives that include marginalized voices. Today then, I’d like to explore some of these readings, and more broadly the idea of archival messiness.

The politicized nature of the archive as both a concept and a tactile repository for historical documents is not a new idea. Particularly when it comes to colonial archives, a popular method of research has been to read documents “against the grain,” in an effort to explore moments of resistance to state authorities. Within the last decade or so, however, other scholars have been questioning the efficacy of such resistance-focused approaches, as it not only overlooks the vast majority of historical documents, but neglects to account for the insidiousness of the state apparatus itself by instead highlighting pluckier moments of resistance.

That is the angle that two of the authors I’ve read have taken, but with different emphases. In Along the Archival Grain, Ann Stoler takes a critical look at common sense as exerted through colonial authorities. She posits that colonial powers asserted their authority not solely through reason and rationality, as has been conventionally been assumed, but also through affect, specifically uncertainty and fear. To tease out these emotions, she reads documents for moments of uncertainty from colonial authorities, particularly when it comes to the terminology and treatment of children produced through miscegenation. In this work, Stoler isn’t so much interested in resistance against the state as she is in discerning moments of uncertainty within the state itself, emphasizing that colonial infrastructures, far from consistent or permanent, were instead amorphous and prone to fluctuation.

Marisa Fuentes’ Dispossessed Lives also reads colonial documents along the grain, but with the intent of emphasizing the violence defining the colonial state. Focusing on enslaved women in the Caribbean, Fuentes examines the lives of women who have been lost to the historical record. To do this she employs a variety of interpretive techniques, from analyzing the spatial layout of Caribbean cities and the way their architecture reinforced racial and classist hierarchies, to taking abolitionist texts and inverting their perspective to focus on the actions of the enslaved people they discuss. Fuentes deliberately concentrates on women who have disappeared from the historical record in order to underscore the extent to which the violence of the colonial state affected the lives of enslaved people. By focusing solely on moments of resistance, she argues, we in essence take a neoliberal approach to historical memory by putting the onus of remembrance on the individual. Unless you actively resist, in other words, something not everyone had the means or resources to do, your life doesn’t deserve to be remembered. Additionally, Fuentes argues that focusing on moments of resistance, while important, overlooks how extensively the state endeavored to deny agency to enslaved people. Reading archival documents with this oppression in mind, Fuentes concludes, underscores the trauma of the colonial state while also bringing attention back to forgotten lives.

Other works focus on the material challenges of the archive itself. Lori Emerson explores in Reading Writing Interfaces how interfaces in the form of writing utensils shape both the format and content of creative production. In particular, she expresses concern over ostensibly user-friendly computers, smartphones, and related technologies, arguing that these devices derive their seeming ease of use from their invisible interfaces, with their inner workings concealed from users. Consequently, she argues that because such devices are nearly impossible to tinker with, we cannot discern how they influence us. Most unsettlingly, as she posits with the algorithms of Google and related search engines, such devices not only shape how we write, but what we write, with the ultimate objective being to transform us from producers to consumers.

The essays in the anthology Residual Media also consider the challenges that come with retaining old materials, both from an ecological standpoint as well as from an intellectual or cultural perspective. As Will Straw argues in his essay, for instance, the omnipresence of older media through the Internet not only means that the past is always with us, but that any new content produced must compete with older media for attention. Consequently, new media continues to resemble old media in content and style, limiting the possibilities for innovation (just think of how many movies that come out are remakes, sequels, or entries in a franchise).

While the archival documents I work with predate the technologies Emerson describes, the idea of interfaces shaping both the method and content of writing is still applicable. Most of the surviving documents I encountered in the Roswell Museum archive were written on typewriters, a significantly different technology from the computer (and one far less forgiving of typos). How did that technology shape the daily routine of the people who wrote on it? How did it influence their writing process and the kind of content they wrote? Given that the Community Art Center Project documents were intended to circulate both locally and nationally, questions of how they were written are definitely worth exploring.

Another group of readings explores how to both create and research archives, with the intention of bringing attention to marginalized groups. In Ephemeral Material, Alana Kumbier outlines a practice of queer archiving. She advocates for a ground-up approach, with archivists approaching communities as collaborators rather than authorities. A key part of her practice is having archivists listen to different communities, and offer resources based on what they need, whether it’s archival training or materials for preservation. In other words, Kumbier advocates having archivists view the communities they work with as the authority, rather than the other way around. Her people-focused practice parallels Dr. Catherine Knight-Steele’s discussion of digital black feminism from the recent CDHC symposium I attended, which similarly advocated for putting people before things.

The idea of listening and working with communities to fulfill their respective needs is a common thread throughout much recent feminist scholarship in particular. Whereas first-generation feminist scholars focused on recovering the lives of historical women through archival research, the authors in more recent texts such as Archives and New Modes of Feminist Research argue for a more nuanced approach that questions the axiom of archival completeness as key. Instead, acknowledging archival silences as a means of resistance to colonial states, or even enabling the destruction rather than preservation of documents, may be more important to a specific community rather than preservation. An ethical feminist practice requires listening to these different groups or communities and respecting those requests.

This last point is admittedly a challenging concept for me on an emotional level. As a museum person, I’ve been trained to believe that everything should be preserved, but as these essays make evident, that may not be desirable for every community. At its core, it raises an important question: should information be free and universally accessible? I’ve always assumed to answer to be yes, but as these readings make evident, the realities are more complicated.

Thinking back to a fragment from last week: who wrote this letter? Is the recovery of their names and memories the most important thing, or are there other priorities based on the needs and expectations of their descendant communities?

Still, these readings do raise important questions for my own research moving forward. I know that the Roswell Museum archive and others like it are politicized in that they represent a federal voice, but what about the local communities mentioned in them, or excluded altogether? How do we recover the voices of the visitors who have disappeared from the historical record? What are the needs and expectations of the descendants of those visitors, and how can I as an ethical researcher respect those needs while completing my own work?

The main thing I’ve learned from these readings is to keep my own expectations flexible. As I encounter new archives, art centers, and affiliated communities, I’ll most likely need to adjust my research questions and approaches. After all, real people, not abstractions or concepts, experienced these places, and their memories need to be respected accordingly.

The Allure of the Archive

COVID-19 has deeply affected our lives in a variety of ways. I’ve still got exams to prep for though, and while at times it’s been difficult to focus, I’ve continued working through my reading lists. Today then, I’d like to start talking about my second reading list, which focuses on archival theory and digital humanities. I’ve just about finished this list, but over the next few weeks, I’ll share my thoughts about it with you.

To start things off, my first sublist considers the definition of an archive, and more specifically what draws us as scholars to this kind of research. Not surprisingly, the definitions of an archive vary, encompassing everything from a repository of documents, to an epistemological framework that dictates knowledge through the discourses it enables or limits, as Michel Foucault argues. When it comes to the allure of archival research, justifications also vary, whether it’s the tactile experience of working with older documents and the inherited historical practice that comes with it, as Carolyn Steedman posits in Dust, or Jacques Derrida’s assertion that archival research constitutes an ultimately futile pursuit for origin stories while simultaneously burying any actual memories in documents. Still other scholars like Diana Taylor advocate for the repertoire, an embodied form of knowledge enacted through performance that works closely with the more textual, object-based nature of the archive (as an example she cites the wedding: you need the license, but what everyone remembers is the ‘I do’s’). All in all, it’s some of the more theoretical reading I’ve done recently, but I’ve really been enjoying it.

Naturally, I’ve been thinking about these ideas in relation to my previous work on the Roswell Museum archive, as well as future expeditions to other repositories. Taylor’s argument about the repertoire, in particular, intrigues me with regard to a mystery play that was performed at the Museum in 1938. Performed within Roswell’s Hispanic community since at least the 1850s, the play known as Los Pastores belonged to an established oral tradition, one that reflected both the medieval European mystery plays from which it was likely descended, as well as more regional embodiments specific to southeastern New Mexico. Its performance at the Roswell Museum represented a seminal moment in its own history, as that was the first known occasion that it was performed not only at the museum, but specifically for an audience outside the Chihuahita community. How did that movement in space and audience affect the play’s performance? How did the actors and audience together use their bodies to create and share meaning? What knowledge do we miss when we rely exclusively on photographs or newspaper writeups from the time? The validity of performance as a form of knowledge is something I’ve been thinking about since participating in last year’s annual conference for the Space Between Society, so it’s been engaging to delve into its theories a little more deeply.

The cast of Los Pastores, 1938.

Another idea that’s particularly intrigued me is the idea of absence or fragments, a concept that Zeb Tortorici explores in his article, “Archival Seduction: Indexical Absences and Hagiographic Ghosts.” Based on his research as the Archivo General de la Nacion in Mexico City, Tortorici argues that the appeal of archival documents comes from its fragmentary nature. While historical documents offer tantalizing windows into the past, what they yield is a fragmented perspective. No document can ever successfully offer an objective window into the past, yet the appeal remains due to their tactile nature. They were physically there, after all, and remain an alluring physical link.

The Archivo General de la Nacion, Mexico City. Photo by Miguel Angel Marquez – https://ddd.uab.cat/record/211778, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83037981

More specifically, Tortorici argues for the allure of fragments: documents that are, in the case of indexical absences, referenced in documents but no longer extant, and in the case of hagiographic ghosts, known only through the hearsay of secondary literature. For Tortorici, the appeal of these documents comes from their refusal to conform to an established narrative, thereby revealing history itself as a construct rather than a natural state. Additionally, because they provide so little information, fragments invite speculation and the potential for discovery even while they refuse to provide any closure through information. In short, fragments represent the tantalizing unanswered questions of archival research, remnants that stand out for their resistance to narrativization.

Thinking back to the Roswell Museum archive, there are documents with incomplete stories, if not outright absences. The letter above was composed by an elementary school class that visited the museum in 1938, and represents one of the few extant surviving documents from actual visitors. For the most part, we only know what we thought about the museum through the writings of staff members, so to have something from the students themselves is quite extraordinary. Yet its allure comes in part from its own brevity. Who visited the museum that day? Does this thank-you note represent the collective opinion of all the students, or did some pupils enjoy their visit more than others? What were the “many interesting things” that they learned, and what did they see? How did Rainey Woolsey herself, the woman who led the visit, feel about this experience?

Even more tantalizing is a reference to a disagreement that occurred between Domingo Tejada, who supervised the design and carving of the Roswell Museum’s wooden furniture, and his assistant, Trinidad Bernal. The disagreement survives through references the correspondence between the museum’s director and the state director for the FAP, Russell Vernon Hunter. According to the administrators, the disagreement seems to have stemmed from the degree of oversight Bernal needed from Tejada to do his work, with the latter being resentful for not having his skills recognized. Other letters suggest that Tejada was in high demand for furniture around the state, and relied on Bernal to help him stay on schedule without going overtime. Perhaps Bernal didn’t feel appreciated for his efforts, or thought he could take more initiative in the studio. Yet without documents from Bernal and Tejada themselves, we can only speculate on what they argued over, or how they felt about the situation. Did they disagree over specific designs? Did they have different working styles? Did Bernal want to work on certain pieces, while Tejada had other projects in mind? As with the letter from the school group, the references in the correspondence offer tantalizing glimpses into the lives of the people who worked there, but without providing a complete narrative or story.

Looking into the main gallery with Tejada’s furniture on view. What conversations revolved around the creation of these pieces?

Historical curiosities aside, why does any of this matter? Because archives are about people. They are written by people, they talk about people, and people use them. Fragments and incompletions remind us that whenever we write history, we need to remember that we’re addressing real people who lived unique lives, and that telling narratives at the expense of eliding that uniqueness, or projecting your own speculations without acknowledging them as such, has its own ethical perils. Just as Foucault argues that the archives aren’t so much an enclosed repository of documents as they are an ongoing discourse and epistemological framework, so history is an ongoing process, one that also remains incomplete and full of fragments.

New Publication: The Artist as Soldier

For the last two weeks, my posts have reflected on the current pandemic, but today I’d like to share some good news: I’ve recently published an article in Arts, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal. You can read the article here.

While I’ve published my work before, this is my first peer-reviewed work. This means that other scholars have read the manuscript commented on it, and ultimately considered it worthy of publication. Better yet, Arts is an open-access journal, which means that anyone can read its contents without having to pay. As someone who’s experienced the frustration of paywalls, I’m glad that I can share my work with anyone who’s interested. It also means that my work will have a better chance of getting read and cited because there’s no fee that might turn off potential readers.

Howard Cook, Self-Portrait in a Foxhole, 1943, mixed media on paper. Courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

So what’s this article about? The subject is a collection of World War II drawings from New Mexico artist Howard Cook (1901-1980), and more specifically a group of works collectively titled Self-Portrait in a Foxhole. For three months in 1943, Cook served as an art correspondent in the South Pacific as part of the federal War Art Unit, a government initiative intended to document the war. During those three months, Cook sketched Allied soldiers engaging in everything from watching movies to digging trenches. In the case of the Self-Portrait group, Cook shows himself taking shelter during an air raid while participating in the Invasion of Rendova. In the article, I argue that the Self-Portrait group explores the war experience through the lens of vulnerability, a theme that recurs throughout his war drawings.

This article developed out of an exhibition I curated in 2015. The Roswell Museum has a large collection of Cook’s art, including the war drawings, along with the correspondence Cook wrote during his assignment to his wife, fellow artist Barbara Latham (1896-1989). Roswell has a large veteran population and fond memories of the Walker Air Force Base, so I knew an exhibition on war art, especially one on view during the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end, would appeal to a lot of visitors. In addition to showcasing our collection, I borrowed a few painted works from the art collection at the New Mexico Military Institute. I also featured a 1943 issue of Collier’s magazine, where Cook had some of his art published. For the actual text labels, I quoted from Cook’s letters whenever possible, allowing readers to learn about the works through his perspective.

Howard Cook, Two Men in a Foxhole, 1943, mixed media on paper. Courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

While I may have started out this exhibition with visitors in mind, I ended up getting really interested in the works myself. I’ve always liked Cook’s work, but the war drawings are especially interesting because they’re something of a departure from his earlier works. Cook started out his career working in a Precisionist style, and he always drew in a clear, lucid manner with an ample amount of reflected light to give his work a luminous quality. He continued using that style for a lot of his war drawings, but he also experimented with a more gestural, expressionistic style. In works like Two Men in a Foxhole, shown above, Cook uses thick strokes of white pigment to suggest the forms of the two men, their white flesh standing out vulnerably against the ink wash background. While Cook relied on strong contrasts between light and shadow to bring clarity to his compositions, there’s a raw quality to the Rendova drawings that you don’t always see in Cook, and I thought that was worth exploring further.

An example of Cook’s Precisionist work: Skyscraper, 1928, wood engraving on paper. Image courtesy of http://oldprintshop.com/product/20247

What especially intrigued me about the Self-Portrait group was the artist’s decision to depict himself in a moment of vulnerability. Cook doesn’t show himself digging the trench, or running off the boat during the initial Rendova landing. Instead, he’s showing himself taking shelter from artillery fire, something he couldn’t actively fight back against. I thought this vulnerability was worth exploring and decided to write about it.

I first floated the idea of a potential essay in 2015, when I presented a conference paper at the Southwest Art History Conference in Taos. It was well-received there, so I sent the paper to a professor I knew at Williams for suggestions and began expanding it into a manuscript. I was on a roll, but after the exhibition opened, other projects and tasks began demanding my time. I decided to shelve the piece until the right opportunity came up to revisit it.

That happened in the summer of 2019, when the Williams College listserv forwarded a call for papers for a special issue in Arts journal. The editor was especially interested in works that dealt with the Pacific Theater, so I sent in an abstract because I figured I had nothing to lose. They accepted it, so I spent the next few months reworking the piece. In July, I was notified that it was accepted, so I started work by making a schedule. Since the manuscript was due in early December, I worked backward to July to make sure I had plenty of time to finish. I ultimately decided to dedicate an hour each weekday morning to working on the piece, so that I would make steady progress while having plenty of time to focus on my coursework.

I started by taking the original essay and reading it all the way through. After rereading the original essay, I made notes on how to improve it. I then refreshed the research (having access to a university library and all its academic resources made that a lot easier), which including rereading Cook’s letter as well as finding new secondary literature. I then wrote three different outlines: one for the original essay, one for the envisioned new essay, and one that combined the two. I then spent the next few months reworking and expanding the 2015 essay. The manuscript then went through two rounds of peer reviews, and after each round I incorporated their suggestions. The final essay was substantially different from the 2015 piece, but having a draft that I could then rework made the whole process much easier.

An example of Cook’s studies of indigenous peoples. Despite his interest in the indigenous people of the South Pacific, as well as their involvement in the Allied effort, Cook ultimately focused on white soldiers because he believed they were the dominant aspect of his assignment, a decision that merits further exploration. Courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

It was interesting to revisit this piece, because it showed me how much my interests have changed over the last few years. I’m proud of this article and I’m happy to introduce RMAC’s art collection to a scholarly audience, but my focus has shifted since I first started working on it. if I were to write this piece now, I’d focus on Cook’s decision focus on white soldiers rather than indigenous populations, aside from a few preliminary sketches. As I’ve learned, what’s not shown is as important as what is.

All that said, I’m pleased to have this essay out there now (and very grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their insightful commentary), and I hope it will open up more scholarly inquiries into both Cook’s work and the Roswell Museum collection more broadly. It’s got some great works that scholars would benefit from studying.