The Wedding Cake . . . history, customs and traditions

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The history of the wedding cake goes back as far as the Roman Empire, well before the concept of elaborately icing a cake, was invented. Through the years, the wedding cake has become the focus of a variety of customs and traditions. Some of these customs have survived through time. Some have not. The custom of breaking the cake over the bride's head is no longer practiced. The tradition may have its roots as far back as the Roman Empire. The groom would eat part of a loaf of barley bread baked especially for the nuptials and break the rest over his bride's head. History tells us that breaking the bread symbolized the breaking of the bride's virginal state and the subsequent dominance of the groom over her. As wedding cakes evolved into the larger, more modern version, it became physically impractical to properly break the cake over the bride's head. The tradition disappeared fairly quickly in some places, but there were still reports of breaking an oatcake or other breakable cakes over the bride's head in Scotland, in the 19th century. It's reported that in Northern Scotland, friends of the bride would put a napkin over her head and then proceed to pour a basket of bread over her. It's hard to say why some traditions endure and some do not, but the obvious male chauvinistic bent of this particular tradition probably leads to its early demise.

In Medieval England, cakes were described as breads which were flour-based foods without sweetening. No accounts tell of a special type of cake appearing at wedding ceremonies. There are, however, stories of a custom involving stacking small sweet buns in a large pile in front of the newlyweds. The couple would attempt to kiss over the pile. Success in the process was a sign that there would be many children in their future. .

First appearing in the middle of the17th century and well into the early 19th century, was a popular dish called the bride's pie. The pie was filled with sweet breads, a mince pie, or may have been merely a simple mutton pie. A main "ingredient" was a glass ring. An old adage claimed that the woman who found the ring would be the next to be married. Bride's pies were by no means universally found at weddings, but there are accounts of these pies being made into the main centerpiece at less affluent ceremonies. The name "bride cakes" emphasized that the bride was the focal point of the wedding. Many other objects also were given the prefix "bride," such as the bride bed, bridegroom and bridesmaid.

By the late 19th century, wedding cakes became really popular, and the use of the bride's pie disappeared. Early cakes were simple single-tiered plum cakes, with some variations. It was a while before the first multitier wedding cake of today appeared in all its glory.

The notion of sleeping with a piece of cake underneath one's pillow dates back as far as the 17th century and quite probably forms the basis for today's tradition of giving cake as a "gift." Legend has it that sleepers will dream of their future spouses if a piece of wedding cake is under their pillow. In the late 18th century this notion led to the curious tradition in which brides would pass tiny crumbs of cake through their rings and then distribute them to guests who could, in turn, place them under their pillows. The custom was curtailed when brides began to get superstitious about taking their rings off after the ceremony.

In the minds of most people, wedding cakes are "supposed to be" white. The symbolism attached to the color white, makes explaining this tradition rather simple. White has always denoted purity, a notion as it relates to white wedding cake icing that first appeared in Victorian times. Another way in which a white wedding cake relates to the symbol of purity, has its basis in the fact that the wedding cake was originally referred to as the bride's cake. This not only highlighted the bride as the central figure of the wedding, but also created a visual link between the bride and the cake. Today, that link is being further strengthened as more contemporary brides have their wedding cakes coordinated with their wedding gown color, even if it's not white!

Before Victorian times, most wedding cakes were also white, but not because of the symbolism. Using the color white for icing had a more pragmatic basis. Ingredients were very difficult to come by, especially those required for icing. White icing required the use of only the finest refined sugar, so the whiter the cake, the more affluent the families appeared. It was due to this fact that a white wedding cake became an outward symbol of affluence.

Wedding cakes take center stage in the traditional cake cutting ceremony, symbolically the first task that bride and groom perform jointly as husband and wife. This is one tradition that most of us have witnessed many times. The first piece of cake is cut by the bride with the "help" of the groom. This task originally was delegated exclusively to the bride. She cut the cake for sharing with her guests. Distributing pieces of cake to one's guests is a tradition that also dates back to the Roman Empire and continues today. Following the tradition of breaking the bread over the bride's head, guests would scramble for crumbs that fell to the ground. Presumably, the consumption of such pieces ensured fertility. However, as numbers of wedding party guests grew, so did the size of the wedding cake, making the distribution process impossible for the bride to undertake on her own. Cake cutting became more difficult with early multitier cakes, because the icing had to be hard enough to support the cake's own weight. This, of necessity, made cutting the cake a joint project. After the cake cutting ceremony, the couple proceeds to feed one other from the first slice. This provides another lovely piece of symbolism, the mutual commitment of bride and groom to provide for one another.

The Groom's Cake is a tradition that was prevalent in early American ceremonies, but seems to have fallen from favor in most contemporary weddings. The groom's cake was usually dark (e.g., chocolate) to contrast with the bride's cake. The groom's cake appeared at the reception along with the wedding cake. The origin of this tradition is unclear. Some believe it was to be served by the groom, with a glass of wine, to the bridesmaids. Others believe it was to be saved and subsequently shared with friends after the honeymoon. The tradition seems to have survived primarily in the South.

The once simple wedding cake has evolved into what today is a multitier extravaganza. The multitier wedding cake was originally reserved for English royalty. Even for the nobility, the first multitier cakes were real in appearance only. Their upper layers were mockups made of spun sugar. Once the problem of preventing the upper layers from collapsing into the lower layers was solved, a real multitier wedding cake could be created. Pillars as decoration existed long before multitiered cakes appeared, so it was a natural progression for cake bakers to try using pillars as a way to support the upper tiers. To prevent the pillars from sinking into the bottom tier, icing was hardened to provide the necessary support.

There is hardly a bride today who can't resist saving the top layer of her multitier cake. Most couples freeze the cake with the intention of sharing it on their first wedding anniversary. The tradition has its roots in the late 19th century when grand cakes were baked for christenings. It was assumed that the christening would occur soon after the wedding ceremony, so the two ceremonies were often linked, as were the cakes. With wedding cakes becoming more and more fancy and elaborate, the christening cake quickly took a back seat to the wedding cake. When three-tiered cakes became popular, the top tier was often left over. A subsequent christening provided a perfect opportunity to finish the cake. Couples could then logically rationalize the need for three tiers --- the bottom tier for the reception, the middle tier for distributing and the top for the christening. As the time between the weddings and the christenings widened, the two events became disassociated, and the reason for saving the top tier changed. Regardless of the underlying reason, when the couple finally does eat the top tier, it serves as a very pleasant reminder of what was their very special day.

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