Initially, Maya Bookbinder thought her resume was all over the place: she studied sculpture at Rhode Island School of Design (where her work included sewing apparel out of salami and tattooing cold cuts), worked as a taxidermist, and, for a short while, was a baker with a specialty in erotic cake designs. While Bookbinder’s last name might suggest a future in literature, she in fact does a different kind of binding. She uses the same meditative skills she once employed on penis-shaped cakes or sewing up dead coyotes as she does working as a food stylist now in Los Angeles. Her sculptural, edible designs have led her to projects such as Christine McConnell’s recently debuted Netflix Tim Burton-meets-Martha Stewart cooking show, The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, and a shoot with comedienne Kate Berlant for the fashion line 69.
We asked Bookbinder how she blends her background in taxidermy and erotic cake designs with food styling for her clientele.
What was it like working as a culinary producer on Christine McConnell’s new Netflix show? Is it different food styling for TV versus editorial? Working with Christine McConnell was amazing. It was incredible to see someone care so much about details, especially for television. Also, to be at Jim Henson was so cool: the people who work on puppets in what’s called the creature shop do the most spectacular problem-solving, and many of those people ended up working on the culinary team. They knew how to manipulate materials in a way I had never thought of.
You studied sculpture at RISD—can you tell us more about how that led to food styling? In art school I sewed apparel out of salami and than started tattooing on cold cuts. I feel that anything is possible with food. So when I started working with Christine McConnell, and a lot of her ideas seemed so out of this world I knew that that was from the same realm of how I think about food.
So much of your editorial work involves baking, which I know is really not easy. How did you fall into baking? My background is in sculpture, that’s what I studied in art school [at RISD]. After that, I sort of fell into working in food. I started as a baker working in various bakeries and eventually opened a cooperative bakery called Arizmendi Baker with about 18 other people in San Francisco. When I moved to Los Angeles, I was the head baker at Trails Cafe making pies all day.
How did you transition from baking to zines?
Like a lot of bakers, I had burnout. I was seeking something more creative. I hadn’t even heard of food styling yet. I was stressed—I had all these skills but I wasn’t sure how they could come together and I thought my resume looked crazy. Then I started doing pop-ups with my friend Anne Cousineau who I had met at Trails, making a lot of weird, colorful cakes and pastries at places like The Dog Show, Seth Bogart’s Wacky Wacko, and Otherwild, all run by friends in LA who who are in a similar world of fun art experiences. Our last pop-up was at the Killjoy's Kastle (which was a lesbian haunted house). We made a zine called Leaven Bakery, with photos of what we were making.
I’m not sure I even know what a lesbian haunted house is! It seems to lend itself to the fact that you used to be an erotic baker, though. What does an erotic baker mean exactly?
An erotic cake decorator, actually [laughs]. As it turns out, a lot of major cities have erotic bakeries. They’re kind of this relic from a long time ago but it’s what you’d imagine: cakes with boobs or penises. I was working at one for a little bit when I lived in San Francisco. It was a place called Cake Gallery, which did other kinds of baked goods, too, but that was what we were known for. Our clients were usually buying them for bachelorette parties or birthdays. I’ve made tons of cakes with giant breasts with lace-y bras. But then I had super weird requests sometimes, too. For a baby shower one person wanted an illustration of their ultrasound, and I had to make it look real. People definitely sent photos of their genitalia when they were commissioning cake designs. It was in the Leather District in SF, and it could be a guy wanting a dick-shaped cake to send to his crush and bring to the gay bar that night. I got really good at piping chains.
But you’re also a trained taxidermist. How did that come to be? Do you see any similarities between working with taxidermy and food styling? I started doing taxidermy because I worked at The Nature Lab, a natural history library at RISD [where I attended undergrad]. It was my favorite place. Part of that was often doing taxidermy repair, because most of their collection is from the ‘30s. I ended up doing an independent study in Michigan and I lived and studied with a taxidermist there. She taught me how to do small mammals: foxes, bobcats, groundhogs, coyotes, and squirrels. I don’t know how to do fish or anything like that, that’s a different skill. But I studied with her and then came back to RISD. Then, later on, when I was in my early 20s, I went to SF and worked with a taxidermist who specialized in Italian greyhounds. She was affiliated with the Italian greyhound rescue league and would take them to work on after they had died of old age. What defines good taxidermy is that the main goal is taking a dead thing and making it appear alive again. As a taxidermist, I always love playing in the grey area of that—making things that might look a little fucked up. With food styling, it’s a similar concept: you made a bowl of pasta hours ago or its been on set for hours and you have to keep making it seem fresh, tricking someone’s eye.
The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell has so many animal puppets on it. That reminds me of taxidermy, in a way. Did you get to use any of those skills as a culinary producer on the show?
I love making beautiful food, but I also really enjoy styling food where the viewer might not be sure if it’s gross or not. I think that unsureness is that same grey area I loved about taxidermy. I worked on a cake for Christine McConnell that was a completely butchered-open raccoon with an exposed heart—that was kind of exactly like taxidermy. It was kind of gross but also beautiful and then kinda scary and surreal and hilarious.
I do love the opportunity to make more than just appetizing-looking food. Creepy and truly scary food for the TV show was a new world for me, besides some bloody pad cookies and butt plug cookies that I made with artist Anne Cousineau for the lesbian haunted house. Also I love making food where you’re unsure if it’s real or not. Or mixing fake food with real food.
I feel like people might initially think of both taxidermy and erotic cakes both as “gross.”
I guess the audiences are similar. They both attract people who are into novelty and they’re both also definitely old time-y passion. In the ‘70s, erotic cakes were definitely thought of as naughty, but now there are just so many other things that are way more perverted than that. The Midwest was the primary purchaser base for taxidermy for a long time, but the customers are kind of changing as it gets more trendy—though I’ve been out of the taxidermy game for a bit now. What I do know is that people always think taxidermy involves a lot of blood, and that has just not been my experience at all. Similar to cake decorating, they both require steady hands, moving slowly and precisely. A lot of patience, but they’re both meditative in a way. Also, they’re funny. I was doing so much laughing when I worked at that bakery.