(all text by Nicola Humble)
Cakes are strange things: they are a foodstuff whose symbolic function can completely overwhelm their actual status as comestible. More than anything, cake is an idea. But cakes are also incontrovertibly material: lusciously spongy or solid with fruit, sticky, creamy, loaded with sweetness, ﬁlled and iced and decorated: food layered on food.
The contemporary cake that is most heavily ritualised is the wedding cake. Indeed, Mary Douglas remarked that ‘a competent young anthropologist, arriving on this planet from Mars’ would ‘be perhaps bafﬂed to make up his mind whether the central focus of the ceremony was the marriage or the cake’.
There is a great deal of food-lore about the history of the wedding cake, which is often traced back to ancient Roman traditions of breaking bread over the head of the bride or to the medieval British tradition of pouring grain over the heads of the newly married couple. But although cakes were certainly served as part of wedding feasts from the Middle Ages onward, the wedding cake as we understand it did not even start to come into existence until the late eighteenth century, and much of its ritual and symbol is of surprisingly recent origin.
The wedding cake, or ‘bride cake’ as it was then known, was a single-tiered, rich if not especially sweet fruit cake banded by layers of candied peel. Single-tiered wedding cakes remained until the middle of the nineteenth century, with even Queen Victoria’s ‘great beast of a plum-cake’ being a single flat cake. It was the wedding cake of her daughter in 1858 that changed things. Nearly seven foot (2.1m) in height, its top layers were elaborate architectural structures – domes and crowns, plinths and niches, statues and plaques – formed entirely of sugar work.
The wedding cake has two fundamental functions: its ﬁrst role is an object to be seen, its elegance and elevation lending it a fairytale appearance. Its second function is much more ancient: it is a substance to be cut and shared, so that the good fortune of the couple be shared with the guests, and the good wishes of the guests with the couple. Interestingly, the idea of preserving the top tier belongs to the twentieth century, a notion inspired by the fact that fruit cake ‘matures’ rather than rots with age.
But one thing remains true of the wedding cake – that it is a key example of a cake whose function is to be seen rather than to be eaten. This is most clearly demonstrated by one of the most striking forms the cake has taken: in Japan recent fashion have seen the invention of an entirely inedible cake – with elaborate icing of wax or moulded rubber. The sole point of the cake is the slot in the back of it, into which the bride and groom plunge the ceremonial knife while their picture is taken.
Although such a cake may seem bizarre, we need only turn to the Britain of the Second World War, where ‘iced’ cardboard wedding cakes were supplied by bakers for exactly the same purpose: to make a good show in the wedding pictures.
Having your cake rather than eating it is sometimes the most important thing.
This article has been extracted with permission. Cake: A Global History by Nicola Humble is part of the Edible series published by Reaktion Books (hb, £9.99)
About the author:
Nicola Humble is Professor of English Literature at Roehampton University. She is the author of Culinary Pleasures: Cook Books and the Transformation of British Food, as wellas Victorian Heroines: Representations of Femininity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Art.
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