In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.
Hi friends. Considering the ever-growing threat of nuclear war, natural disasters, and white supremacy, I was thinking we could talk about cake! Not just any cake—wedding cake. Does a more bipartisan wedding tradition exist? Nay, I say. You’ve got gluten-free cake, individually wrapped cupcakes, cake’s rustic cousin (the pie), and so many other sugary options that delight Republicans and Democrats alike. I became so naively hopeful that the history of wedding cake would be as pleasant and pure as an episode of The Great British Bake Off that I found myself snickering and verbalizing “stahhp” aloud while researching alone in my kitchen.
It’s almost as if when Susan Waggoner wrote her tome of wedding history, she was setting the stage for someone as world-weary as myself to come along and crack joke after joke to keep from curling up in a corner never to enter society again. With false enthusiasm, she introduces the cake as “the single most identifiable member of the wedding” aside from the bride, but then briskly turns toward the camera to whisper, “But the festive, flower-bedecked confection we know today bears little resemblance to cakes of earlier times, which were meant to ensure not joy but reproduction.”
Reproduction. Of course! How silly of me to assume a cake would simply be enjoyed as a sweet part of a couple’s celebration when obviously the cake is all about ensuring the human race would grow to 7.5 billion by 2017. Here’s a pretty picture: “In ancient Greece, small hard loaves of grain were symbolically offered to guests and broken over the bride’s head to woo the gods of prosperity and fertility.” What a lucky woman, to be bonked over the head with a baguette in hopes she would put a bun in the oven that very night!
In Rome, both the bride and groom had bread broken over their heads, and “eager to secure a portion of the blessing for themselves, guests scrambled to retrieve the crumbs as they scattered at the feet of the newlyweds.” Today we wedding attendees don’t have to scramble because someone in the kitchen is assigned the harrowing duty of cutting and serving the cake to all the guests, plus many of us don’t want kids.
Wedding cakes evolved from bread to sweet buns as Europe gained access to more spices and fruits. Around Shakespeare’s time, the bride’s friends would each bring a sweet bun to the wedding, and “the size of the pile of buns was seen as a reflection of the bride’s popularity.” The invention of icing may have come about when early bridesmaids sought to ensure the pile would not be toppled by adhering the buns with honey and applesauce. See? The tradition of bridesmaids performing tedious tasks for their friend is as old as time.
And then, one invention changed the very essence of what we know to be cake today: baking soda. Because of baking soda, cakes were empowered to grow to heights never before seen. Waggoner writes, “The new cake, light in color and billowing in style, embodied the Victorian vision of chaste but profusely bedecked virginity.” If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: cake is virginity personified. And so, much like the opening scene to 101 Dalmatians in which dogs trot along with their identical humans, brides and wedding cakes were meant for twinning.
And so I ask you to pause and recall your very own wedding cake or the one you so desire. What does this cake say about you? Is the cake fussy and trying a bit too hard, is it basic and straight-forward, or is it from Costco? Dare I say—have we vastly underestimated cakes, which are mirrors to our souls?
When I shouted into the social media void about wedding cake, the stories that came back to me were numerous. Here is an abbreviated list of the real wedding cakes that were discussed:
● A funfetti cake covered in sprinkles with a lego bride and groom cake topper
● A groom’s cake shaped like an iPad with the screensaver depicting an Olan Mills portrait of the groom holding his cat while wearing a sweater and glasses
● A key lime pie
● A cookie table in true Pittsburgh fashion
● A bowl of banana pudding
● Small cakes at each table that guests could serve themselves
● A last-minute wholesale cake from BJ’s with “congratulations” written on it
● Vegan chocolate cupcakes
● An ice cream truck
● Homemade cakes baked by the family in the high school home-ec room
● Pumpkin pie
● A cake with butterflies on one side and a Marvel theme on the other
● Beignets and peach cobbler
● Lemon tiramisu decorated with daisies
● Cupcakes with flavors that appeal to both your husband and your in-laws
● A salted caramel cake with a 3-dimensional piece of edible art, which was a seed pod of sorts that symbolized the sensuality of life and growth
● An enormous homemade wedding cake baked by the bride because she didn’t have time to cook the entire dinner for 100 guests
I think you are beginning to see my point. Cakes know us better than we know ourselves. By seeming so innocent, so inconsequential, they’ve gotten inside our heads. So I urge you: the next time you attend a wedding, do not forget to get a glimpse of the cake, and do not just chew it mindlessly as you sip your stale coffee, because, in the end, a cake is worth a thousand wedding vows.