Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Wedding cakes and cultural history (Simon Charlsey)

As you know, I have developed somewhat of an obsession with wedding cakes of late, as I try to work out whether or not I will be capable of making mine for my wedding next year. The answer is yes, I think, and now I am trying to work out what I will be capable of producing and how we would like our cake to look (hopefully combining the two). I've been on a one day cake decorating course, am about to book myself on a 20-week cake decorating evening class, and have been perusing vast numbers of celebration cake books from the library, as part of the process. I was extremely excited to track down a book all about the history and anthropology of wedding cakes called Wedding cakes and cultural history. This is actually an academic book on the subject, not exactly a light read, but absolutely fascinating if you are as obsessed with the topic as I am.

The earliest recorded recipe of a wedding cake, in 1665, was actually a pie, and it wasn't until later on that the customary British wedding cake became a fruit cake covered with icing. Apparently, the traditional tiered wedding cake design was inspired by the spire of St Bride's church in London, although these did not come into fashion until the 19th century, first appearing at a number of royal weddings. But at this stage, bakers lacked the expertise to engineer real tiered cakes - only the bottom tier would be cake and the rest would be dummies or sculptures made out of sugar. It was in the 1870s that the tiers began to be made from actual cake and in the 1890s that the tiers began to be separated by little columns rather than stacked. It wasn't until the late 20th century that wedding cakes moved on from fruit cake into sponge cakes, and although the book was publisxhed in 1992, one could argue for another shift in wedding cake habits, towards having a tower of cupcakes sometimes arranged in tiers. And I've seen wedding photos where the cake is a cheese cake, literally made of a number of whole round cheeses balanced on top of each other, mimicking the tiers of the "traditional" cake.

Another interesting titbit is that the cutting of the cake was originally held to symbolise the bride losing her virginity. Nowadays it is often believed that the cutting of the cake is the couple's first public act together, and Charlsey suggests that this is representative of women's changing role and position within marriage.

There was a slight disappointment with the book in that it was barely illustrated at all; on the other hand I have another anthropological cake book to write about soon which had some fantastic pictures in. Watch this space for more cake discussions (I love it when books and baking come together!)


  1. Wow. I studed Anthropology at university and to combine it with cakes and weddings... Looking forward to hearing about your other book and your cake classes.

  2. Love the way you're immersing yourself into the world of cakes and I had no idea that first slice of the cake meant anything at all. I simply thought of it as a standard photo op!

  3. Fascinating history behind the wedding cake, but too bad there weren't many pictures. It's a topic that would seem to require photos or illustrations! Can't wait to see what you learn in the class.

  4. I loved this post. And now I am sitting here wanting a piece of "anthropological cake".

  5. Joan - it is such a brillaint topic for a book!

    Darlene - not quite immersed like Marilyn Monroe yet...

    JoAnn - yes - it should and could have been lavishly illustrated.

    Thomas - thanks :)


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