The Strange History of the Wedding Cake

How the traditional treat came to be

wedding cake
The history of the nuptial pastry is even stranger than these modern rituals suggests. Rubberball/Mike Kemp/Getty

Ask any summer bride: her wedding cake, wreathed in hand-crafted sugar roses and sometimes worth more than her bridal dress, is the ultimate vehicle for self-expression. Princess Diana’s five-foot tall cake, adorned with marzipan Windsor coats of arms, was so vital to the royal union that two copies were made, the extra serving as a stunt double in case of accidents. Modern cake designs can range from the fussily subtle (icing patterns that echo the embroidery on the bride’s dress, for instance) to the downright outrageous: cakes resembling favorite cycling paths, log cabins, iPods, snow plows, or Hawaiian volcanoes (that actually spew smoke). One recent bride opted for a full-size edible replica of herself; another, the town square from “Back to the Future.” And if the happy couple doesn’t have the heart to devour the masterpiece—well, these days they might not have to. To cut costs, elaborate cakes are sometimes crafted out of Styrofoam, with a single real slice built in for the sake of the cutting ceremony. Guests are served a simple sheet cake carved discreetly in the kitchen.

The history of the nuptial pastry, though, is even stranger than these modern rituals suggests.  In ancient Rome, marriages were sealed when the groom smashed a barley cake over the bride’s head. (Luckily, tiaras were not fashionable then.) In medieval England, newlyweds smooched over a pile of buns, supposedly ensuring a prosperous future. Unmarried guests sometimes took home a little piece of cake to tuck under their pillow.

Perhaps this was preferable to eating it. One early British recipe for “Bride’s Pye” mixed cockscombs, lamb testicles, sweetbreads, oysters and (mercifully) plenty of spices. Another version called for boiled calf’s feet.

By the mid sixteenth century, though, sugar was becoming plentiful in England. The more refined the sugar, the whiter it was. Pure white icing soon became a wedding cake staple. Not only did the color allude to the bride’s virginity, as Carol Wilson points out in her Gastronomica article “Wedding Cake: A Slice of History,” but the whiteness was “a status symbol, a display of the family’s wealth.” Later, tiered cakes, with their cement-like supports of decorative dried icing, also advertised affluence. Formal wedding cakes became bigger and more elaborate through the Victorian age. In 1947, when Queen Elizabeth II (then Princess Elizabeth) wed Prince Philip, the cake weighed 500 pounds.

It's just dessert, right? It disappears with the guests. But today’s Bridezilla might be able to justify her towering concoction, because the most famous cakes become immortal. Pieces of Queen Victoria’s 167-year-old wedding cake are on display at Windsor Castle this year, for instance. And a slice of the 1871 wedding cake of her daughter, Princess Louise, was recently auctioned off at an antiques fair for $215.  It was a scandalous wedding, because Louise married “a commoner,” but there was nothing common about the cake, which took three months to create.  Wrapped in parchment paper, the slice was stashed in a “cabinet of curiosity” for all these years. Its texture has been described as “firm.”

—by Abigail Tucker

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