Over the weekend I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of a couple of close friends from highschool. It got me thinking about wedding traditions, particularly the wedding cake. I thought that it would be interesting to explore the its origin, and how it has developed throughout history.
The original concept for the wedding cake can be found in the ancient Roman Empire. Unlike the sweet and heavily iced cakes of the 21st century, these were made of whole wheat flour. Although the preparation and decoration of the cakes was vastly different at this time, it still enjoyed the same attention and focus.
There are some curious wedding cake customs that are now long forgotten. Let’s just say that they are somewhat more eccentric than merely witnessing the newly weds cut the cake together…
For example, the aforementioned ancient bread cake was broken into small pieces over the bride’s head. Upon completing this ritual, guests would eat the pieces, as it was considered it to be a good omen. Can I just say that nobody better try this on my wedding day. I’m not getting up at 5am for styling just to have it turned into bread-hair.
From Medieval England, there are accounts of a custom that involved placing large amounts of sweet buns in front of the newly weds who would then attempt to kiss over the pile. If they were successful, it was considered as a sign that the couple would bear many children. This obsession with child-bearing also explains why fruit cake eventually became traditional at weddings – they were a sign of fertility and prosperity.
Interestingly, the tradition of the sweet bun pile also unwittingly gave birth to a famous delicacy. It is said that a French pastry chef witnessed this custom in England and was inspired thusly to create the Croquembouche – a French wedding cake made out of a tower of profiteroles, topped with a halo of spun sugar. It was to become the signiature French wedding cake…as well as an elimination challenge in every season of Master Chef.
Around late 17th century, the wedding cake came to be known as the bride’s pie. Generally, they were mince pies made from sugary sweet breads. Every wedding guest was expected to eat a piece as it was considered both rude as well as extremely bad luck not to do so. A glass ring was hidden inside the pie, and it was believed that the female guest who found it would be the next one to be wed. This is of course reminiscent of the modern tradition of catching the bouquet.
Another interesting tradition from the 17th century was keeping a piece of cake under an unwed girl’s pillow. The custom was to break the cake into tiny pieces, which then were passed through the bride’s wedding ring. These pieces were then offered to the female guests to be placed under their pillows. By following this ritual, it was believed that they would dream of their future husband.
The 17th century also gave birth to the tradition of having two cakes – the bride’s and the groom’s. Personally, I was under the impression that this was a relatively new concept that allowed modern grooms to have a cake that wasn’t horrifyingly girly. Alas, it’s origins can be found in history.
Traditionally, the groom’s cake was a dark coloured fruit cake and was quite small in size. Comparatively, the bride’s was a simple, but large pound cake with white icing, which was used to symbolize virginity and purity.
It was during the 19th century that the groom’s cake began to disappear, as the bride’s was becoming more popular. This was largely due to sugar becoming more easily obtainable. However, this sweet commodity was still expensive and as such, only wealthy families could afford to have pure white icing. Consequently, it became something of a status symbol. This was proven only further when white icing was dubbed ‘royal icing’ after Queen Victoria used it for her own wedding cake.
The modern wedding cake, as we know it, originated from the wedding of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany. He was married in 1882 and his cake was the first in recorded history to be completely edible. It was baked in separate layers and contained very dense icing. When the icing hardened the tiers were then stacked together – a groundbreaking innovation that had never been used before. Modern wedding cakes still use this method, but because of their size, internal support is sometimes added to each layer in the form of dowels.
So there you have it, a very brief history of the wedding cake. I must say that I had a fantastic time researching this topic – there were far more interesting and quirky anecdotes than I expected. In light of modern cakes being so versatile, and more of a reflection of the couple’s personalities, it was fascinating to discover the origins and long dead traditions of yesteryear.
In finishing, I’d like to thank Ryan and Tara for being the inspiration for this post. I know you’re going to have a wonderful (and hopefully cake-filled) life together.
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