Before flavorings, before food coloring and way before fondant icing, wedding cakes were fruit cake. This dense cake – which has unrefined flour as its base – is filled with raisins, cherries and almonds, fruit staples of the English countryside. The easy gathering and abundant supply of this cake’s ingredients made it easy to provide every guest with a slice, while its density allowed bakers to create a towering creation of dessert.
Perhaps because fruit cake is not that popular in the United States or perhaps because there is, in fact, only one fruit cake in the entire nation that we all keep mailing to another recipient because WE certainly don’t want it (ha!), fruit cake at American weddings never really took hold. Historically, there was no specific type of cake served to celebrate weddings in the nation.
Then, in the early 1900s, someone remembered that, in the U.S., white symbolized purity and the wedding cake the hope for the couple’s success and happiness. The result was that, for a time, wedding cakes were entirely white, consisting of white vanilla cake with white vanilla icing.
In the mid-1900s, when immigration to the U.S. increased, Americans realized that the stately, reception-style wedding celebration was not the only way to do things. Specifically, they watched as other cultures fed guests through buffets. And, as we all know, what is the best part of a buffet? The dessert table, of course!
The effect of this introduction did not become apparent until the 1990s, when intercultural marriages became more commonplace. The result, however, was the creation of dessert bars.
Today, many a couple offer guests the option to select a slice of cake or satiate their sweet tooth on delectable treats offered in the form of a dessert bar. Sometimes, these bars consist of a selection of candies, while other times they may be laden with cookies, chocolate covered strawberries, brownies, ice cream, éclairs…okay, I’m going to stop before I run to the nearest bakery.
In the end, though, what couples realized is that the cost of a wedding cake, which can range between $7-$12 here in DC, requires that it either taste good or not be the sole dessert option. It’s just not worth the cost to feed a slice of $7.00 bland cake to 200 people ($1400!!)! Instead, couples began offering other desserts and ordering a smaller cake.
The one tradition we (mostly) retained from our British founders, however, is saving the topmost layer of the cake for the couple to slice on their one year anniversary. Yet we changed the meaning of this activity: in Britain, the topmost layer was designated to be cut upon the christening of the couple’s first child, while in the U.S. the cutting occurred solely to celebrate the couple’s first year of marriage.
So go ahead, have your cake in whatever form you wish, and make sure you eat it, too!