A rare bit of London sunlight gleans through the atrium of the medical museum, as “La Bamba” blasts from the stereo. Human specimens encased in glass jars line the walls as onlookers stop to admire intricately designed depictions of human disease, injury and anatomy—in delicious cake form.
This is not your average cake shop, and these are not your average bakery clientele. Last weekend more than 3,000 people gathered at the St. Bartholomew’s Pathology Museum, housed in a working hospital, to experience Eat Your Heart Out 2012, the world’s grossest cake shop.
The Halloween-inspired project came about when Emma Thomas, a creative director also known as Miss Cakehead, and Carla Connolly, a former mortician, joined together to create a project that aimed to “repulse and educate” the public about medical science. The pair originally met while working on the launch of videogame Resident Evil 6 and have been working together on gory cake-related events since.
This year’s exhibit showcased the work of several British bakeries, all of which were tasked to design cakes and confections around the human condition—from diseases to injuries—while Connolly worked with them to ensure anatomical accuracy. The intricate cakes included ones modeled after a dissected human face, a cancerous lung and a kidney with polycystic disease. And if these didn’t exactly whet your appetite there was always the gruesome cocktails served up by mixologist James Dance, ranging from a Bloody-Mary like drink called Charred Remains to a chocolatey Stool Sample, all served in specimen cups with screw caps.
The weekend even featured a lecture series that focused on issues like sexual health and careers in pathology. During one such lecture Emily Evans, a medical illustrator with a “thirst to dissect,” discussed her career as an instructor at Cambridge University and her fieldwork with British police — including the time she used facial reconstruction techniques to identify an unknown and mostly decomposed murder victim within two days.
The location for the cake shop wasn’t an accident. St. Bart’s Pathology Museum has been around since 1879 and contains hundreds of specimens, some of which are over 100 years old. Connolly serves as the museum’s technician and helps maintain the collection through a program of conservation and preservation. Her favorite specimens include the severed finger and tendon of a butcher, accidentally lopped off by a meat hook in nearby Smithfield Market 100 years ago. Another one of her favorites: the scalp of a 14-year-old factory worker, whose hair, now bleached with age, got caught in a piece of machinery. The young girl perished due to shock caused by the accident, Connolly said enthusiastically.
The idea to combine cake with anatomy, Connolly says, is meant to help engage people who would not normally learn about pathology or medical science. She pointed to the shop’s fastest selling item, STI cupcakes, as being an easy way to educate children—and even adults—about the dangers of sexually transmitted infections.
Baker Jenni Powell, owner of Cambridge-based Two Little Cats, made the cupcakes and said she was eager to get involved with the project due to her own background working as a “sexpert” on the Sexual Health Outreach Team at her university.
“Some people have obviously been skeptical about the idea, but I have already had charities in touch saying they think the cupcakes are a great, fun way to raise awareness amongst young people, who turn off quickly when you show them slideshows or leaflets,” Powell says.
A four-cupcake box includes a sampling of cringe-worthy treats with very realistic depictions of some of the most common sexually transmitted diseases—chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, HPV, genital warts and HIV. The flavors also remain unknown but could be anything from a delicious chocolate caramel to a moist and jammy vanilla and raspberry.
“We’ve been getting in orders daily,” Powell adds. “Who knew STD cupcakes would prove so popular?!”