Cakes have been used to celebrate ceremonies since ancient times, and their cutting and communal enjoyment marks a special moment in life or throughout the year. The most celebratory, is, perhaps, the wedding cake. They are admired, photographed, enjoyed, and
saved. Contemporary wedding cake is easily recognized by its tiered shape and white hue. This wasn’t how it was enjoyed in the times of Julius Caesar, and just like King Cake, it took a few steps to get to its current form.
Ancient Rome had some pretty nifty celebrations and traditions that influence modern holidays. In Carol Wilson’s article for Gastronomica, Wedding Cake: A Slice of History, she explains how Romans ended the wedding ceremony by crumbling a grain cake, mustaceum, over the bride’s head, and in a ritual called confarreatio, shared some of those crumbles together. The crumbling of the cake eventually morphed into tossing rice at the bride and groom. The sharing of the cake is still practiced today in the highly celebrated moment where the newlyweds cut the cake together and feed it to each other. Other traditions, like saving a piece of wedding cake in the freezer for a year, are more recent, dating from the end of the 1800s, as that is only possible with modern refrigeration.
In the Middle Ages, the tradition in England was to pile little cakes up very high. Then, similarly to a game of Jenga, the bride and groom would have to kiss over the top of the cake, trying not to knock it over. If they succeeded, their marriage would be blessed with good luck. If they failed, then not only would they have bad luck, but their cake would be on the ground, a true tragedy.
How the modern wedding cake evolved into a structured tiered cake is up for debate. The invention of cake tins in the 17th century allowed for the creation of shaped cakes. One story tells of a French chef who went to England in the 1600s, and was so scandalized by the cake piling game, he started stacking cakes with a broom in the middle to keep them stable. Another theory regarding the shape of the modern wedding cake is that during the Georgian Era, a pastry chef was inspired by the steeple of St. Bride’s church, and used it to inspire the shape of his cake. The first celebrity chef, Antonin Carême, is famous for many culinary achievements. He made Napoleon’s wedding cake and is also credited with creating the croquembouche, France’s wedding cake. Again, the cake climbs to a peak. In 1882, at the wedding of Prince Leopald, Duke of Albany, dense icing was spread over the separate tiers and allowed to harden, allowing them to be stacked together. This cake solidified not only the icing, but the cake shape. Today, wedding cakes keep the tiered look, but with the ever-growing popularity of cupcakes and other single serving confections, cupcake and cookie towers often make an appearance.
Along with the structure, the other equally most important signifier is that the cake is white. Bridal gowns weren’t always white, and neither were wedding cakes. Cakes at weddings started being caked in white during the 17th century with the innovation of icing. It was quite expensive, and only the very wealthy could afford to have a white cake. Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert was a wedding of true love, and perhaps that is why her lavish and romantic wedding inspired so many trends to follow. (Or maybe it had to do with all the media coverage the wedding received.) While white icing was used in wedding cakes before hers, after it was front and center of her 300 pound, 3 yard long cake. Victoria’s wedding was the first to set another trend — having a little bride and groom at sculpture to top it off.
Madina Papadopoulos is a New York-based freelance writer, author, and regular
contributor to Paste. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter