Martin Parr, Fairy Cakes, 1999
Art, Music, Books & Film

Singled Out

I’ve been revisiting Martin Parr’s donut, crullers and cupcake photographs these past few days. One of my favorites is the one with the two glazed donuts, each toothpicked with a miniature American flag sitting on a doily under a glass dome cover. And his gigantic Mexican pink sugared doughnuts. This is not a pink that ever existed in nature. They’re larger than life, iconic, even more so because they’ve been snatched out of context and made an object of observationrather than consumption, their cheapness transformed into something almost wondrous in its quintessential artificiality. Occasion for this foray in the work of this ever intriguing dispassionate chronicler of working class kitsch was a work of Giannis Varelas, one of the finalists for the DESTE 2011 prize, on exhibition now at the Cycladic Museum of Art.

Varelas has set a glazed donut coated in Parr-ish pink and green sprinkles on a rotating spike which in turn is set in an illuminated exhibition case. Given its setting now as an object of art in museum exhibition it takes on the qualities of a venerable icon. It reminds one of the rotating Mercedes-Benz logo atop its corporate headquarters in Berlin. But the act of its exhibition reveals its flaws, the folds and creases of dough that sag like an old man’s flesh, the tiny pustules of oozing fat, the melting sprinkles, this is not the way a doughnut was meant to be seen. A solitary doughnut is sad. Better snuggled among its comrades on a tray, one of a contingent of amusing trivialities.

I don’t think I ate doughnuts until I was in college. In our house we made our own, or rather, the Neapolitan equivalent, zeppole. But these were austere in comparison to the extravaganza of pink and green and yellow sprinkles that adorned the real American doughnut. The only thing that came near were the petit fours my folks would sometimes buy from the Austrian bakery in town, which happened to be run by the father of my best friend, Simon Goetschl. We called them petty 4’s, of course. No one in my family knew French. Actually, as I discovered much much later, they were really Punschkrapferl, a classical icing-covered Austrian cake slit down the middle and filled with cake crumbs, jam and nougat chocolate. But he called them petit fours. Perhaps he had been long enough in the States to realize that any dessert that had the sound krap in it would never sell, especially in this very ordinary New Jersey working class suburb. He iced them in various colors and dribbled the tiniest stream of syrup over the glaze so that the cakes would look as if they had been draped in confectionary flags.

Mr. Groeschl didn’t speak English all that well, which made him seem more foreign than the Gruenwalds and Jankowskis and Merciers, whose strangeness, like ours I suppose, were confined to the kitchen and the garden. But he was a shrewd businessman and amazing baker. Nowadays we would call him an artisanal baker and his kids would be proud of him, but Simon didn’t talk much about his dad’s work. I think he was a bit ashamed about it. He and I were students at the same Catholic boys’ prep school, and most of our fellow students’ fathers were professionals of some sorts.

Simon and I were both on the track team, had acne and shared a passion for literature and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Neither of us had a girlfriend until shortly before the senior dance, and both of us broke up with our respective partners soon thereafter. We didn’t need girls. We had each other.

We both worked in our junior and senior years; most of what we made we spent going out to eat in New York restaurants. It made us feel grown up and special, I think. But maybe, too, it was a way to create a room of our own far from the inquisitive and judgmental eyes of our fellow students.

At first we felt we felt awkward. One of our first forays was to a tiny French restaurant in the Theater District where I made the mistake of ordering vichyssoise, not knowing it was cold potato and leek soup. When the waiter came to clear the first course and saw that I hadn’t touched my soup, he asked if there was a problem. I remember murmuring in bad French that my mother made it differently. Simon burst into riotous laughter, which only heightened my embarrassment, but he was so good-natured and I was so desperately fond of him that in the end I started laughing, too.

But our awkwardness quickly evaporated and by 17 we had eaten in nearly every Manhattan neighbourhood: Bohemian and German restaurants in Yorkville, midtown bistros, the Indian restaurants in the basements on E. 8th Street, Italian places in the Village, Chinatown of course and, with the sense of invulnerability that even skinny white kids from the suburbs have, even Spanish Harlem.

Simon was also keenly interested in fashion, which seeing as we had to wear coat and tie to school was by necessity an enthusiasm reserved for the weekend. It was one I didn’t share, but I could sense why he kept it private. Neither of us wanted to be singled out at school for our being different, speared and hoisted for all to see like Varelas’s pink sprinkle-covered doughnut. Better sit on the tray and run track and get a girlfriend for the dance.

I suspect though that neither of us had a very clear idea of what exactly this difference meant or if we had, weren’t prepared yet to act. If we had, perhaps Simon and I would have made love instead of going to restaurants.


Image: Martin Parr, Fairy Cakes, 1999


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