We Become the Place: Making Climate Change Digestible

How does a New York City pastry chef get involved in addressing the climate changes affecting our planet’s most remote locations? Albeit necessary, the “doom and gloom” messaging of climate change can feel overwhelming, leaving us confused about how to interact with our home. I am a fierce believer in using the excitement and attention around cakes to redirect conversation and inspire connection. Through desserts, we can literally consume science and information – and redirect our fears about climate change toward joy and celebration.

After making high-end cakes for luxury events and celebrity wedding clients, I tired of the blinding diamond rings, the over-the-top first birthday parties, and the pretty white cakes with flowers. I realized that while cakes captured the grandness of celebration, unity, and creativity, I craved the telling of larger stories: the international refugee crisis, women’s rights, and the ever-reduced support for environmental protection. I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave Brooklyn and start celebrating those protecting our public lands and wild spaces. 

On New Year’s Eve in 2018, our chartered military C-130 landed in Antarctica and I immediately began my work as a sous chef for McMurdo Station, the largest research base on the continent. After-hours, scientists explained their work at public science lectures where their vivacious passion for microscopic diatoms, atmospheric photon counts, the sex lives of prehistoric fish, and satellite sea ice measurements only made sense to me by reformatting their data as cake layers, tiers, and fondant decorations. I saw their science in sugar, and I was enraptured. 

After my seasonal contract ended, I flew 10,000 miles north to Alaska and set up a makeshift art studio in an Antarctic janitor’s log cabin, which I had to myself while he worked on the North Slope. There, I shipped hundreds of dollars of fondant, tools, and cake decorating materials, and spent a full week researching paleontology, microbiology, glaciology, polar operations, and aerospace engineering. After reading scientific blogs, watching educational videos, and digging into Antarctic outreach articles, I began creating the cakes I had originally sketched out on the ice. By reimagining the images and personal stories shared during science teams’ lectures, I was able to make the vast abundance of research taking place at the bottom of the world completely edible. These cakes joyfully captured the attention of a national audience with the support of NPR, Forbes, and the Mystic Seaport Museum

But cakes are frivolous. Unnecessary. Easily done without. And, of course, the same arguments have been made about our environment. As political leaders push for greater access to oil, lumber, and profit, I wanted to dig deeper – to use desserts to celebrate the need for, and abundance of, our public lands – to make environmental conservation literally digestible. My friend and fellow pastry chef Rose Lawrence flew north from Los Angeles to meet me in Alaska, and we packed our backpacks and started hiking.

Making and burying ice cream in the snow overnight while camping atop Alaska’s Harding Icefield.

It’s one thing to make desserts in a kitchen or a restaurant. While I had doubts whether it would work, I felt my edible art would have greater impact if it was crafted on the glaciers and in the forests that were being affected by climate change – using the earth as an ingredient. With a combined 100 pounds of butter, sugar, flour, heavy cream, eggs, tools, and fresh local sourdough starter strapped to our backs, we spent a week trekking into the wilds of Alaska to film the creation of our desserts in their “natural environments” – aiming to merge pastry arts and climate change, and using video to bring people around the world on this visual journey with us. We stopped to forage along the way: wild salmonberries, fireweed blossoms, watermelon berries, pineapple weed, and late autumn blueberries littered the bright red tundra.

Foraging fillings, making wild herbal pastry cream, and frying barley brioche donuts in the world’s northernmost temperate rainforests.
Biodiverse donuts in their natural habitat and making hard candy from freshwater glacier runoff in the Chugach Mountains.

Butane canister ablaze, we simmered three colorful jams and whisked together an herbal pastry cream, using everything we had foraged along the way. We infused sugar with wildflowers and fried brioche under the thick canopy of America’s northernmost temperate rainforest. Hot donuts burst open with the diversity of flora among the ferns and accumulated biomass.

Following our brilliant 23-year-old female glacier guide, Jordan Campbell, I ignited my JetBoil, cooked sugar, and made hard candy atop Matanuska Glacier to demonstrate the valley’s crevasse breaking patterns. Transparent raindrop cakes – made with nothing but freshwater glacial runoff and seaweed gel – encased the plants we collected along the way, showing the succession of regrowth after glacial recession.

Japanese raindrop cakes encase samples of plants that grow in succession as glaciers recede in Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley.

 We pitched my tent above Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, made and buried ice cream in the snow overnight, and whipped egg whites into stiff meringue as a storm rolled in overhead. Our attempt at a flaming Baked Alaska on Harding Icefield was designed to illuminate the state’s wildest forest fires and record high temperatures.

In Denali National Park, I accepted an offer to return to Antarctica. This time it would be a full year – a summer at NASA’s atmospheric research camp and then spending the long, dark winter forklifting hazardous waste shipped from the South Pole and learning rescue techniques on our Search and Rescue team. Again, I started the five-day journey south, this time filling my backpacks with cake decorating supplies and fondant to supplement my “extreme cold weather” gear.

The story we’re told about Antarctica is one of absence, of nothingness, and of harshness. But really, it’s a place full of life: human life, yes, but also bacterial life, wildlife, fungal life, deep sea life, glacial life, and volcanic life. It is a fiercely dynamic place. After nearly 500 days on ice, I felt Antarctica’s influence on my journey as a human, as a creative, as a woman, and as a friend.

I wonder what would happen if we changed Antarctica’s story? What if we ended the narrative of it being an inhospitable place incapable of supporting life? Instead, what if we become the place? We need to stop seeing ourselves as separate from our surroundings, and start considering the ways in which we become entwined with our environment – the crevasses etched into the wrinkles on our faces, our pale skin mirroring the frozen sea ice stretched out before us. On my last day in Antarctica, before entering a world newly ravaged by a global pandemic, I carried a four-tier cake up onto the ridge line and created a sugar self-portrait – my own wind-whipped hair becoming the topographic lines of the Ross Island Peninsula.

Cakes that tell the stories of Antarctic science: (clockwise from top left) from Weddell seal tracking devices and deep water arthropods to glacial ice cores and future star formation in our galaxy.

If we become the place, then we protect the place. Because in protecting the place, we protect the things that have made us who we are.

Through cakes – by finding unique ways to create art – I’ve learned nearly everything I know. As I create, I learn about places and about the threats to those places. I learn how interconnected we are as a human species. I learn how we are tied to our planet. I learn about the way glaciers form, move, and retreat. I learn about endemic and invasive species. I learn about human impact. I learn about Indigenous groups and systemic environmental racism. I learn personal stories. I learn ways to tell these stories through edible art: how to depict the loss of a specific habitat, or the miraculous expansion of a protected area, or the interconnectedness of an environment visually, on cake. I learn who I am: both my responsibility to my planet and my responsibility to encourage others to spark new ways of interacting with our world.

(Top image: Using desserts to document the environment by crafting pastry in the wild backcountry, Harding Icefield, Alaska. Photo by Rose Lawrence.)

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Rose McAdoo is a visual artist using cake to raise awareness around global issues. Her unique edible art centers around environmental protection and leads her to make cakes with remote populations in the world’s most extreme environments. By making sweets with Kenyan tribespeople and Congolese porters, on glaciers across Alaska, with scientists in Antarctica, and behind bars with inmates at LA County State Prison and NYC’s Rikers Correctional Facility, Rose makes big ideas literally digestible. Her work has been featured by NPR, Forbes, and Saveur, and her recent Antarctic short We Become the Place can be viewed at WhiskMeAwayCakes.com.

3 thoughts on “We Become the Place: Making Climate Change Digestible

  1. Totally wonderful. We must find creative/constructive ways to express ourselves about climate change because suppressing emotions will prevent us from helping others learn/feel/think/act on climate change.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Cynthia. We need everyone — from every walk of life, with every interest base, with every creative tool. Thank you so much for reading this article and for your musings on the cross-contamination of ideas and skill sets.

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