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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Wedding cakes today are in the news and legal briefs, as same-sex couples occasionally conflict with caterers with religious objections who refuse to prepare a cake for their wedding. The nature and resolution of this dispute is not the subject of this essay, at least not directly; rather, I want to address a question in the conflict which has been largely ignored. For in the same-sex couple’s desire for a cake, to the point of offense at being denied one, and in the baker’s considered refusal, at the risk of fines and sanction, to prepare one, both parties acknowledge the fundamental importance of a wedding cake to a wedding celebration. Why is it the cake, and not some other element of the wedding celebration, such as announcements, flowers, seating, meals, or music, which is the occasion of conflict? The couple and the baker may disagree about the marriage, but they apparently agree about the cake. If they are like most Americans, neither party could explain fully why they feel it is important, though they sense, correctly, that it is.
This essay attempts to explore the cultural meanings that underlie this tacit sense of the cake’s importance, by reviewing some of the relatively obscure history and scholarship about the significance of this particular confection in Anglo-American culture. By doing so, we may be able to articulate more clearly why the wedding cake is important, indeed central, to wedding celebrations in American life—and why it is uniquely conflictual in the case of a same-sex wedding.
The central argument runs as follows. As an artifact of material culture, the American wedding cake does not carry value primarily as food but as symbol. In the words of Simon Charsley, the foremost anthropological authority on the topic, the cake’s basic function is “marking the event at which it appears as a wedding.” But the cake, with its associated rituals and roots in Victorian ideals, also signifies much more: Its primary symbolic referent is heterosexual fertility, focused on the body of the bride. For conscientiously opposed bakers, this heterosexual symbolism clashes with the celebration of same-sex weddings, particularly the wedding of two men.
Food, Art, Ceremony, Participation
As most Americans who have ever attended a wedding reception can attest, a large, prominent cake was very likely a central element of the feast. Although not required by any civil or religious law, the presence of a cake, of a very specific form and character, is virtually universal on such occasions. The cake is present not only to be eaten but also, and more importantly, to be viewed, and to serve as a focus for well-scripted rituals that signify the nature and purpose of the occasion. The cake thus conveys four layers of interconnected meaning of more or less increasing significance: food, art, ceremony, and participation.
Cake is, of course, an edible confection, and a decorated or sculpted cake is clearly recognizable as art. In an essay titled “Food as an art form,” the anthropologist Mary Douglas points out that the fact that food serves a biological function, namely nourishment, does not negate the artistic possibility of cooking and baking any more than the fact that a building serves a biological function, namely shelter, negates the artistic possibility of architecture. Baking is no less art for being, like architecture or photography, one of the applied arts.
A well-crafted wedding cake is thus both food and art, but its main purpose at the wedding reception is neither gustatory nor decorative. Although creating a wedding cake requires culinary and artistic skill, the skill is employed to a higher function than simply confection or display. The cake is present not primarily to be eaten or visually pleasing, although both these qualities enhance its effectiveness, but as an important symbolic artifact that serves as a focus for well-scripted rituals that signify the nature and purpose of the occasion.
In the structure of what anthropologists call the American “food system,” the wedding dinner or reception is the highest level ceremonial feast, replete with traditional ceremonial and celebratory elements,among which the rituals involving the wedding cake are central. Though the menu and timing can vary widely, the elements of the feast are “rigid in structure,” in keeping with the formal character of the event. Another indication of its premiere status in American life is that it is the one feast in which, regardless of social class or family resources, customarily “the preparation of this event is not done by the hosting family but is contracted and paid for.”
For Douglas, the wedding cake epitomizes food art that extends into ceremonial participation. She points out that a “researcher from Mars” who knew nothing of Anglo-American weddings,
would perhaps be baffled to make up his mind whether the central focus of the ceremony was the marriage or the cake. . . . [T]he complexity of ritual [of the Kava ceremonial in Tonga or the tea ceremonial in Japan] would pale into insignificance compared with the ceremonial surrounding the cutting and distribution of the wedding cake. At military weddings he would see the bride try to cut the cake with a sword, unable to succeed without the help of her spouse. He would see in photographs the bride standing near the cake about to cut it. . . . Asking about the mythology of the cake, he would hear that those young maidens who receive a portion should sleep with it under their pillow and dream of their future husband, and also that the top portion of this towering three-tier confection should be put aside and kept for the christening ceremony of the first child.
Charsley recounts more closely the customs of the wedding reception, for most of which the cake is an essential artifact:
Receptions generally begin with photography for the bridal party. This involves the first use made of the cake. The standard series of professionally-taken photographs includes the cutting of the cake. . . . The bouquets which the bride and bridesmaids have earlier been carrying are generally arranged around the cake. For the photograph, bride and groom are marshalled into position, together holding the knife with its blade resting on the icing of the bottom tier and both looking at the camera.
The actual cutting of the cake takes place toward the middle of the reception in a highly scripted ceremony. The cutting, followed by the newly married couple sharing the cake, first with each other and then with the rest of the guests, is the central ceremonial event of the reception. Derraugh’s bestselling book of wedding etiquette provides explicit directions: “The bride holds the knife in her right hand, with the bridegroom’s right hand on hers, and her left hand on top.” This pose is an awkward and frequently not entirely successful method to cut through the stiff icing of the cake. Typically, after the couple achieves an initial break in the icing, and each feeds the other small pieces of the cake, it “is taken away for small pieces to be cut for distribution to the guests,” a procedure which emphasizes the symbolic nature of the couple’s actions. Charsley notes that this “joint ‘cutting of the cake’ as a procedure remote from the practical business of cutting pieces for serving to guests . . . was to become (starting in the 1930s) one of the clearest and most essential rites of marrying in the remainder of the twentieth century.”
After the distribution of the cake:
. . . Nothing is made of the eating itself, either by the bride and groom or by guests. . . . Some may wrap pieces to take home, with jokes—from grandmothers—about putting them under their pillows to dream of the one they will marry. . . . At the end of the reception, the cake remaining is taken away by the families of the couple. The top tier is retained intact. Whatever is left of the others is used for sending, usually in small, specially printed wedding-cake boxes, to people who were unable to be at the wedding. . . . The top tier is said to be “for the christening” . . . 
These actions make clear “a basic reason why the cake is such an inevitable item of wedding expenditure. A whole series of events expected in the context of a wedding would be impossible without it: an essential photograph, the cutting, the toast, and the distribution of both cake and favours at the wedding and afterwards.” As one hotel manager interviewed by Charsley succinctly put it: “no wedding’s a wedding without a cake.”
A Cake Unlike Any Other
The appearance of the cake customarily adheres to a fairly precise specification, which is significant for its use as a symbolic marker for marriage. As Charsley describes, the typical cake
is a construction of three large cakes, “tiers,” arranged in declining size one above the other. . . . The tiers of the cake match; each is covered with marzipan and then iced with a smooth white icing. This is built up in layers and has a more or less elaborate piped decoration applied on its surface, also in icing. The upper tiers are supported by pillars. Further but inedible ornaments are attached to the individual tiers, mostly on the sides, and a decoration is placed on the very top. This top piece may be a miniature bride and groom, a confection of artificial flowers and feathers, or a small vase of flowers, real or artificial.
Although there is not “absolute conformity,” Charsley observes, “[t]here is no doubt that a specification of this general kind exists.” His survey of over a thousand cakes produced in one year by a leading bakery found that while alternatives were offered—pastel blue or pink instead of white, two tiers instead of three, with or without columns—70% of the cakes conformed to the specification presented above.
This customary form and style, unlike that of any other cake in common American usage, emphasizes that the cake signals a wedding and nothing else. Douglas observes: “our researcher from Mars will be disappointed if he thinks he can find three-tiered cakes at funerals or Sundays or birthdays. The wedding cake is highly specialized for one social function.” “The wedding cake,” Charsley concludes, “whether ‘traditional’ or in new styles, is no ordinary object.”
Although there are precursors in Roman and medieval wedding feasts, and notwithstanding the confused claims of some wedding etiquette “experts,” the white three-tiered cake that is common today originated only in the Victorian era. The emergence of “cake” as a recognizable confection and culinary category distinct from bread only occurred following the industrial revolution of the late seventeenth century, when the technology of baking became sufficiently precise and sugar became for the first time readily available and affordable. “Very little of the modern sense of ‘cake,’” Charsley notes, “had emerged until the seventeenth century. . . . Then and before, if cakes are recorded at all they were a distinctively flat form of bread, at times even as simple as the modern [pancake].” The thick sugar icing that is today a distinctive feature of the wedding cake did not appear until the late eighteenth century, after the 1769 invention of the “double icing” method, which resulted in a strong, smooth surface, and the rapid expansion of commercial wedding cake craft shops, which mechanized the laborious beating and stirring necessary. Notably, the “bride’s cake” was the first kind of cake to be iced in this manner.
It was, arguably, a single iconic cake which precipitated the central specification of today’s tiered wedding cake topped by an image of a bride and groom. During the early part of the nineteenth century, elaborate and expensive meals in the newly formed restaurants had become occasions of conspicuous consumption displaying wealth and status in both France and England; the haute cuisine, formerly the exclusive province of French royalty, became accessible to the masses, at least those with sufficient means, following the French revolution of 1791. Confections and arrangements of fruit and ice literally became haute (high or elevated), increasingly objects of display and ornamentation as well as confection. In 1840, this trend found new expression in the wedding banquet of Queen Victoria, which presented the British populace with a cake of outsized dimensions that definitively crossed the line from food to spectacle. (See Figure 1.) The cake’s bottom later, more than 10 feet in circumference and weighing over 30 pounds, served primarily as the base for a pedestal upon which stood three distinct tiers, topped by an elaborately carved scenario of Brittania blessing the Queen and her bridegroom, Prince Albert.
Figure 1, Wedding Cake of Queen Victoria, 1840 (Courtesy of Victoriana Magazine, Public Domain)
The first of its kind, Victoria’s wedding cake immediately became an object of intense publicity, “with a portrait of the massive confection drawn (‘from life’) hung in every print shop window in London during the week preceding the ceremony[,]” and crowds of commoners thronging the bakery to see the real thing. (See Figure 2.) “This media frenzy,” writes Emily Allen, “set the standard for all subsequent royal weddings during the Victorian period—and there were quite a number, as all of Victoria and Albert’s nine children married.” The Victorian royal weddings, which set the standard of fashion for wedding dress and ceremony, were accompanied by increasingly vertical tiered cakes. (See Figure 3.) By the end of the nineteenth century, use of the commercially produced white tiered cake that had become a fixture of the royal weddings was widespread.
Figure 2, Crowds clamoring to see the wedding cake of Queen Victoria, 1840 (Source: Allen , Fig. 2. “Ward’s Confectioners. Richard Doyle’s A Journal Kept by Richard Doyle in the Year 1840 , 12. Courtesy of Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.)
Figure 3, Royal Wedding Cake of Princess Royal Victoria Adelaide, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, 1858, in a newspaper illustration. The three-tiered cake, clearly designed for display, features a statuette of the bride only. (Source: Pinterest, public domain. Marriage of the Princess Royal and Prince Frederick William of Prussia. The Wedding Cake. Illustrated London News, 6 February 1858: 129.)
Victoria famously “broke with royal tradition by being the first British monarch to wear a white wedding dress,” an act which, to subsequent interpreters and imitators, exemplified notions of “youthfulness, purity and virginity,” which were fulfilled in her own subsequent remarkable fertility. Though less often recognized, Victoria was also the first to deploy at her wedding banquet a white elevated cake, with her own image on top—an action which reinforced those same ideas, and the association of the cake as an object for public display with the public presentation of the bride. In so doing, Victoria set the pattern for the bride covered in white with a cake covered in white to together signify female virginity and fertility in Anglo-American weddings ever since.
Cake as Bride
Although the particular values and sensibilities of the Victorian era have long ago given way to other cultural trends, the Victorian-inspired wedding cake in common use today retains its function as a symbolic representation of the bride. Its color and appearance, a white cone-like shape narrow at the top and widening to the bottom, recapitulates the female form of the bride in her white wedding dress, narrow at the top and wide at the bottom. This identification was not entirely new with Victoria or her era, but simply appropriated more clearly the traditional focus on the bride as the dominant partner in the wedding celebration and on the cake as her cake. Before it began, in the early twentieth century, to be called the “wedding cake,” the cake at a wedding reception was in fact called the “bride’s cake.” (See Figure 4.)
Figure 4, An illustration from Isabella Beeton’s 1892 Book of Household Management presents the “Bride’s Cake” as the central feature of the Wedding Breakfast. (Source: p. 1,337 from the 1888 edition, via Internet Archive, public domain.)
As late as 1961 a popular wedding manual related: “… the bride’s cake is the familiar white confection served at the reception . . . ” The wedding party is often still called the “bridal” party, a contraction of a term which once signified the wedding feast itself (“bride-ale”). The head table of the reception is still often called the “bride’s table,” and the husband the “bridegroom.” Frese ably connects this traditional emphasis with its appropriation in symbol:
The wedding ritual is traditionally the “Bride’s day”; the Bride’s creation of a representation of herself. This creation of the Bride as an individual is managed through the meanings assigned to specific symbols; the flowers, the wedding dress, and the wedding cake. The knowledge that surrounds these ‘artifacts’ is passed on primarily through the female domain.
The “strong conceptual attachment of the wedding cake to the Bride” is underscored by symbols of female fertility in the cake decorations and staging, including swans, almonds, and, particularly, flowers. In the ritual system that defines the marriage at the wedding, the emphasis on fertility is an essential component of the cake’s function. For Frese, “The dress, flowers, and the wedding cake share elements of fertility and regeneration (both as a natural metaphor as well as the recreation of the social family) and therefore define in part the wedding and the Bride and Groom.”
The ritual cutting and sharing of the cake expresses the element of fertility and regeneration in a physical, almost graphic, way. Charsley attempts to interpret the ritual only in terms of unity. “Given the major theme of unity in the marriage procedure, most strikingly expressed in the Biblical image of ‘becoming one flesh,’ it is not difficult to see that in the cake cutting two people are doing what is normally the prerogative of one, and thereby asserting their unity.” But the Biblical phrase “becoming one flesh” is an allusion to sexual fecundity, in which the separate flesh of the two partners are joined into the single flesh of their offspring. The unity in view is not primarily the unity of co-operative effort (though that may be an element) but sexual unity that is fertile.
Edwards, describing the Japanese appropriation of the Western cake-cutting ritual, perceives more clearly that the significance of the cake
as a symbol of reproduction and fertility is reinforced by the form of the central act of the cake-cutting ceremony, on which all proceedings fixate: the insertion of the knife. . . . a metaphor for coitus. . . . Of course such an interpretation is not always consciously present in the minds of those who observe the ceremony. . . . But the connection suggests itself readily enough.
“The cake-cutting ceremony thus symbolically expresses the ideal that husbands and wives should produce children and contributes thereby to the wedding’s coherence as a rite of passage,” concludes Edwards. He goes so far as to add, “It is a significant comment of the conservatism of the wedding and the values it projects that the focus of its most emotional moment remains the relationship between parent and child, rather than the one it creates between husband and wife.” Frese recognizes as well the social implications of the ritual:
This [cake-cutting] ceremony is the first public sharing of food between the Bride and Groom after the exchange of vows. The cake is then carved for the communal sharing of food with the wedding guests; the focal point of the reincorporation of the Bride and Groom into their new position in society.
In sum, the joint cutting followed by the joint and then communal sharing of the cake can be understood as ritually enacting the regeneration of human society that is in prospect at every wedding. The natural fertility of the couple, expressed particularly in the penetration of the body of the female (by the joint cutting), generates goods that are rewarding both mutually (as they feed each other) and socially (as they feed the assembly). The final act in the cake ritual confirms its expression of fertility even more strongly: preserving the top layer to be shared following the birth of the first child.
Participation and Witness
As Frese suggests, the sharing of cake by the wedding guests signifies the public recognition of the couple’s new status as married partners. In this ritual element, the power of the cake to signify a wedding is not only expressed in the act of being cut and shared by the wedding partners, but also in the act of being received and consumed by the wedding reception guests.
Consuming cake signifies affirmation and consent to the wedding, much like drinking champagne signifies affirmation and consent with the toasts of the reception. In liturgical Christian churches (e.g., Anglican, Catholic, or Lutheran), the distribution and eating of cake is reminiscent of the distribution and eating of the communion bread at the nuptial Eucharist prior to the wedding banquet. In both instances, the eating is a form of ritual participation which welcomes a new social ontology.
The significance of this act of sharing and reception of the cake is pointedly expressed in the custom of sending pieces of wedding cake to significant relatives and friends who were unable to come to the reception. In a discussion of the precursor Victorian wedding cake, Allen relates George Meredith’s Victorian account of the difficulty presented to family members when offered a piece of wedding cake from a wedding celebration of which they disapproved. “Accepting the cake would mean accepting the marriage, becoming a mute if somewhat belated witness to the ceremony. . . . [T]he distribution of the cake is always an apportioning of responsibility, an act of inclusion via gustatory performance.”
In the foregoing I have made the case that, beyond its existence as a work of applied culinary art, the wedding cake is an essential element of a ritual system that expresses the public establishment of a marriage, by means of a form and ritual use which signifies the procreative sexual relationship, with its expectation of fertility in the body of the bride, which is being publicly legitimated by the wedding. In the words of the celebrated food historian William Woys Weaver: “ . . . the Great Cake and its layers upon layers of sublimated meanings—erotic to commemorative—are certainly here to stay. It is a food that has become a veritable institution. A wedding without it would be a wedding without protocol, a rite without confirmation.”
I do not mean to suggest that the history and significance of the wedding cake related here is necessarily widely understood or even known by those involved in wedding celebrations. “Wedding cakes and what is done with them are generally entirely taken for granted,” notes Charsley. This does not negate the significance of the cake rituals, however; indeed, it confirms them. All effective ritual signification expresses meaning which is “taken for granted,” that is, assumed without conscious proposition or, usually, disagreement. It focuses, for a moment, part of that diffuse substrate of cultural meaning—what “everyone knows”—which it is the particular competence of sustained anthropological analysis to reveal. The power of such rituals, as with the wedding cake, does not lie in the possibility that everyone understands them or interprets them in exactly the same way, but in the fact that virtually everyone enacts them, or more precisely, that everyone expects them to be enacted, perpetuating traditions of embedded meaning that, taken together, comprise what we understand as culture.
Wedding professionals may have “more developed views of the significance of wedding cakes and the things that go with them . . . ,” though the findings on this point are mixed. Charsley found little evidence of this in his interviews of bakers; however Edwards recounts in detail how the commercialization of wedding receptions has reinforced and universalized the traditional meaning of the ritual scripts involved, particularly the cutting of the cake.
It is also possible, of course, to reject the meaning of marriage signified by the wedding cake. Charsley writes of one couple who “had ‘discovered’ that the pristine iced cake was the bride herself, and the cutting of the cake, which is a matter of bride and groom jointly forcing a knife into its centre, was the loss of virginity. With such a meaning in mind they felt that they could not possibly go through the ritual,” for reasons of feminism and equality. In a similar vein, and perhaps closer to the point of this essay, Parker and Sedgwick write of homosexual persons who have “struggled to articulate to [heterosexual] friends or family why we love them, but just don’t want to be at their wedding,” attesting to “the dynamic of compulsory witness that the marriage ceremony invokes.” Such principled exceptions do not diminish, but rather strongly confirm, the understanding that the wedding celebration rituals, including those of the wedding cake, symbolize meanings that are erotic, female, heterosexual, and procreative for their participants.
It is the incongruence of this symbolism with the non-heterosexual and non-procreative premise of same-sex marriage, and especially so in the case of the marriage of two men, which is reflected in the conscientiously opposed bakers’ objection to preparing and providing a cake. Both the bakers and the same-sex couple understand that providing or withholding the cake expresses consent or dissent from the wedding. The same-sex couple assumes that the cake, as their marriage, can express wedding union without heterosexuality. But to the conscientiously opposed bakers, who believe marriage to be heterosexual by definition or Divine decree, this symbolic severance is not possible. For them, in the attempt to have a wedding without heterosexuality, same-sex couples want to have their cake and eat it, too.
D. Paul Sullins is Professor of Sociology (retired) and Director of The Leo Initiative for Catholic Social Research, both of The Catholic University of America. He also serves on the editorial board of The Natural Family.
 Simon Charsley, Wedding Cakes and Cultural History (London; New York: Routledge, 1992), 4.
 Judith G. Goode, Karen Curtis, and Janet Theophano, “Meal Formats, Meal Cycles, and Menu Negotiation in the Maintenance of an Italian-American Community,” in Food in the Social Order: Studies of Food and Festivities in Three American Communities, ed. Mary Douglas (London and New York: Routledge, 1984), 174.
 Ibid., 182.
 Mary Douglas, In the Active Voice (New York: Routledge, 2011), 105.
 Simon Charsley, “Interpretation and Custom: The Case of the Wedding Cake,” Man 22.1 (1987): 96–97.
 Pat Derraugh and William Derraugh, Wedding Etiquette (Marlow: Foulsham, 1998), 55.
 Charsley, Wedding Cakes and Cultural History, 97.
 Ibid., 117.
 Charsley, “Case of the Wedding Cake,” 97–98.
 Ibid., 98.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 95–96.
 Ibid., 96.
 Douglas, 109–10.
 Charsley, Wedding Cakes and Cultural History, 1.
 Simon Charsley, “The Wedding Cake: History and Meanings,” Folklore 99.2 (1988): 234.
 Charsley, 235–36.
 Emily Allen, “Culinary Exhibition: Victorian Wedding Cakes and Royal Spectacle,” Victorian Studies 45.3 (2003): 461–63.
 Ibid., 464.
 Gavin Williams, “An Historical and Psychoanalytic Investigation with Reference to the Bride-in-White” (Thesis, University of London, 2012), 87.
 Allen, “Culinary Exhibition: Victorian Wedding Cakes and Royal Spectacle,” 481.
 Williams, 88.
 M. O’Shaughnessy, How to Plan and Have a Beautiful Wedding (New York: Marjorie O’Shaughnessy, 1961), 76.
 Pamela Rae Frese, “Holy Matrimony: A Symbolic Analysis of the American Wedding Ritual” (University of Virginia, 1982), 163, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global (303257308).
 Ibid., 103.
 Ibid., 104.
 Charsley, “Case of the Wedding Cake,” 104.
 Walter Edwards, “The Commercialized Wedding as Ritual: A Window on Social Values,” Journal of Japanese Studies 13.1 (1987): 66, https://doi.org/10.2307/132586.
 Ibid., 67.
 Ibid., 78.
 Frese, “Holy Matrimony: A Symbolic Analysis of the American Wedding Ritual,” 87.
 Allen, “Culinary Exhibition: Victorian Wedding Cakes and Royal Spectacle,” 457.
 Charsley, Wedding Cakes and Cultural History, viii.
 Charsley, “Case of the Wedding Cake,” 101.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 101.
 Edwards, “The Commercialized Wedding as Ritual: A Window on Social Values.”
 Charsley, “The Wedding Cake: History and Meanings,” 232.
 Andrew Parker and Eve Sedgwick, Performativity and Performance (Routledge, 2013), 11, emphasis in original.