To celebrate the launch of The Expressionists on 1 June 2017, we gathered at the Eveleigh Hotel in central Sydney for a few drinks, pub dinner and a piece of cake. We figured we should give the crowd a demo of what The Expressionists is all about, so we took a look into the well-worn phrase ‘take the cake’. We were a bit surprised by what we found…

HR: Hello and welcome to the launch of The Expressionists, a fortnightly podcast in which I, Helen Rydstrand, and I, Olivia Rosenman, dig up the dirt on everyday sayings.

OR: Before we go any further, we would like to would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet: the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and offer a particular welcome to indigenous guests who have joined us tonight. Under this pub, this land was, is, and always will be, aboriginal land.

HR: We have a couple of very important thank yous to make too: to The Most – who are Michael Oppermann & Steve Tan – for creating the very snazzy theme music you just heard – & to Darcy Christ, for invaluable technical support getting the podcast live and for introducing us tonight – AND Thank you all for coming out this evening…

There are lots of podcasts out there, but we think this one really takes the cake…

OR hang on! That’s an interesting saying… WOULD YOU GUYS LIKE TO HEAR ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF ‘take the cake’??! (Audience: YES!) So Helen, can you tell us what it means?

HR: sure, piece of cake – the Oxford English Dictionary says it means “to carry off the honours, rank first; often used ironically or as an expression of surprise” – so can express being really impressed or really unimpressed – it first appears in print in 1847 in the Quarter Race Kentucky in the following sentence: “They got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side,..each one to start and ride his own horse,..the winning horse take the cakes”. Do you know, Olive, where the phrase actually comes from, though?

OR: I do happen to know that! The phrase comes from the mid 19th century in the American South, when slaves would get together and dance the cake walk. Guess what the best dancers won as a prize? That’s exactly right! And the ‘cake walks’ were actually imitating fancy white people’s manners, gestures, walking style, integrated with African dance styles –

HR: so it was a pretty sophisticated form of cultural subversion really, but incredibly the white slave owners didn’t really get that –

OR: yes they actually would give themselves the role of handing out the cake! In fact, they loved the cake walks so much, they took them and put them in minstrel shows, in an attempt to ridicule black people as trying unsuccessfully to imitate them (and this is probably where the meaning of cake-walk as ridiculously easy task comes from) – totally missing that they were the ones who’d been ridiculed in the first place.

HR: Wait a minute – so white people were imitating black people who were imitating white people

OR: That’s it!

HR: Well that really takes the cake!!

OR: Before you have your cake and eat it too, take out your phone, subscribe to the podcast. If anyone doesn’t know how, come and ask me after this. It’s a piece of cake. And if you tell even just one of your friends, that would really be the icing on the cake.

HR: OK OK enough cake expressions I think – it is time to Let them eat cake!