The origin of the wedding cake can be traced as far back as the roman empire, when icing was not even invented. A loaf of barley bread was baked for the ceremony. The groom would then eat some of the bread and break the remaining piece over the bride's head! In medieval England, the cake described in accounts were not cakes in the conventional sense. They were described as flour-based sweet foods as opposed to the description of breads which were just flour-based foods without sweetening. The presence of the cake was included in many celebratory feasts. However, there are no accounts of a special type of cake appearing wedding ceremonies. There are tales of a custom involving stacking small sweet buns in a large pile in front of the newlyweds. The couple would then attempt to kiss over this pile, with success being a sign of many children in the couple's future. In the early 19th century, a popular dish being served was bride's pie. First appearing in the mid-17th century, it was a pie filled with sweet breads, a mince pie, or by some accounts, just a simple mutton pie. The main ingredient was a glass ring. An old adage claims that the lady who finds this ring will be the next to wed. Though bride's pies were not a fixture at weddings, there were accounts of these pies being the main centerpiece at less affluent ceremonies. In the late 19th century, the wedding cake became popular, ousting the bride's pie from popular culture. The cakes were originally given the title "bride cakes" to emphasize that the focal point of the wedding was the bride (Many other objects were prefixed with the word "bride" such as the bride bed, bridegroom and bridesmaid. All these terms have altered or disappeared with the exception of bridesmaid.) The early cakes were simple single-tiered cakes, usually a plum cake, but variations were recorded. It was a while before the first multi-tiered cake appeared that the wedding cake started to resemble today's modern ideal.
Traditions and Symbolism
Breaking the Cake Over the Bride's Head
An old tradition that isn't practiced today, breaking the cake over the bride's head has its origins in the roman empire. The groom would eat part of a loaf of barley bread baked for the occasion and break the rest over the head of the bride. It is believed that this symbolized the dominance of the groom over the bride. As time wore on and wedding cakes evolved into a more modern form of a cake, it became impossible, much to the relief of many brides, to properly "break" the cake over the bride's head. There have been reports of breaking an oatcake or other breakable cakes over the bride in Scotland in the 19th century. In North Scotland, friends of the bride would place a napkin over the her head and a basket of bread is poured over her head. There is no easy explanation for the evolution of this tradition, as the principal symbols of the tradition, the groom and the actual process of breaking, have been done away with.
When asked about the colour of a wedding cake, most people would answer white. The white color of the icing on a wedding cake has come to symbolize purity. This notion was first put forward in Victorian times. Before then, though most wedding cakes were white because of a more practical reason. At the time, ingredients for the wedding cake were much harder to acquire, especially for the icing. White icing meant that only the finest refined sugar was used, and so the whiter the cake, the more affluent the families involved were perceived! Another reason that the whiteness of the cake was considered pure was the association of the cake with the bride. Originally, wedding cakes were called bride cakes. This not only emphasized the bride as the main focal point of the wedding, but also created a link between the bride and the cake.
Cutting the Cake
Perhaps the most well-known tradition associated with wedding cakes is the joint task of cutting the cake. Here the first piece is cut by the bride with feigned assistance from the groom. Originally, it was the sole duty of the bride to cut the cake for sharing by the guests. As cakes became grander, the task became quite formidable, particularly in the early multi-tiered cakes where the icing had to be strong and rigid enough to support the upper tiers. It became a joint task more out of necessity than symbolism. Immediately after the cutting, the bride and groom feed each other the first slice. This action symbolizes the commitment to provide for each other that the bride and groom have undertaken.
Cake as Gifts
The idea of presenting pieces of cake as gifts for guests was started as far back as the roman empire, but it is still carried on today. After the tradition of breaking the bread over the bride's head, the guest would grab for the crumbs that fell to the ground as catalysts for fertility. The idea of sleeping with a piece of cake underneath your pillow was chronicled as early as the 17th century and is the main reason behind giving cake as a gift. It is said that you will dream of your future spouse if you sleep with a piece of wedding cake underneath your pillow. A twist on this tradition in the late 18th century has the bride handing out tiny crumbs of cake that were passed through her ring for people to place underneath their pillows. This was stopped after ceremonial rules frowned on the bride removing her ring after the service.
Usually a dark cake to contrast the wedding cake, it was a second cake that was present at the reception as well. The reason for this second cake is not commonly known. There are claims that the groomcake was to be served to the bridesmaids by the groom with a glass of wine. Another claim states that the groomcake is to be saved and shared with friends after the honeymoon.
Saving the Top Tier
With multi-tier cakes, most couples decide that they would like to save the top tier for a later time. This tradition has its roots in the late 19th century when grand cakes were baked for the occasion of the christening of a child. It was expected that the a christening would occur soon after the wedding ceremony, so the two ceremonies were often linked, as were the cakes. With the increasing complexity of the wedding cake, however, the christening cake soon became a paltry partner for the wedding cake. When three tier cakes became popular, the top tier was often left over after the reception. A christening provided a good reason for disposing them. People could then rationalize the need for three tiers, the bottom tier for the reception, the middle tier for distributing and the top for the christening. As time wore on, the wedding became less and less associated with procreation. So the reason for saving the top tier has expanded.
Separating the Tiers
The first wedding cakes were very simple compared to today's multi-tiered masterpieces. The first multi-tiered cakes were made for royal weddings in England, with the first one not even having "true" upper tiers (they were made of spun sugar rather than being actual cakes). As these upper tiers evolved into real cakes, the problem of preventing the upper layers from sinking into the lower layers was prevalent. The idea of using pillars to decorate a cake was present before the multi-tiered cakes appeared, so it was natural for bakers to regard this as a way to support the upper tiers. To prevent the pillars from sinking into the bottom tier, icing was hardened to support the pillars.
"The Victorian myth of origin
The degree to which the wedding cake and the uses to which it is put in twentieth century Britain have become standardized may well mislead when the past is considered. Even the degree of standardisation already present in the later nineteenth century misled J. C. Jeaffreson whose Brides and Bridals  offered a pioneering account of the history of the cake. Other writers have subsequently followed him, sometimes themselves adding to the confusion by misinterpreting his words in terms of the cakes with which they were familiar in their own day...
...Jeaffreson's history is...an interesting example of the myth-making of its period. Like others...he was led by a sense that, to be properly grounded, contemporary practice must have a lineage going back to ancient Rome. This was to make a link with the region of history so special for the identity of European societies as they developed out of the middle ages as to be labelled classical'. At times and amongst people aware of their own imperial status, such links were at a premium...The story Jeaffreson told began, therefore, with an ancient Roman marriage practice involving the breaking of a cake over the bride's head. It jumped to evidence from the England of a thousand and more years later, for the pouring or throwing of grain, and from this to supposed survivals around Britain as late as his own century of the breaking of biscuit, 'cake' or bread' over the bride...
...It was, Jeaffreson considered, with the arrival in England of French confectionery skills and influences at the Restoration in 1660 that the pile of cakes was consolidated with an overall covering of icing and decoration....There is no doubt that this story is fanciful and wrong, though its subsequent repetition shows that he had created a myth which would appear appropriate to those few who have thought to question the cake's origins."
---Wedding Cakes and Cultural History, Simon R. Charsley [Routledge:London] 1992 (p. 29-30) [NOTE: this book examines the culinary history, social traditions and cultural variations of fancy cakes in several cultures. It is well documented and contains an extensive bibliography for further reading]
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