When Milwaukee-based food blogger and author Philia Kelnhofer first told her parents that she was making a smash cake for her son’s first birthday, they were confused. “They literally looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “My parents were like, ‘Wait, you’re going to make them a cake, but they’re probably not going to eat it, and they’re just going to just destroy it?’”
“They thought I was insane,” Kelnhofer tells Jezebel.
A miniature personal cake just for the baby, smash cakes are designed to be absolutely demolished by the newly one-year-old’s bare hands. To the uninitiated, they might seem bizarre, but over the last several years, they’ve become a popular social media staple. On Instagram and Pinterest, you can find thousands of babies cheerily poking, prodding, and digging their way through tiny, elaborate cakes created for the purpose of destruction. Walmart offers a free smash cake with a purchase from their bakery, the store’s kids cake catalog features an image of an icing-covered baby. Even royal baby Archie reportedly got his own smash cake homemade by Meghan Markle for his first birthday, proving that you can take the girl out of the lifestyle blog, but you can’t take the lifestyle blog out of the girl.
“Babies, smiles, cake, what’s not to love?” Kelnhofer asks.
But the miniature cake is just one part of the overall smash cake phenomenon, an elaborate prop for what really matters: the photoshoot. Smash cakes exist to be photographed. Slathered in frosting and sponge cake, the baby’s cake moment is immortalized in a photoshoot, which can range from casual at-home iPhone photos to elaborate studio sessions. Posing in front of a camera is an essential part of childhood, from dressing your best for formal school photos and holiday cards to casual, smiling birthday party photos. Smash cake photos speak to a desire to play with the static formality of childhood portraits, celebrating and staging the cute messiness of childhood to come with dramatic cake smashing.
“It definitely took over when social media, Instagram and Pinterest, kind of took over our lives,” Erica Tucker, the founder of Los Angeles bakery Sweet E’s Bake Shop, says of the smash cake’s popularity. In an era of ubiquitous smartphone photography, the smash cake photoshoot offers an opportunity to capture a uniquely extravagant and highly staged milestone. Where once a formal photo of your child might be relegated to the family’s living room wall or tucked into a photo album, now parents share images of their kids for a wider audience on social media platforms that reward attention-grabbing, magazine editorial-level photoshoots like a smash cake shoot. “As a parent, we have the ability to take a thousand photos in one day [with] our phones,” Tucker says. “Any moment to be able to photograph professionally even or just photograph in general is exciting.”
Luciana Golcman, a New York City photographer who offers elegant smash cake photo sessions, advises parents to follow a series of guidelines to ensure a photoshoot goes as smoothly as possible, not unlike how supermodels are instructed to prepare for a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. For example, they should come for the photoshoot right after the baby wakes up from a nap. They should give their baby a bottle and have them eat something, but something quickly so they “eat fast without wasting too much of their attention span,” Golcman says. And it shouldn’t be so filling that they won’t want to touch a cake during the photoshoot, but “a hungry baby’s a hangry baby,” Golcman says. Parents pay $350 for Golcman’s creative fee and, at the minimum, $595 or more for the images themselves, which center babies against themed backdrops elaborately decorated with balloons and flowers that transform babies into explorers, rockstars, and even Winnie the Pooh.
But no amount of prep and scheduling, professional photography or not, can ensure a successful smash cake photo. That’s because babies don’t really know what to do with a cake. Despite the messy, cheery collage of photos online that suggest all babies react to a cake with the desire to ruin it in a spectacularly photogenic fashion, reality suggests otherwise. The lovable chaos and perceived spontaneity of a smash cake photo are actually highly constructed and coaxed behind the scenes. Parents describe how they had to instruct their children to dig into the cake.
“My son, when he saw the cake, he gently patted it, so we had to show him that you could, you know, get messy with it,” Kelnhofer says, laughing, of her homemade cake. Her second son, upon seeing his smash cake, picked the whole thing up and stared at it, while her daughter opted for licking off all her cake’s frosting. “Some kids are super messy, some kids aren’t.”
“He didn’t even really smash it, he was like what is this big thing in front of me?” Arushi Garg, a blogger from Houston, Texas who staged a photoshoot for her son Vir’s first birthday and describes having to show him he could poke and grab at his grocery store smash cake before he actually indulged in it.
New Jersey smash cake photographer Svetlana Boyko says she has to temper parents’ expectations when it comes to how their baby will react in a smash cake photoshoot, no doubt influenced by what they’ve seen on Instagram and Pinterest. “[In] five minutes I already know what’s going to happen, if you’re going to have a crier, or if everything’s going to be nice and smiley,” she says. Often she’ll advise parents to take a different route if her pre-shoot interview reveals the baby might not be suited for the rigor of one of her $550 minimum smash cake sessions, which she calls “a workout.”
“I tell parents if your baby’s not getting dirty and doesn’t like to get dirty this is probably not best for you, as much as you would love to have this,” she says, who adds that in addition to smash cakes she’s also done photoshoots with pancakes, donuts, and pasta. The messier the cake smash, the more eye-popping the photos are because a child covered in food is supposed to stand in opposition to preconceived ideas of what formal baby photos should look like, even as smash cake photos become a tradition.
The popularity of the smash cake also speaks to loaded adult conceptions of a cake’s formality than to reality. Across history, the more celebrated and ceremonial a cake, the more rituals seem to taunt us to lovingly destroy them. The smash cake has an obvious sibling in the Western wedding cake, whose cutting is so grounded in ceremony and performance that couples sometimes cut and display one cake for show and serve another to guests. And yet couples often smash each other’s faces with wedding cake, bringing the energy of a food fight to a formal event. During the Mexican birthday tradition “la mordida,” the American smash cake’s likely inspiration, the birthday child’s face gets smashed into the cake when they lean in to take a bite and don’t expect it.
Part of the celebration of a smash cake is not just to commemorate a baby’s first year of life, but to commemorate a baby’s transition into a level of personhood deemed fit for their own cake. Though eating a smash cake is not the point, many recipes online err on the healthier side of the cake spectrum, and bakeries that offer smash cakes sometimes emphasize that the cakes are safe for babies to eat if they happen to do so. “Often it’s the first time these babies try something sweet,” says Megan Sesil, manager of New York City’s Padoca Bakery. “I had one dad who was so excited to give his daughter chocolate for the first time ever.”
Beyond that, it’s hard to resist the visual pleasures of seeing a cake, and all the labor that went into its layers of sponge and buttercream obliterated. Even swiping a finger at the icing of a not yet presented cake is a taboo that threatens to upend the whole birthday cake ritual. Smash cakes disrupt the illusion of cake’s scarcity in childhood by offering a baby an entire cake, but disrupt cake’s decorum as a special party treat. To have your cake and destroy it too is to parade the fact that such a luxury is disposable, as beautiful and sometimes expensive birthday cakes are made into babies’ playthings in smash cake photoshoots.
In the 1990s Australian photographer Anne Geddes pioneered a wave of artful baby photography that featured babies as food, posing them as tiny cabbages, peas in a pod, or gingerbread cookies. Her famous photos slapped onto cards, posters, and calendars, seemed to play directly into a cultural desire to frame the cute, innocence of childhood as something to eat, like when you see the chubby cheeks and legs of a baby and want to “eat them up.” Cultural theorist Sianne Ngai writes that cuteness is essentially an aestheticization of powerlessness and that cute objects are associated with the infantile and the feminine, like squishy, plush toys designed to withstand the knocking around of a child or easily consumable Hostess snack cakes.
“Cuteness might provoke ugly or aggressive feelings, as well as the expected tender or maternal ones,” Ngai writes. “For in its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability, the cute object is as often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle.” The little smash cake, miniaturized to be especially malleable, attracts both impulses to love and destroy it. In the hands of a baby, those impulses are one and the same.
What could be cuter than that?