A naked man clutching a bottle of Viagra, with grape leaves covering his delicate regions. A cockroach stuffed with worms. A zombie brain leaking pus. Even a 3-D toilet.
No, these aren’t submissions to Somerville’s Museum of Bad Art. They’re just a few of the stranger requests fielded by cake creator extraordinaire John Pergantis, longtime owner of Brookline’s Party Favors bakery. He specializes in customized cakes for all of life’s occasions, monumental and obscure, ranging from birthdays to plastic-surgery triumphs.
In an age of over-the-top gender reveal cakes and party planning via Pinterest, one might think that bakers get annoyed by customers’ more fanciful requests. Not so, says Pergantis.
“It’s awesome. If it were a pain, I wouldn’t have been doing this for 28 years,” he says, noting that people’s cake desires have “always been bizarre. People have gotten more open because of Pinterest, but really, they have been weird since day one.”
Customers give Pergantis roughly 10 days’ notice to create his masterpieces, and he takes his assignments seriously. For instance, he just completed work on a 25th-anniversary cake depicting the Game of Life, spotlighting milestones from the couple’s courtship. He conducted his own meticulous research, cruising by their abode at 11 p.m. to take furtive photos so he could replicate their home in gingerbread. The cake took three days to complete and ultimately required a five-person team to lift. His clients were delighted.
Of course, sometimes things don’t go as planned. Pergantis had to turn down a request from a woman requesting before-and-after cakes depicting her tummy tuck (“with lots of rolls hanging down,” he recalls) because it would have taken too long, though he was able to pull off an anatomically correct recreation of a childbirth. He also won’t make anything with guns. As for the 3-D toilet, well, that was fine.
“You want a toilet? I’ll give you a toilet. But I wouldn’t put anything in the toilet — I draw the line there,” he says.
“People are becoming more custom. It’s more about them. They want the cake to be about who they are,” says Elissa Montilio, whose family runs the decades-old Montilio’s Baking Company on the South Shore and oversees a team of more than a dozen decorators. Her family has created classic cakes for popes and politicos, but recently, they made a levitating cake for a bride who wanted it to dangle atop a chandelier.
“Most of the cake wasn’t real. We made it out of Styrofoam, with sheet cakes made in the back. She wanted a wow factor,” Montilio says. “This is a generation that’s getting away from tradition and buttercream roses.”
Such is the case for the South End’s Jessica Natanson, who tries to outdo herself each year on her husband’s birthday with elaborate cakes.
“It’s a personal challenge for me to up my own game and get him something he’ll be super-excited about,” she says.
In 2018, that something was a dumpling cake honoring his favorite neighborhood restaurant, Banyan Bar + Refuge. Her husband is regular on dollar dumpling night and occasionally tests himself by eating as many as possible.
She approached Party Favors three weeks in advance to create the Chinese meal, and they delivered for $70, complete with tiny sesame seeds, flecks of chive, and chopsticks.
“Those were the piece de resistance,” Natanson says.
‘People are becoming more custom. It’s more about them. They want the cake to be about who they are.’
As for her husband?
“I think he was shocked. I want to say he was certainly surprised-slash-impressed. I think it brought to life how much he really loves dumplings, and maybe he was slightly embarrassed,” she says.
Ah, yes, embarrassment. Often cakes are a benign outlet for people’s naughty sides, and bakers are deployed as messengers for life’s frostier occasions. Take Linnea Blake, pastry chef at Eastern Standard, the Hawthorne, and Hotel Commonwealth, who was charged with creating a cake with a very explicit message to be delivered to guests during dinner service.
“[It] was requested to say, ‘You have a small penis. Love, Sarah.’ We had so many theories all week. Is this a break-up cake? Does he already know? Is this a nice way to say it? Turns out the boyfriend’s friends made the reservation, and it was a surprise for the couple. They had a great sense of humor, and it was a huge hit,” she says.
Indeed, cakes are a socially acceptable vessel for expressing what can’t be said in words. And this can lead to awkwardness.
Harvest executive pastry chef Joshua Livsey, who has competed on the Food Network’s “Best Baker in America,” was once commissioned to create a cake depicting part of the male anatomy. Just one problem.
“[My client] had a very thick accent. I got nervous after I made it. Maybe I didn’t hear her right. Maybe she wanted a princess cake or something. I made it, was about to present it, and had to reconfirm it: ‘You wanted a penis cake, right?’ It was for her husband. It said, ‘Happy birthday, you old prick.’ ”
Fortunately, he’d heard correctly.
Livsey was also commissioned to create a replica of a woman’s bust for a casino birthday party — “she had a big personality,” he says — complete with sugar diamonds dipping into its crumbly cleavage. Livsey isn’t a trained artist, though he did take classes in high school. Still, he was happy to sculpt.
“There was a lot of airbrushing to make it realistic. I took a hunk of cake and chiseled it until I got the shape I was going for,” he says. But the challenge keeps things interesting.
“If it’s a weird request, people tiptoe around it. They say, ‘Oh, I was maybe thinking this weird thing.’ And it’s like, ‘Yes, I can do that; it’s fine,’” he says. “I really do enjoy creating things and using desserts as my medium.”
Of course, sometimes creativity can go overboard. Consider Cambridge’s Tony Norton, whose wife left him to plan the desserts for their then-5-year-old-son’s birthday party while she was out of town. The tot wanted a “Minions” cake, and Norton gamely visited a nearby bakery.
“The minion cake was an accident,” Norton admits, saying that he expected to snag a sheet cake with a minion on it at the last minute. He loosely described the desired design and hoped for the best, apologizing for the short notice. He ended up with a $200, life-sized yellow minion as large as his son’s head made of chocolate and yellow cake, sporting fondant overalls.
“I didn’t expect it to look the way it does. You can see stitches on his overalls. There are buttons. It’s incredible! And I want to say he liked it, because I spent a ton of money on it,” Norton says, laughing.
The only down side, bakers say, is when customers don’t care about the actual taste of the cake.
Chickadee pastry chef Kate Holowchik has created cakes in the shape of kale salads, cats eating empanadas, and squirrels (that one was for Patriots star Julian Edelman).
All well and good. But, she says, “It’s annoying when people don’t care what flavor it is and just say, ‘I want it to look like this.’ ”
During meetings with clients, she asks about favorite spices, fruits, and travels.
“I try to get people to dig deep,” she says.
But sometimes a 6-year-old just wants a 3-D toilet for his birthday, and there’s nothing quite like the look on a satisfied customer’s face.
“We sit in the window and watch them. We watch their faces explode; they’re so happy. I love when the kids are happy, jumping up and down. It’s my favorite,” says Pergantis.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.