Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Something Old, Something New, Something... ew, this cake is gross...

Dear Tricia, With my pending nuptials a mere days away, I got to thinking... why does wedding cake always taste awful? Wait, have I ever liked a cake at a wedding? Also do I remember anyone uttering the words, "Wow this cake is amazing!!!!!" No, so why do we have wedding cake? Where in history did they start serving cake at weddings? I know it is really not a problem question, but thought you may know the answer.

My dearest friend Doug wrote me an email, on the week of his wedding to his lovely fiance Kacey. I'm super happy to oblige him, and all of you, with a super informative answer. (Doug, this counts as part of your wedding present. See you in a couple of days.)
Oh, wedding cake. Cake cake cake. For those of you who know me, you probably know that on the contrary to most women, I HATE wedding cakes. I've decorated my fair share of them, and while I love the cake decorating part, I hate dealing with the bride and her mother part. I hate transporting cakes, I hate the stress of setting them up, I hate serving them to drunk people who just did the chicken dance, and have I already said that I hate dealing with brides and their mothers? I'm pretty sure that wedding cakes haven't always been this dramatic and annoying, but to make sure its not just me being jaded and bitter again, I looked up the history behind them. Lets go all the way back to the Roman era, shall we?
Back in the days of the Roman Empire, before Ace of Cakes was on the Food Network, a loaf of barley or wheat bread was baked so that the groom could break it open over his bride's head. Now whether or not he broke it open by actually making contact with his beloveds skull, or just broke it in half with his hands is beyond me. I'd prefer to imagine that he'd break it in half with his two hands like a gentleman, but the other one sure does make me giggle. The crumbs that dropped to the floor were supposed to symbolize a lifetime of good luck and fertility, and the guests were supposed to eat the crumbs. Mmm... who doesn't love feasting on bread crumbs that fell on the floor? Those Romans really knew how to party.
Moving onto Medieval England, sweet buns with stacked up in a pile and the bride and groom were supposed to try and kiss over the stack. If they could, it symbolized a lifetime of prosperity. (I think that "prosperous" equaled making it through The Plague.)
In the 17th century, the first historical dessert baked specifically for a wedding came around: Bride Pie. It was actually a savory pie filled with mince meats and decorated with a fancy pastry crust. A ring was hidden inside and whomever got the ring would supposedly be the next to marry. This seems like a pre-cursor to the whole circus-like event of tossing of the bouquet, but it seems much less lame to me. (Come on ladies, no one likes hearing a wedding DJ calling you out by name to catch the bouquet, along with a list of all the other single ladies at the reception.) Since people didn't sue a baker for finding random objects in their food back in the day, this was a long standing tradition until the 1800's.
When the mid 1800's rolled around, wedding cakes became more of what we know them as today: white cakes with decorative white frosting. Queen Victoria is rumored to have popularized the fancy, Victorian (those Victorians loved ornamental crap) style wedding cakes: her wedding to Prince Albert supposedly included a 300 pound wedding cake. Aside from the fact that white was a symbol of purity and virginity, refined white sugar was super expensive, and using it to make white frosting and cake was a display of the family's wealth. Big pimpin' = white frosting. They don't every show that in rap videos, do they?
Let's move on to present day, where Ace of Cakes rules the land of TV. (And I'm totally fine with Ace of Cakes. Let me make that clear. I've made the trek to Baltimore just to get a photo of Charm City Cakes.) Throughout the 20th century, wedding cakes were increasingly seen as tiered or stacked cakes, sometimes separated by columns, and always frosted with decorative designs or flowers. And eventually, the designs of the cake took on more importance than the actual cakes themselves. I know this from experience: do brides ever want to talk about the flavor of cake first? No. They have a photo of what they want the cake to look like and the tasting comes in last. Sorry, taste buds. The cake is considered as much as a centerpiece of a wedding as the dress. Perhaps we can blame this on the 40-billion-dollar-a-year wedding industry. Or maybe we can call out all of the reality television shows about not just the wedding, but the wedding cake itself. Its almost become a sporting event to watch the construction and decoration of a wedding cake... the visual impression of the cake has simply become more coveted than the quality of the cake. More and more brides are choosing to have an 8-10 tiered cake with half of those cakes being made out of Styrofoam and frosted for a more dramatic effect. Do you know what its like to serve a cake to a crowd of 200 while discreetly trying to poke your fingers through the frosting to sort out the Styrofoam layers from the cake layers? Welcome to my life.
In the 90's, when fondant started to become popular (check out any of my cake decorating entries for more details on my anti-fondant stance), it became much more popular to see bright, primary colors on cakes, tilted layers, giant bows and crystals suspended from the cakes, with much less focus on boring pastels. Thank god. But this has also contributed to the focus shifting towards what the cake looks like, rather than focusing on the flavor.
So, to answer your question, bakeries are focusing more on the decoration of the cake and less on the quality of the cake because there's a demand for it. Millions of brides want their fairy tale dessert: even if its half way made out of Styrofoam and tastes mediocre. But since wedding cakes have evolved so much over the past few hundred years, there's definitely potential for them to keep evolving into perhaps, something simpler, or maybe obsolete altogether. (Which would certainly be my preference, but I probably don't have to tell you that.)
If you do go to a wedding and the cake is phenomenal, let me know so that I can alert the media and plug the hell out of the bakery. And if you continue to eat crappy wedding cake, my apologies... but the bride probably deserves a few dirty looks.

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