Same Cakes

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by He­len Sul­li­van

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.

“I mean, let them get mar­ried!” he said over the phone ex­cit­edly

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.

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