Janine Esler’s entry for the 2011 Grand National Wedding Cake Competition rode in the back of her van through five states before coming under the long glance of the Golden Driller. It was 10 minutes after sunrise, three hours before the judges would pull out their score sheets, and the cake had made it through a state park and over Oklahoma’s roads, “which aren’t exactly smooth,” Esler said.
Her cake—four tiers covered in blue, white, red, and black fondant, gum paste flowers, and hand-painted vines—was assigned to a table on the west side of the exhibition floor, in the sprawling QuikTrip Center at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds. Esler was careful not to bump the neighboring tables, several of them dressed the night before, one with spray glitter, another in gold brocade. At their centers were the cakes, works inspired by the organ at Westminster Abbey, the French Revolution, and Ganesh.
It’s all mouthwatering until you remember that, while hot glue isn’t allowed and that the rolled gum paste would under other circumstances be indistinguishable from a calla lily, many are masters of disguise. The cakes aren’t judged on flavor—in fact, the judges don’t bother to taste them—and blocks of Styrofoam often masquerade as crumb and buttercream. Guessing which is which is almost as fun as guessing if the artist, when she says that it’s cake, is lying.
The Grand Nationals fall under the umbrella of the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show. As the second- largest judged sugar art show in the world, it’s the mecca for cake makers everywhere. The event is the brainchild of Kerry Vincent, self-made queen of cake and sharp-tongued Aussie famous just as much for witchiness on Food Network Challenge as for her trademark headband, a favorite topic on humor blogs and the Kerry Vincent Frosts My Cookies “support” group on Facebook. It may or may not be the inspiration behind the theme for next year’s show, Headgear, Hats and Headbands.
On the morning of set-up, Vincent was holding court, surrounded by competitors and a handful of celebrity cake artists a few yards from where Esler dabbed at a fingerprint on a globe-style tier with a tissue and a tiny spray bottle of vodka, polishing it away. The latest thing for cake artists in Australia, she was saying, is to pipe using hypodermic needles. “It’s like cobwebs—it’s exquisite,” she said. “Of course, we don’t have anything like that happening here.”
Vincent preached on as dozens of competitors began to flood the floor, trailed by helpers who struggled to see around the huge cardboard boxes of cake they gripped in their arms. Competitors who were finished with set-up patrolled with their cell phones and point-and-shoot cameras, snapping the first of what would be the thousands of photos that would be taken at the show that day. The goal was to finish up and hob-nob with the bigger-name competitors before the sea of fair-goers arrived to inch shoulder to shoulder through the aisles for the 13 hours until the show went dark for the night.
The competition has been a headlining feature of the Tulsa State Fair since 1993, but Esler has competed only in the past three. She’s not afraid of Vincent, who always sort of looks like a wedding cake herself, as if she lines her lips the same way she stenciled the pink snakeskin motif that helped earn her a spread in a 2008 edition of Brides Magazine. Anything that comes out of her mouth, Esler said, isn’t to hurt you—it’s to help you.
Minutes before the fairgrounds gates opened, Vincent mused to her retinue that most competitors would shudder at having to look back at the cakes they entered that first year of the OSSAS.
“But that’s what makes you good,” she explained, arms crossed across her chest. “In fact, that’s what makes you a legend.”