Cheesecake Taken to New Psychedelic Heights - Stephen McCarty

Scroll down through Stephen McCarty's Instagram; a collection of dizzyingly beautiful, organic cheesecake surrounded by beautiful bohemian people, and you will eventually come to a place where the cakes end. Stark circles of avocados and skinny peppers take their place, flower-like celebrations of plump vegetables converging around a single point. They tell of a mindless (or mindful) practice - a tendency rooted in something oddly satisfying and not terribly lucrative. Here McCarty is approachable and present, and this is where I fall in love with his work.

Cheesecake Taken to New Psychedelic Heights - Stephen McCarty

The practice of mandala-making is in fact, a Buddhist one, painstakingly realized grain by grain using colored sand. Hours approaching a godly precision, only to sweep the finished design into a jar and dump its contents over a body of water. Maybe you are remembering the kid in your kindergarten class that nobody liked because he was always kicking down other kids' block towers. Was he merely a budding Buddhist? More likely than not he was a budding asshole. But according to Buddhism, one of the main purposes of complementing creation with destruction is to exercise one's capacity for detachment. McCarty's cheesecakes, painstaking and beautiful in their own right, are rooted in Buddhist tradition by the very same impermanence.

We train ourselves to respond to beautiful food in a certain way, to pause and say something reverent, like "It's too perfect!" or "You do it, I can't". But McCarty’s point - Buddhism's point - is not only that we can; we are meant to. In an era that obliges us to capture and preserve a limitless register of waking moments, we are invited to take something beautiful and put a definitive end to it. And is there not some relief in that?

Although McCarty's works are inspired by and created for individuals, most of us know we're not supposed to eat an entire cheesecake on our own. Like the sand mandalas, its destruction is not only an opportunity for detachment but a chance to return to our surroundings what has been given to us - in this case to those whom we consider special enough to share expensive vegan cheesecake with. In the act of sharing, the cake's energy is reinvested in the people whose own auras have uplifted and contributed to that of the person by which it was inspired, and everything comes full circle. This is also why there are no mandala cupcakes.

Cheesecake Taken to New Psychedelic Heights - Stephen McCarty

On McCarty's bookshelf, between references to Tao, Zen, and Native American cosmovisions, sits a book called The Secret Life of Plants. I spotted it immediately for being a book that my dad owned and quoted to me on various occasions around the time that I stopped eating animals. A raw, vegan cake maker with a book full of research on plants' feelings might seem like a conflict of interest. However, given McCarty's conscientiousness in selecting his ingredients, this interest comes as no surprise.

Creation and destruction are two facets of the same cycle; this is the principle of life and of the mandala. However, it is up to McCarty to ensure that these processes are enacted as responsibly as possible. Without coming across as preachy, he makes it clear that for him this is nothing short of a priority. He fosters personal ties to the producers of his ingredients, knows their processes and ensures that their visions and methods align with his own. Even the colors, impossibly vibrant, are sourced naturally - beet and carrot juices, berrie,s and turmeric root. Cashews, almonds, and dates give substance; "blond" coconut nectar, sweetness.

Mccarty became a vegan 22 years ago at the age of 16 in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, at a time when "natural food" was still a seedling niche.  He founded Sukhavati Raw Desserts and started making cheesecakes on Valentine's day in 2014, and the momentum he has built behind his crunchy cheesecake revolution is an impulse both forward and backward, following yet another cycle through time as the 2010s lead us back toward our organic, non-GMO, toxin-free, ancestral ways. If a movement toward greater health consciousness can be said to have a pitfall, it would be that of a mindset of extremes - a fear of all we put into our bodies, namely among those of us with ample enough means to take for granted the satisfaction of our most basic needs. We forget to remember the splendor of food, its creativity, how it is meant not only as a vehicle of health but one of pleasure as well.

Of the thousands of individual auras he has captured in his cheesecakes, a few are subdued in color and form but none are void of inspiration. These works create a means by which we can see ourselves manifested as a product of natural processes; they connect us to a vibrancy that is easy to forget that we, too, are a part of. 

"Sukhavati" refers to a Buddhist concept that can be best understood in English as "Western Paradise", a certain kind of heaven. And it is into that space, between discipline and indulgence, that McCarty's cheesecakes beckon.

FoodLeah Hastingschef