tea-time chat with the self-styled performance cook to find out what happens when an anarchic, artistic spirit takes over the kitchen.
hat’s me as a meringue in Birmingham . . . though I don’t look much like a meringue actually. Ah! and here’s the edible family in the mobile home — the fruitcake father half eaten away; isn’t it awful?’
It is tea-time and we are sitting in Bobby Baker’s sunny kitchen nibbling biscuits and thumbing through photograph albums. With the experienced help of Dora, Baker’s twelve-year-old daughter, we have just packed a microwave, fold-away tables, handy trolleys and various bowls of food into the family station wagon and driven across London from the Angel Town Community Hall, Brixton, back to comfortable Islington. For all you’d know, we could be putting our feet up after having organised a school jumble sale. As Baker juggles with the demands on her attention — cutting cake for me, answering her daughter’s questions, ringing her husband to get him to collect their son on his way home, stroking the cats — it seems strange that less than an hour earlier she had held an audience spellbound with her performance of Cook Dems.
As they watch this 40-year-old middle-class mother of two hurry onto the stage, all out of breath and incongruous in her shapeless white overall and sensible kitchen shoes, they hardly know whether to gawp with astonishment or collapse with laughter. ‘I want to show you just how easy it is to set up a kitchen from scratch,’ she says solemnly, as she strains under the weight of the microwave and heaves it onto the tables she has assembled. ‘This is my Brother high-speed cooker, and here’s my wonderful Chef mixer,’ she says hugging it close. ‘I would be helpless without him, he’s so powerful.’
With a wry smile she dashes out to fetch some more essential equipment. ‘Sorry about this, but I like to have things just so.’ By the time she puts the Bird’s custard and melba sauce to wonderfully anarchic use, every action mediated by her restrained and meticulous commentary, a huge crowd of local mothers and children has gathered outside the hall, pressing their faces against Lthe window panes, squealing with delight as
16The List 16—22 August 1991
l Half of BOBBY BAKER wants to make nice cakes for tea, the
‘ other half wants to go wild in the streets. Catherine Fellows has a i
she does things other cookery demonstrators and mothers only dream of. '
In fact, though. Bobby Baker‘s private and I professional lives could not be more closely I connected. Her domestic experience is the i subject and motivation for her I performances. ‘In Mother's Experience and Cook Dems I try to show that these domestic details which seem terribly trivial. mundane and petty — which I actually think are quite wonderful —can represent much larger V things in life. The day-to-day humdrum t routine is much more important than we ‘ allow it to be.’
Baker has always found it hard to concur with conventional thinking on what is important and how it should be expressed. ‘In the early 70s I was at St Martin’s doing painting. but I couldn‘t get my ideas to fit in. I felt that painting was a language that had been used in another way by other people and it was alien to me. I decided I couldn’t be an “artist”, so I started selling baseball boots. Then one night I got frustrated at not making anything; I had always been fascinated by cooking and I baked this baseball boot out of cake just for the hell of it. I marched into St Martin’s and told the stuffed shirts “look. I made a sculpture!” It was so funny and irreverent — even better i because it was such a badly made cake. I got i into performance because the endless tea parties to eat up all my cake sculptures got rather dull. To begin with, I was unconfident and didn’t talk much — I made these expressive little women out of meringue and dressed up as one. Then I danced around and trod on them.’
Bobby Baker‘s increasingly ambitious investigations into food as an artistic medium came to an abrupt end with the birth of her first child when she found herself lacking confidence and unable to perform. Lest anyone think that Bobby Baker’s domestic dramatisations reflect the experience of an older, housebound generation of women, it is worth pointing out that she is and was a modern woman. ‘We were feminists, we had thriving careers, we never dreamt we’d stop working.’ she says about her peer group. ‘We weren’t going to be frustrated like our mothers.’
Apart from anything else. they had 7 supportive husbands. more likely to complain about being principal earners than about doingthe hoovering. Ifanything, j Baker’s confusion was intensified by her previous life as an artist. Instead of developing in relation to people, places. and situations. she found herself obliterated by the dehumanising repetition and demands of i motherhood. Focused on avoiding disaster. anticipating need and clearing up mess. a mother’s invisibility is a sign of her success.
Drawing on (1 Mother's Experience was devised by Baker as a catharsis. a way of coming to terms with her intense and conflicting emotions. Iler attempt at a spontaneous Pollock-style food painting. for example, is compromised by her use of a plastic sheet to stop the mess.
Baker is keen to be seen as more than the ‘wild, wacky woman‘ much ofthe media has taken her for. In a way, the humour is a bit of an accident, and ambiguous in its implications. ‘1 just discovered I could make people laugh,‘ she says. ‘I don‘t understand why, it’s very confusing. I tend to make myselfinto a clown — in social situations and when I’m anxious. Once, I was presenting my work at St Martin's and people began hooting with laughter. I was mortified and went and wept in the toilets. I wanted to be taken as a serious artist. But now I see that humour can be a very powerful way of getting through. It frees people to take things on board.’
As she talks. it becomes increasingly plain how brave Baker is. and why watching her perform is such a moving experience. IIer self-deprecating. apologetic stage persona is, she freely admits. only a slight exaggeration of herself. She has to make a joke out of the activities that absorb so much of her energy because everyone else does. and that is the only version of her they are prepared to accept. and because the anger. pain and frustration involved would overwhelm her ifshe didn’t.
In fact. the humour and the seriousness of Baker’s shows are indivisible. Why should it be funny to witness a 40-year-old housewife prancing around the stage, ifit isn‘t that we expect her to conform to certain patterns of
I behaviour? Would the sight ofher eulogising over the beauty ofa carrot under
the running tap make us laugh ifwe thought
g ofthe kitchen as a legitimate source of ? sensual stimulation? We patently do not.
and yet many women have little opportunity to look elsewhere.
But it’s not so bleak. There’s humour in an individual’s resilience. There is something exhilarating about a woman apparently so earnest and deadpan, suddenly beating her dough with gritted teeth as ifshe would kill it, and then slapping it onto her face. And when, for the finale of Cook Denis. she dances out to the accompaniment of Perry Como, we are laughing not at her, but with her, at her sheer pluck. Weighed down by her absurd dough costume, she has taken the worst upon her, and still transcends. emerging as an irrepressible and joyous individual.
Drawing on a M other's Experience and Cook Dems (Fringe) Traverse Theatre (Venue 15) 2262633, 20—25 Aug, 3.15pm; 27—31 Aug, 7.30pm, £7 (£4).