By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
American wedding receptions of today are divorced from many of the marital celebration traditions in the middle 1800s.
First, 170 years ago, most weddings took place in the morning, so the reception meal was breakfast.
Second, there was no entertainment like a band.
And most importantly for those who can’t wait till the cake is served, the cake was traditionally a slice of fruit cake – in a box to be taken home.
The elaborate, towering white wedding cakes of today are relative newcomers to American wedding receptions, according to Corinne Gordon, historic farm specialist with the Wood County Park District.
Gordon spoke recently at the Wood County Museum’s monthly tea on “Steaks and Cakes – Changes in Wedding Food Traditions from 1850 to Today.”
This year’s monthly tea gatherings all relate to the museum’s new exhibit on “Allure & Illusion: A Rose Colored Romance.” The exhibit showcases more than 40 local wedding dresses from 1855-2001, and addresses the foundation of marriage culture and how modern ideology is changing what it means to get married and strive for the American Dream.
Now, back to the cake.
More than 170 years ago, the options were very limited. Wedding cakes were traditionally dense rich fruit cakes with white frosting. Slices were cut ahead of time, put in individual-sized boxes and tied closed with ribbon, Gordon said.
Women not yet wed often put the cake boxes under their pillows to dream about their future husbands.
But then advancements in the kitchen opened up options.
Improvements in flour processing created lighter flour, white sugar became more available, stove technology improved, and whisks were adopted in kitchens.
“That allowed for the development of pound cake” rather than just fruit cakes, Gordon said.
British chemist Alfred Bird was the first to create a form of baking powder in 1843. He was motivated to develop a yeast-free leavener because his wife was allergic to eggs and yeast. The invention made it substantially easier to make cake.
“Before that, you had to beat eggs for an hour,” Gordon said.
Cookbooks offered helpful suggestions, like use a wooden spoon – not hands – to mix cake batches. And since measuring cups were not available, women were advised to find a teacup of the right size for measuring ingredients.
Then in 1894, less bitter chocolate became easier to acquire – and advancement no doubt welcomed by many.
Since most weddings were held in the morning and at the bride’s home, breakfast was served at the reception.
Gordon said it was considered rude to congratulate the bride.
“That implied she was lucky to be proposed to,” she said.
And no entertainment – like music – was provided at the reception.
“It was considered an honor to just be invited,” Gordon said.
The breakfasts ranged from simple to extravagant, with the menus including items like goose pate, truffled tongue, hot clam broth, turtle soup and bonbons. Farm families may have planned ahead for weddings and set aside a pig for the reception, she said.
As wedding times shifted to later in the day, the menus changed. By the mid 1900s, white wedding cakes – decorated with flowers or miniature bride and groom figurines – became the norm.
The cake was no longer pre-packaged to take home, but became a multi-tiered showpiece at receptions.
Gordon showed a photo of “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro with an elaborately decorated six-tiered cake.
“These were amazing, ridiculous cakes that maybe put pressure on more and more people to do fancier cakes,” with some even adorned with fountains, Gordon said.
Often a small tier of the cake was preserved in the family’s freezer, to be taken out on the couple’s one-year anniversary or the christening of their first child.
A recent trend, Gordon said, is for the betrothed to select local foods for their reception menu. And in some cases the cakes have become very personalized, she said, showing a cake with Fruity Pebbles cereal inside.
Attendees at the tea shared their own stories of their wedding reception food. A woman of Polish descent told of her morning wedding in 1966, followed with a full breakfast for guests.
A woman with modest means told of her 1976 wedding reception meal done on a budget – ham and cheese sandwiches and potato salad.
Another woman told of her reception being catered by her mother, with her father insisting on handling the cake. When the delivery truck arrived with several wedding cakes for the day, the bride-to-be spotted one with gaudy plastic purple orchids.
“You betcha, that was mine,” she said, laughing about it now. Her mom got a hot knife and quickly removed the orchids.
“What was he thinking?” she said of her father.
And one woman told of having a piece of wedding cake over 100 years old in her freezer. Her grandmother had sent the piece to her sister in Oklahoma to put under her pillow to dream about her future husband.
At some point, the cake was moved to the granddaughter’s freezer, where she is reluctant to toss it out.
“I still have it – I don’t know what to do with it,” she said.