Your Wedding Meal is Way More than Just Something to Eat

Here’s how what you serve can give a peek into American history

Updated 07/10/17

Photo by Paul O'Reilly

Wedding trends come and go, and traditions have evolved right along with them—including what’s served and eaten on a wedding day. And while deciding what to feed your guests can be fun (hello, tastings!), you may not have realized that what you choose to serve can actually provide all sorts of cultural insight. That’s what Claire Stewart set out to do as she began researching her new book, As Long As We Both Shall Eat: A History of Wedding Food and Feasts.

Assistant Professor of Hospitality Management at City Tech, CUNY in New York and a trained and experienced chef herself, Stewart examined wedding food customs, from tossing rice to late night snacks, to get a peek into the conspicuous consumption that is a wedding feast. We asked the author to share a little bit of what she learned, both writing her book and as her time as a banquet chef, serving meals to newlyweds and the ones they love.

Food trends seem to be ever-changing, but are there any wedding food traditions that have persisted over the decades?

“Throwing rice at newlyweds is an iconic American tradition, but the use of rice is prevalent in many other cultures as well,” says Stewart. “Rice is revered in numerous societies as a dietary staple, but it also represents fertility all over the world. Some cultures believe it is bad luck to visit the home of newlyweds until the bride has cooked rice for her new husband. Another tradition includes some Indian brides throwing rice at the family home when they leave for the wedding ceremony, representing her wish that her parents’ home will always be blessed with food.” Nuts and seeds represent fertility all over the world, which you’ll see incorporated throughout cultural wedding practices. “Some Greek traditions will have a bride smear honey in the shape of a cross on her door," says Stewart. "She then throws a pomegranate at the door, and if a lot of seeds stick to the honey, she will have many children and a sweet life. Walnuts, which naturally break into four sections, can be symbolic of the bride, the groom and the two newly joined families.” And of course, you can’t have a wedding without breaking bread! “Bread is also ceremonial, with the challah in Jewish ceremonies and the Christian communion wafer as obvious examples,” Stewart explains. “Round breads and cakes are popular as well, meant to symbolize an unbroken circle just as with wedding rings.”

During your research, you discovered the role celebrities (and their wedding excess) have played in wedding trends. Could you share a few with us?

“One trend now is using food in a formal after-hours party. After the cake is served, the party does not have to end,” Stewart says. “When Nicky Hilton married James Rothschild in 2015, the elaborate menu was supplemented by a late-night snack of sliders, milkshakes, pizza, and fries. Even Prince William and Kate served bacon sandwiches and ice cream late into the evening after the Queen went home!” And how about this for a bride taking the meal into her own hands: “When Miranda Lambert married her now-ex Blake Shelton, she wanted to serve venison, so off she went hunting, shooting a deer to be served at the reception!” says Stewart.

What advice would you want to offer couples planning their weddings today when it comes to working with caterers and choosing and serving food and beverages to their guests?

“My advice is for couples to be realistic about their budget, finding a balance with a menu they can afford, yet one that still features cuisine that leaves them feeling their day was truly special. Often that means serving food that is the best quality that it can be, yet not necessarily expensive,” says Stewart. “The same goes for the bar. If you can’t afford a full bar, just serve beer and wine, but make it really good wine and beer, and let it flow.” She also shares a little bit of inspiration that might make your wedding day extra delicious: “When my husband and I got married, we opted for a high-end picnic. We had hamburgers and chili, but the hamburgers were made with really good meat, fresh homemade rolls, and imported cheese. We also insisted that the wedding cake—made by a chef friend—be the actual dessert rather than just ceremonial. Our cake was a rich cheesecake on a brownie crust, and made to be eaten and enjoyed rather than just a prop that would be pushed aside after the cutting.”

Are there current food/drink trends you love? Any that you're tired of seeing? Any that you wish would catch on more widely?

“I like that weddings can be a chance for couples to express themselves, especially since marriages bring together two different families perhaps from two different worlds," says Stewart. "I always enjoy it when someone wants to share part of their upbringing, such as with a certain food native to their hometown or country, or chooses to serve a special food because of family memories. I do think it can be tiresome, however, if a couple is only focused on what they like to eat. For many people, their wedding reception is the biggest, most expensive party they will ever throw. Care should be taken to remember that you are hosts; it is a party in your honor, but you have invited guests to share a meal, and guests should be treated well. You may be gluten–free or vegan but your guests may not be. You don’t need to compromise your ethics, but I always think it is good to devise ways to ensure everyone goes home feeling their appetites and comfort were taken into account in some way.”

What is your favorite thing about food at weddings? Your least favorite?

“My favorite aspect of weddings is that they are a celebration and a beginning of a new family unit," says Stewart. "Sharing a meal with the couple is a way to literally partake in that new union. I think it is terrific that traditions have loosened and that couples who don’t want formality do not need to elope. They can have a wedding feast and cupcakes delivered from a food truck if they choose, and I think that’s great! But I do wish that etiquette not be sacrificed in exchange. Thank you notes and good manners still matter, whether your food comes from a five-star chef or your local barbecue joint. No matter your budget, good manners are free!”

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