Burning Cake

This post, “Burning Cake (A Cautionary Tale)”,  is now up on the official Burning Man Blog.

My experiences for the last 17 years at Burning Man have been so amazing and transformative that I have a hard time seeing any shifts in the event as a real threat. “Bring on P.Diddy and the Turnkey Camps!” I said.   I still believe that.  But I also am able to understand the current fear more clearly now than I once did.  

Like everyone, I am eagerly awaiting the official response to the recent controversies.   I do *not* think Burning Man is doomed.  Quite the contrary.  I have faith we will figure this out and thrive.

Once we get a handle on the current challenges and correct the course, the magic will shine as bright as ever.

The fable below is fictional.  Take it with a grain of dust.
Once upon a time there was food enthusiast who hosted a fantastic baked goods potluck.

He invited 10 adventurous cooks he knew and they started gathering each month to share delights.

Their culinary skills were varied…but they all sure loved food.

The spreads were AMAZING!

People went WAY over-the-top.

Exotic ingredients, rare fruits, fine wines.

For some participants it became almost a game: who could produce the most fantastic dessert?

MC Escher Cakes, Donut Macramé, Ghost Orchid Truffles.

Not all the dishes were so insane. The host baked the same modest (but delicious) raspberry drizzle brownies every month.

There was no animosity between Jenny who brought an intricate “Bacon Coliseum” 8 layer cake and Tony who brought a simple angel food cake. It was even cool that Edward purchased and brought a pre-made dragon fruit tart from his local bakery. The point was that everyone contributed towards the experience.

Very quickly, the event grew. People started bringing their culinary-minded friends.

Occasionally people would misunderstand and show up without a dish.   They quickly felt uncomfortable and usually offered to help with dishes or something…then made sure they brought something awesome the next time.

Word started to spread of this amazing potluck with the life size Miley Cirus-sized peanut brittle and wasabi saffron pudding.

The host started asking everyone to chip in $5 to pay for table rentals and a next day maid service. Some of the original participants thought that was uncool. But most people had no problem paying a little (on top of whatever they were already spending to create their own dishes) for this unbelievable food extravaganza.

Many of the average chefs got inspired to study the baking arts. The desserts got better and better. And attendees started to bring more and more friends.

Until the host’s villa was filled to capacity.

So the host implemented a system: To reserve your space at the potluck, you paypal in your cleaning fee in advance and received an entrance ticket in exchange. (The fee had been raised to $10)

He gave away the tickets by way of a lottery – with some spots reserved for the OG cake masters who made the event what it was. The lottery was…well, that is a tale for a different day.

Not soon after the first lottery, a long time attendee brought a respected food writer from the local paper. The writer did not bring a dish.

Most attendees were fine with this. It was an honor to have the writer there and who knows, maybe she would be inspired by what they were doing and bring something special to the next potluck. And, in fact, thanks to an article and the writers introductions, several attendees got hired at restaurants and booked to make dishes for fancy events.

The gathering was special to all who attended. It felt like their potluck was the center of the dessert universe. The event became an important part of attendees lives and identities.

Unbeknownst to the other attendees, one old timer, Beatrice, made an announcement at her Ladies League meeting. “For $100 I will bring you to the most amazing tasting party in the world. Don’t worry about baking anything, I’ll make something and you can just come with me. “ Quite a few people in the League took her up on the offer. Beatrice paid the hostess an extra cleaning fee, but otherwise did not share the funds with anyone else in the potluck group.

At first nobody noticed. Or didn’t care. It wasn’t that a big deal that some of the attendees were not contributing in the same way.   They seem like good people and maybe attending would inspire them to create a dish next time. Many of them were the type that might hire an attendee to cater a private tea party, in fact.

But as word spread of this new wave of “tourist” attendees, the original attendees started to feel taken advantage of. They felt like suckers. What was once a joyful experience of sharing their talents now felt, well, commodified. Why would they go to the store, buy all the ingredients with their own money, and invest all their labor just so Beatrice could make a buck off of them?

A number of the original attendees dropped out. More and more bakers started to look for ways to get compensated. But still, the waiting list to attend grew and grew.

What many considered the final blow was when people found out that the host was reserving spots for Beatrices’s League friends. While everyone else stressed and struggled to get in, the non-contributing newbie’s were able to buy their way in via Beatrice. Apparently they pledged big chunks of cash towards the host’s ever-growing “cleaning fund” established back in the day.

It was even discovered that Beatrice went so far as to bring a thermos of gourmet coffee to the potluck but only shared it with her League friends who had paid her.

The joy of gifting had become corrupted. The magic faded.

Attendees started to use the potluck as a way to advertise their catering businesses. Or would “partner with” (aka sell their spots) to retail bakeries. The food was still delicious, but things were different. It wasn’t fueled by mutual respect and a desire to share. It felt more like a trade show. Attendees started to question the return on their investment and rarely contributed out of their own pocket unless they could justify the promotional value.

The potluck is still going, but the original experience is long dead. People still gather once a month to sample yummy treats and most enjoy it still. You may even still hear someone say, “that was the best pie I’ve ever eaten.”

But you rarely hear anymore, “That potluck changed my life.”


“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” T.S. Eliot

14 thoughts on “Burning Cake”

  1. One thing that never changes is that things are always changing. The potluck was awesome, for a while. And then it was different. Just like everything else.


  2. Hey Halcyon. BeigeDude (auBrey) from Toronto here. I became smitten with the big Burn in 2001 and vebtured to the land of dust 7 times in this century’s opening decade. I think we met on Playa years ago, which is how I ended up following your posts from time-to-time. Great job on this fable. In regard to your lines “The joy of gifting had become corrupted. The magic faded.” I’ve been witnessing and commenting on this phenomenon in the broader BM community for year now. In Toronto, the T-Comp (Decompression) has become a fundraiser with a steep admission cost and a number of elements that I don’t agree with. I’ve led or otherwise been involved with the T-Comp since 2002. This year, I’ve opted to donate the money I would have otherwise spent on T-Comp to a local charity, and will not be pARTicipating in the money maker. Your post couldn’t have come out at a better time. You (we) are not alone in our interpretation of what’s been going on. Fortunately, we can keep the magic of the original fantastic baked goods potluck alive by creating new ventures in the same vein as the early outings. We can create a new “home”, one (or many) that reflect our original values and drivers. This is what we learned through the radical self-reliance we honed early on. Thanks for the reminder and the nudge. (Others are listening, too.) If you’re ever in Toronto, I hope to see you at one of our TOAST events. We’ll welcome your culinary skills wholeheartedly. >:-)


  3. That potluck changed my fukking life. I heard a lot of bitching about the league, which was fun to hear, but I didn’t suffer any fools with lost souls, just yet unfound. I think I was a lucky virgin, though. I decided to go the Sunday before, driving from Chicago, alone. I ‘snuck in,’ by helping people and found myself adopted by a legendary tuna camp the next day. They taught me the way.


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