The Origin of Birthday Cake


Yesterday was my birthday! This of course means a celebration that will last for several weeks, as well as a related post. It’s all very exciting.

In other amazing news, I won’t be posting for a couple of weeks because I’m going on a cruise to the South Pacific. I’ll be sure to come back with some great topics to write about, as well as a tan. Everybody wins! Anyway, without further ado, let’s learn about birthday cake!

As you may remember from my wedding cake post, the words for ‘cake’ and ‘bread’ were virtually interchangeable in early Europe. Unsurprisingly, the only difference between the two was that cakes were sweet.  In the 15th century, bakeries in Germany conceived the idea of marketing cakes for customers’ birthdays, as well as for their weddings. They were mostly used for the birthdays of young children and thus these celebrations were referred to as Kinderfest. It was during this time period that cakes began to be layered and laden with new ingredients in order to render them sweeter and less bread-like. These kinds of cakes were called Geburtstagorten by the Germans.

Mmm, cake.

During the 17th century, the birthday cake took on a more contemporary form. These elaborate cakes, which possess the same attributes of modern cakes (multiple layers, icing, and decorations), were only available to the very wealthy. However, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, birthday cakes eventually became proletarianized as materials and tools became more advanced and more easily acquired.

The tradition of placing candles on cakes can be attributed to the Ancient Greeks, who baked cakes to honour Artemis, the goddess of the moon. The theory behind the practice was that the light from the candles made the cake itself glow like the  moon. It is also believed that the smoke from the candles carried their prayers to the Gods. This tradition has survived to a certain extent today. We may not say a prayer when we blow out birthday candles, but most of us do still make a wish.

The earliest reference to the tradition of blowing out birthday candles was documented Switzerland in 1881. Researchers for the Folk-Lore Journal recorded various “superstitions” amongst the Swiss middle class. The following statement was recorded, ““A birthday-cake must have lighted candles arranged around it, one candle for each year of life. Before the cake is eaten the person whose birthday it is should blow out the candles one after another.”

I hope you have enjoyed our rather short and sweet foray into the history of birthday cakes. I  also hope that it will tide you over until I’m back in the country and have constant access to my precious internet. See you all in a fortnight!

 

What does German Chocolate Cake, French Toast and White Russians Have in Common?


Hello food history lovers!

Today I intend to answer a question that has been plaguing mankind since the dawn of time. A question that perplexed the likes of Gallileo, Socrates and Plato. A question of such magnitude, that I almost fear answering it.

What does German Chocolate Cake, French Toast and White Russians have in common?

Three seemingly unrelated consumables. All delicious. All fairing from different corners of the Earth. What could possibly link them?

The answer?

None of them were invented in the countries that grace their names.

Are you terribly shocked and appalled? That’s a natural reaction. I’ll give you a moment to fetch your smelling salts…

Recovered? Excellent. Let us then move onto the exploration of the origins of these three individuals and how each of them acquired their incredibly misleading names.

 

This, in actual fact, needs to get in me immediately

German Chocolate Cake

The roots of this rich and delicious mistress can be traced back to 1852 when an American by the name of Sam German developed a brand of dark baking chocolate for Baker’s Chocolate Company. The product, German’s Sweet Chocolate, was named after him.

In 1957, the original recipe for ‘German’s Chocolate Cake’ was sent into a Dallas newspaper by a local homemaker. The recipe utilized German’s dark baking chocolate, and it became quite popular. General Foods, which owned the Baker’s brand, took notice and distributed the cake recipe to other newspapers across the country. Sales of Baker’s Chocolate is said to have increased by 73% and the cake itself became a national staple. The possessive form, ‘German’s’, was dropped in subsequent publications, which resulted in it being referred to as ‘German Chocolate Cake’. The outcome? The false impression of a German origin for the dessert.

Nom nom, French Toast

French Toast

French toast existed long before France was established as a country. The exact origins of French Toast are unknown, but it’s unsurprising that humans developed the recipe quickly, given that it is traditionally made out of stale bread. Bread has been a staple of most cultures since food preparation first began. Coupling this with a rejection of food wastage (which is really only something that is acceptable in modern society), it’s unsurprising that man had to find a way to make stale bread palatable.

The earliest reference to doing this dates back to 4th century Rome, in a cookbook attributed to Apicius. This style of toast was called Pan Dulcis. The Romans would take the bread and soak it in a milk and egg mixture, and then cook it, typically frying it in oil or butter.

This practice of cooking stale bread became common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. In fact, the name for French Toast in France is “pain perdu”, which literally means “lost bread”. There are some that still insist that French Toast  originated in France, however, it’s interesting to note that before the French called it “pain perdu”, they called it “pain a la Romaine” (Roman bread).

So why is this clever concoction attributed to the French? One theory is that it’s reminiscent of French cooking before the invention of proper refrigeration. It’s said that many of their rich, heavy and creamy sauces were created to hide the fact that the meat or fish in the dish was, or was very nearly off.

Me thinks this would go quite well with the German Chocolate Cake

White Russians

This origin story is quite short, and most definitely sweet.

The White Russian is the sister cocktail of the Black Russian – a drink concocted from vodka and coffee liqueur. Both initially appeared in 1949 and were invented Belgium Bartender  Gustave Tops. Black Russians transform into White Russians with the simple addition of cream. Neither drink is Russian in origin, but were named due to vodka being the primary ingredient. It is unclear which drink preceded the other.

 

 

BOOM! That’s the sound of knowledge bombs blowing up everywhere. I do love a good debunking, so I naturally loved writing this post. In closing I pose this question – Do you know of any other food names that are misleading or outright incorrect? I’d love to hear about them.

Death by Chocolate – Hitler’s Camouflaged Bomb Plot


A big thanks to Katie for bringing this story to my attention. I majored in WWII History at uni, and my waist line currently majors in chocolate, so this is the perfect topic for me to discuss.

Newly uncovered WWII documents reveal that the Nazis were plotting to assassinate Winston Churchill with a bomb disguised as a chocolate bar. The plan was to coat the explosives with a thin layer of dark chocolate and then package them as ‘Peter’s’ branded chocolate bars. The idea was to have them smuggled into the War Cabinet’s dining room where Churchill and other important members of parliament would often meet. The device was designed to explode seven seconds after being unwrapped, killing everyone within a few metres of the sweet and sugary impact. The theory behind this plot was to exploit the Prime Minister’s weakness for chocolate.

1920’s Peter’s chocolate bar wrapper. Photo courtesy of The Candy Wrapper Archive.

Unfortunately for the Nazis, it wasn’t just their chocolate that was foiled. British spies discovered the plot and quickly warned one of MI5’s most senior intelligence chiefs – Lord Victor Rothschild. He proceeded to alert the nation and advised them to look out for exploding candy bars. He even had an illustrator friend, Laurence Fish, draw up pictures of the bars so he could distribute them amongst the public. Interestingly, Fish’s wife found the correspondence between her husband and Rothschild in 2009. The letter was dated May 4, 1943 and was marked ‘secret’. It detailed the German plot and supposedly included a rather poor drawing of the device by Rothschild.

Suffice to say, with the plot made public, there were no chocolate bombs exploding in parliament.

A little research on my behalf also revealed that chocolate wasn’t the only item that the Nazis were planning on using to disguise explosives. German saboteurs also utilized tinned plums, throat lozenges, shaving brushes, batteries, wood, and my personal favourite – stuffed dogs. I can’t imagine how the latter would even work.

I’d like to finish by thanking everyone who contacted me after my Darrell Lea article. It was incredibly touching and I very much appreciated it.

Have a lovely Thursday!