A marriage may be between two people, but weddings tend to be between the couple and everyone else. Wedding guests called upon to bear witness to the ceremony, and to shower a new couple with verbal and financial blessings, can shape the proceedings and meanings of marital rites as much as the bride and groom do. I’ve played a number of performative roles in the weddings of loved ones — bridesmaid, maid of honor, toast-giver, poetry-reader, choreographer, and stage manager — and from the wings, I’ve observed how often the friends and family of the new couple feel entitled to weigh in on what is and is not done properly. Personally, I lucked out: My own parents’ rules for the ceremonial passage into a hallowed state of matrimony were simple and few.
Rule 1: Don’t get married until you’re 30.
Rule 1b: But you don’t have to get married ever, if you don’t want to.
Rule 2: If you do decide to marry — after age 30, that is — you are entirely free to elope, and save the money for a washing machine or something.
Rule 2b: But you do have to bring your mother a piece of wedding cake.
The wedding is optional, the wedding cake is mandatory — and not just any wedding cake. If possible, it should be a white cake, fragrant with vanilla and thickly frosted; acceptable variations would include a dense pound cake sealed in shortening-based sugar paste from the bottom tier of a cake castle, or a slice of the fluffy angel-food cake that floated precariously as the top layer of such a centerpiece. I still think of this white-on-white three-tiered cake as “traditional” wedding cake, although of course I’ve had many other kinds: marbled cake; red velvet cake; cupcakes stacked on a tiered display; coconut cake with lemon curd filling. Some weddings offered a choice between “traditional” white and chocolate cake, since not many people besides my mother and I favor plain vanilla cake; others eschewed cake entirely and offered wedding pies instead.
There is a lot of pressure on a marrying couple to make their wedding unique and special, even quirky — the better to go viral! But there is an equal pressure (sometimes tacit, but often vocalized by relatives) to situate a wedding within a time-honored tradition of weddings, creating — in spite of history, which suggests otherwise — an allusion to the timelessness of the institution as a fundamentally human expression of love. So all of these newlyweds — the Team Pie couples, the couples offering light and dark cakes, the ones who stack up tiers of smaller hand-held pastries — will be pleased to know that they all celebrated their nuptials with historically-precedented “traditional” wedding desserts.
In the history of wedding cakes, the white-iced white cake is one of the newest, and more or less an American idiosyncrasy. A pure white cake requires very refined sugar and bleached flour — products that weren’t widely available and affordable until the twentieth century. When white cakes started to appear at American weddings, they were mostly served as a seasonally appropriate addition (for example, at Southern weddings, where a fluffy white cake might join a heavier “traditional” wedding cake) or as a cost-saver, as during the lean years of the Depression and Second World War. But in the 1950s and 60s, white cake was suddenly seen as fashionable, with several advantages over its predecessor in wedding cake history. White cakes were summery, which was important as summertime weddings became the fashion and the norm; they were relatively inexpensive and easy to make at home in a period that emphasized domesticity; they were trendy, representing socially acceptable departure from tradition. The women who were getting married as my mother came of age in midcentury America wanted their wedding cakes in fashionable white instead of old-fashioned… fruitcake.
Yes, fruitcake: “Traditional” wedding cakes in Anglophone countries share a common ancestor with that most mocked of holiday desserts. From the 19th century until the rise of fluffy white cakes in the 20th, the standard centerpiece of the wedding feast was a dark cake — sometimes called black cake — stuffed with dried fruits and candied citrus peel, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, and soaked in rum or brandy. Often, the cake was encased in a layer of marzipan or almond paste, then iced with the whitest of white sugar frosting — a difficult process before the industrial age, so the whiteness of the icing signaled a family’s ability to buy the finest ingredients and employ the most skillful of confectioners. (Hence the term royal icing.) This dark wedding cake was rich both in flavor profile and in expense, as most of its ingredients were imported from the Near East or West Indian colonies; thus, such a cake was only created for the most special of occasions, which meant marriage and Christmas.
When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, their royal wedding cake was an enormously wide single-tier dark cake, topped with a sugar sculpture of Britannia blessing the royal couple. 18 years later, when their first daughter Vicki was wed to the German Emperor, the Queen of an increasingly stable England and Empress of India commissioned the creation of a many-tiered architectural wonder. Princess Vicki’s wedding cake practically embodied the conflicting aesthetics of Neoclassicism and Romanticism that were prevalent at the time of her nuptials: The cake was soaring, smooth, and white as marble in the manner of a temple or tomb, and also encrusted with ornamental figures and an effusion of flowers. This cake was described in great detail in newspapers throughout the empire and across the pond, where American heiresses tried to out-do one another in wedding cake height and weight (which were dutifully reported in the New York Times). Less wealthy families might increase the ornament and height of their wedding cakes by placing a vase full of flowers on top; though the dense, dark cake lent itself to stacking, a certain amount of cake fakery and scaffolding was necessary to pull off the 300-pound, five-foot edible edifices that well-off weddings boasted of.
What we’d consider the traditional shape of a wedding cake — tiered, ornamental, and daubed with real or sugared flowers — might be traced back to the tabloid coverage of Victorian royal weddings, but the tradition of having a large decorative confection as the centerpiece of a feast goes back much further in history and farther than the British Isles. Arguably, the English bakers that sculpted sugar for the Victorian royal weddings were influenced by the French croquembouche, a tower of fluffy pastries stacked and lightly glued together with caramel, intended to provide each guest with an individual sweet (not unlike today’s cupcake tiers). But royal courts across Europe had been making sugar and almond-paste sculptures — often called “subtleties” and marked with verse or riddles — for centuries. Cake itself is a modern invention, dependent on the technologies of refined sugars and flours, but the custom of presenting a show-stopping dish at a special occasion is ancient. Before cake — from the middle ages all the way to the 18th century in some parts of Britain — among the set who could not necessarily afford sugar, the traditional wedding pastry was bride pie. This delicacy was filled with rich meats: oysters, sweetbreads, cockscombs, lamb testicles, and that sort of thing.
The appearance of a meat dish, let alone a pie, in this litany of nuptial desserts begs the question: why cake, now? Why cake, ever? What purpose does wedding cake serve in the ceremony of marriage? One might as well ask: What purpose does marriage serve at any given place and time? Because the answer has varied as widely over time and place as the ingredients and stylization of cake has changed. Wedding cake history is essentially the history of how marriage is imagined and valued in any given community — and typically, the marrying couple is given the best of what the community can offer: the richest cuts of meat, the most expensive imports, the most personal and yet time-honored symbols. Beyond that, the cake is subjected to utterly individual and regional symbolism. Sometimes the cake is cut by the bride and groom together, their first action as a couple; sometimes the newlyweds’ first action as a couple is to kiss over the top of a precariously piled croquembouche. At other times and places, the cake is broken over the bride’s head, or (more commonly) pre-sliced and packaged in pretty boxes for guests to take home. (Many such boxes were also mailed to guests who could not attend, or even sold in the case of high-profile weddings; that’s why the mummified remains of Britain’s royal cakes keep turning up today.) Some cakes are decorated or embedded with charms that are said to foretell the romantic future of those whose portions contain them; other cakes themselves supposedly play fortuneteller, tucked under the pillow of those who whom to dream of a future spouse.
But despite the diversity of wedding cake styles and traditions, the one constant is that all of the wedding guests (and even some relatives who could not attend) are meant to partake in some of it. Eating together is one of the most primally communal activities human beings can do, so it’s not surprising that so many wedding rituals across time and the globe are capped by a feast. Marriage is a tenuous state; to get married is to enact what philosophers call a performative speech act, which means that you’re married if you say you are (I do) and if that utterance is observed and recorded by your community. A wedding is, essentially, a social agreement (and, in our day and age, a legal one as well). A cake, on the other hand, is not hypothetical. A cake — or a choux, or a cupcake, or a pie — is solid and pleasing to the senses, and so better able to bear the weight of symbolism. Which is, traditionally: we, your community, have witnessed your marriage, and we will now honor your union by partaking of its celebration. With this cake (or cupcake, or pie), we thee wed.