Q&A: Cake Zine’s editors share their journey

Using dessert as a lens to explore society

Launched around two years ago, Cake Zine is an independent print magazine that explores history, pop culture, literature and art through the lens of desserts. Beautifully designed and thoughtfully written, Cake Zine features everything from short stories to poetry, interviews, deep-dives, essays, comics, recipes and more. We sat down with Cake Zine’s Co-Founders and Editors Tanya Bush and Aliza Abarbanel right after they launched their fourth issue, Tough Cookie. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thanks again for setting this up. You both have a background in food and food writing — what was Cake Zine intended as a response to? And what do you think was the gap in the scene that compelled you to launch the magazine?

Aliza Abarbanel: It was intended as a fun project. Hopefully that intentionality of doing things in a serious manner but not having everything be so serious, still comes through in what we do today. It was Tanya’s idea. She pitched it to me when we were doing a bake sale.

Tanya Bush: It was about two years ago that we had our first large-scale mutual aid bake sale. And while we were packaging up all the boxes — I had had this idea that I was mulling over about a dessert focused magazine. And it felt to me like during the pandemic everyone was cloistered away in their homes, baking and ogling treats online. It was sort of like this heyday for pastry. I am also a baker, so I was thinking a lot about baked goods at the time. And I said — what if we started a magazine about cake? Cake is having this moment and then Aliza brought me in line and was like, ‘Okay, well, let’s think about themes in this context.’ We began with Wicked Cake, which is our issue about punishment, poison and the dark side of desserts. But Aliza was like, maybe for spring for an issue in bloom, sex and would be more appealing. So we launched with Sexy Cake. And I think this also emerged out of a feeling that all legacy food media brands were blurring together and all had similar sensibilities and aesthetics.

There was a need for a more dynamic and interdisciplinary approach in food writing, and magazine writing more generally. I had been coming from a history of literature, working in the literary world, and I was interested in fiction, poetry, and literary non-fiction that was using food as a lens to explore other things, whether they be art, history and culture. And Aliza was coming from a more traditional food media background. We thought that the marriage of the interdisciplinary and the creative would make a lot of sense in the context of a magazine.

You say that it’s not intended as a serious magazine, but my first introduction to Cake Zine was through Humble Pie. I was so captivated by its depth, beauty, and comprehensiveness. The thought behind every angle, it felt like a very holistic look at the theme. And it did feel serious. I found the humanness of all the stories so touching. I’m interested in how you come up with an approach, or themes. What is that process like?

AA: Well, I really appreciate what you just said. And to clarify — we take the work we do very seriously and I think that’s the beauty in it. That these themes are kind of niche and strange and we’re surprising you with what can be tied into that. And the level of care with it, I think, in terms of the idea of levity being a part of it, I would never want to, even Wicked Cake, which is probably our most serious theme that we’ve done so far. We had a whole piece that was about the ‘Is it real, Is it cake’ videos that you see online, and the horrifying experience of seeing one slice into that. That’s kind of not so serious in some ways. But then the topics of ‘what is truth on the internet’ that are raised in that piece are also very serious at the same time. All kinds of content and form can live in the same space. And in terms of asking about theme — we just spent many weeks debating our next two themes. So it’s a good question. I think sometimes it’s very obvious to us, like last year, we thought of as our idiom year. So we had ‘humble pie’ and we wanted another phrase that would be familiar to most of our audience, at least here in America. Those are both known phrases that you would hear used around and then subverting the concept of that. 

Credit: Shirley Chan

TB: We argued for a long time. I think that with Humble Pie and Tough Cookie, those were our first two issues moving beyond cake and into the broader pastry case. We thought of this year as another opportunity to continue to expand. Our summer issue is going to be Candy Land, which is not really about the board game. It’s about candy, sweets and confections in the context of land. When we think of land, we think of communities, of quarter, of Mother Nature… So it might seem very specific and niche on its surface, but it can actually accommodate a lot of different kinds of interesting, dynamic exploration. When we’re trying to choose a theme we try and hone in on something that is ripe for exploration, but also narrow enough so that we know when we get thousands of pitches, which we do, that this is a quintessentially Cake Zine story, that this is not the kind of essay necessarily that’s going to fit on a digital publication. Maybe it’s in a subversive format, or it’s covering something that’s not exactly topical, or maybe more historically oriented, but it feels dynamic, interesting and worth probing.

You said you recently began accepting pitches for the magazine. How has that changed your editorial process? Do you still commission pieces or do you rely on a lot of pitches? How do you make sure that the comprehensiveness of the way that you explore your themes continues while you accept pitches? 

AA: It takes a lot longer. That’s the short answer. We have the pitch call open for a couple of weeks, and we are viewing as things come in. But certainly, once we have everything together, we sit down, and we do a first pass where we’re just like, ‘This is about muffins. This is about love.’ Things that are just completely off theme are set aside. And then we go through and think about, is this a unique approach that we haven’t heard about before? Do we think this writer is capable of the level of ambition the story requires? I’m sure we’ll have to discuss what kinds of candy we want to be represented. Do we have a nice mix of that?

Certainly, with cookies we wanted home-made, but also store bought, talking about the different ways that people access that food. And we always are soliciting as well, to writers or to shops that we admire, and encouraging them to pitch to the theme. I think that is fun for us. 

TB: Yeah, I totally agree. It’s such a laborious process, but a rewarding one because there are so many story ideas that are strange and unconventional and so perfect for the magazine that we are not thinking of on our own. That being said, it’s also a delight and pleasure to get to solicit from writers we admire. With Tough Cookie, our most recent issue, I got to solicit from Hilary Leichter, who’s a novelist I’ve admired for a really long time. I worked at Coffeehouse Press when her debut novel came out, Temporary, and so it was just really exciting to see Cake Zine as this ever-expanding community where we’re bringing writers who this might be their first byline and writers who’ve written multiple, well-regarded novels into the same physical, beautiful object all about dessert. And that feels really exciting. 

AA: Yeah, I think I would say the opposite — when we’re soliciting there are stories that we don’t think people would think to pitch us for. For example, in Tough Cookie, I work very close to Times Square. There are all these people that dress up as mascots and I really wanted someone to interview Cookie Monster mascot in Times Square.

I reached out to a writer that I know who does daily news reporting in New York. I don’t think she would ever normally write that story either. Or for Humble Pie — we wanted a reality TV moment. I ended up reaching out to someone who does the Love Island news recaps, Olivia Crandall, and she wrote a piece for us about Love Island.

Cake Zine has such a dedicated, passionate following. Your New York launches, especially, are legendary. You’re growing your presence globally, as well. You did two events in London, and a launch in Paris last year. This all comes at a time when the media industry is going through a tough time. In the last few years, especially, a lot of globally prominent publications that have millions of dollars in investment had to shrink the size of their workforce. Everyone is going smaller, and I think it’s many media executive’s dream to have a publication that has such a passionate and loyal audience. What do you think mainstream media can learn from independent publishers and publications?

AA: That’s a great question. We don’t have to prove things to anyone. When I worked at Condé there were so many times that if an advertiser bought something then we could do this special visual package or this event series. And probably to our own detriment, we don’t do things if they’re bought by somebody. We do them if we want to do them, and we have a way to make it possible. I think that level of ingenuity and authenticity, and really believing in the product itself, and not necessarily the ability to sell it, is something that larger publications can learn from us. I think also, give us your money, and we can collaborate and bring that spirit and that energy into it as well. We have a real community because we are a part of a real community. We don’t consider ourselves to be separate. We didn’t create something, we made something for something that was already existing, that we wanted to grow and deepen. Tanya does that resonate for you?

TB: Yeah, that totally resonates. We had already been existing in these communities before. We’re harnessing the relationships and connections that we already had and bringing people together to celebrate something worthy of celebrating. I think also, there is appetite for a more interdisciplinary approach when we think about a creative industry like food. This balance between the niche and the expansive is a delicate wire to be on, is something that we put a lot of thought into, and maybe might be useful to a larger media company. The fact that we’re not beholden to large execs, or massive scale advertisers means that we get to follow our own interest and trust our guts and instincts. I think that led us pretty far.

Would you ever consider advertising?

AA:  We’ve had advertisements in the print magazine previously. We also have sponsors for our parties sometimes or for our newsletter. I think having money coming from different ways is really helpful. We make things that reach a core audience that hopefully advertisers want to reach anyways… so if any advertisers are reading this — yeah, we do advertise.

Does the issue that you’re working on change your dessert habits at all? Do you tend to cater towards more cookies when you do Tough Cookie? 

AA: Tanya, you did make a lot of hand pies during the pie issue. 

TB: I did make a lot of hand pies. That’s so true. I haven’t really reflected on the relationship between the magazine theme and my consumption habits, but I love that concept. I don’t eat a lot of candy regularly. But we’re going to have to. I eat a lot of chocolate, which begs the question, does chocolate constitute a candy?

AA: That’s a real 2am Slack that I sent to Tanya recently.

TB: Maybe I’m not seeking it out any more than I might ordinarily be, but I’m more aware of and in dialogue with the kinds of candies that I’m seeing at my Bodega. Or if I happen upon a particular candy that I have a nostalgia for I’m thinking about it more critically than I normally would, which is a really beautiful thing about Cake Zine. It’s taking something so ordinary and every day, like cookies or candy, and then inciting all of these interesting questions that hopefully get you thinking a little bit more deeply about something that you consume all the time.

Featured image: Credit: Shirley Chan

Nazli Selin Ozkan, Business Editor at MediaCat Magazine

Selin is Business Editor at MediaCat Magazine. After graduating from Duke University with a degree on political science, she started working at the content department at Kapital Media, working on events such as Brand Week Istanbul and Digital Age Tech Summit. She took on the role of Business Development Manager at Kapital Media, working on Kapital Media's several products, such as MediaCat Magazine, Polaris Awards, Brand Week Istanbul and Digital Age Tech Summit. She regularly contributes to MediaCat Magazine, covering media and tech.

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