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Icing on the Cake

When I lived in London and commuted between Holloway Road and Goldsmiths in Lewisham, one of my favourite moments in my journey was when the train slowly rounded the bend into Cannon Street Station. On my right, the skyscrapers and churches of the City came into view, and if I looked quickly, I’d spot the spindly, delicately ornate spire of St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, traditionally the spiritual home of Britain’s journalists.

I’ve been thinking of St Bride’s rather a lot recently. This is turning out to be a year of weddings: my best friend’s in Canada, my sister’s in February 2015, and at least two in-between. Although four very different weddings in terms of size, formality, and religiosity, I’ve been amused by how vehemently each of the couples has not wanted an old-fashioned wedding cake.

I have a dim memory of that kind of cake – comprised of dense fruit cake and covered in a thick layer of marzipan and royal icing so sturdy it could be used to plaster houses – from a cousin’s wedding in the late 1980s, where I was a not particularly successful flower girl. (I didn’t realise that my role was to hold the bride’s bouquet during the ceremony. And I refused to be in any of the photographs. I still have no idea why.)

Cake and sweet things have been eaten at weddings around the world for thousands of years, to symbolise fertility, wealth, and a sweet life for the couple. But the vogue for large, white wedding cakes is a more recent phenomenon. What we think of as traditional wedding cakes originated in Britain during the Victorian period, and was based on the sweet, fruit-heavy bride’s cake served at early modern weddings to ensure the luck and fertility of the bride. The myth is that William Rich, a baker apprenticed near Christopher Wren’s St Bride’s church with its tiered steeple, modelled his own multi-layered wedding cake on Wren’s design.

St Bride's Church, Fleet Street

St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street

To some extent, the British royal family popularised tall, ornately decorated cakes. Queen Victoria’s 1840 wedding cake seems to have been a consisted mainly of decorations:

This royal cake weighs nearly 300 lb. weight. It is three yards in circumference, and about fourteen inches in depth or thickness. It is covered with sugar of the purest white; on the top is seen the figure of Britannia in the act of blessing the illustrious bride and bridegroom, who are dressed somewhat incongruously in the costume of ancient Rome. These figures are not quite a foot in height; at the feet of his serene highness is the effigy of a dog, said to denote fidelity; and at the feet of the queen is a pair of turtle doves, denoting the felicities of the marriage state. A cupid is writing in a volume expanded on his knees the date of the day of the marriage, and various other cupids are sporting and enjoying themselves…

Simplified designs were copied by an emergent Victorian middle class, eager to show off their good taste and wealth through increasingly elaborate weddings. These cakes were expensive: white sugar cost more than the unrefined brown, and bakers needed to be trained in the art of piping royal icing, a fashion imported from the continent.

The double layer of marzipan and royal icing had a practical function too: not only were pieces of cake sent home with guests and to family and relations far away, but the top tier of the cake was kept for the christening of the couple’s first child, or to be eaten a year later for luck.

As the meanings of weddings and marriage have changed, so has the significance of wedding cake. At recent weddings, I have eaten carrot, chocolate, and red velvet cake. Although decorated elaborately, these are not cakes to be kept, but rather to be eaten as pudding at the end of the reception. But although couples are choosing to reinvent wedding cakes, these cakes are as full of meaning as they were in the nineteenth century.

As a recent report in the Atlantic argued, particularly in the West, marriage and weddings are an increasingly middle-class phenomenon – and I think that some of its arguments describe changes which have occurred beyond the West too. Olga Khazan explains:

Culturally, young adults of all social classes and income levels are less likely to think of marriage as the ‘cornerstone’ of their lives – that is, the first thing they do as adults. Instead, people now think of it as a ‘capstone’ – sort of a trophy for having earned a BA, obtained a job, and generally learned to live on their own for a while.

As a result of this, weddings are intended to express the likes and enthusiasms of the couple, from their clothes to the cake they serve at the reception. If anything, weddings have accrued more meaning as they occur later in couples’ lives and relationships.

The irony, though, is that the enormous wedding-industrial complex which has emerged in recent years to facilitate these increasingly elaborate middle-class weddings, has worked to settle a particular conformity on them: from the artfully posed engagement and wedding photos, to the matching outfits for attendants, and the painstaking attention to every detail from confetti to favours for the guests and the fonts used on the stationery.

My point is that wedding cakes are a particularly useful means of demonstrating how weddings are used to denote a range of meanings: from middle-class claims to respectability, wealth, and sophistication in the middle of the nineteenth century, to a marker of full entry into adulthood and financial independence in the early twenty-first century.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Ladyfood

Like all fashions, food fads are by their nature transient. The Atkins diet enjoyed a mercifully brief vogue during the early 2000s; and in 1997 Britain’s supply of cranberries was totally depleted when Delia Smith cooked with them in that year’s Christmas special for her television series. (Something similar happened when Nigella Lawson professed a weakness for frozen peas. Truly, the British are mad.)

Inevitably, after a surge in popularity, these diets or ingredients are either dropped or supplanted by new fashions, or incorporated into our diets to such an extent that we wonder why we were ever so mad about them in the first place (I think of sundried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, smoked paprika….). It’s not often, though, that people declare themselves ‘sick’ of a particular product – or ask that there be a ‘backlash’ against it. But this has happened, and also fairly recently.

In the past fortnight or so I’ve read a range of articles calling for an end to…cupcakes. Yes, this most mini member of the cake family seems to be facing a kind of culinary doom. But why? What could be so appalling about a dab of Victoria sponge topped with either royal icing, or a blob of butter cream? They were the first cakes my sister and I baked on our own, and I made some last week for an indoor birthday picnic.

Valentine Warner writes in this month’s Delicious:

My assistant brought a pretty blue tin into work the other day and sweetly said, ‘This is for you.’ I prized open the lid and had to disguise my flaring nostrils. Cupcake alert! Feeling the need to be polite, I reached in gingerly, wondering why I feel so unkind towards this fancy spongy hell-spawn.

In the recent tenth anniversary edition of Observer Food Monthly, an article lists the top ten food trends of the past decade. Among its five worst are supermarket vegetable boxes (a genuinely daft idea, I agree) and cupcakes. Why? Because ‘these twee treats have had their day.’ Are cupcakes really as bad as genetically modified food – another of the Observer’s five worst food trends since 2001?

I think that it’s worth thinking about the vehemence of the anti-cupcake lobby. Food, as I have noted before, represents considerably more than simply nourishment. We attach a range of assumptions, prejudices, and meanings to food. These change over time and vary according to context, but remain a potent influence over how – and what – we eat. Importantly, they also shape our identities: food contributes to the construction of national, social, racial, and gendered identities. Cupcakes aren’t simply cupcakes. They are more than sponge cake and icing.

Cupcakes were not always fashionable. Warner writes:

Cupcakes aren’t exactly new. Most of us ate a paddling pool full of them between the ages of five and 10. They were party cakes whose function was twofold: half to be eaten and half to be smeared over the car on the way home.

I know exactly what he means. When I was a little girl in Paarl in the late 1980s and early 90s, cupcakes – or fairy cakes as we tended to call them – were birthday party food. They were dyed pink and lilac to go with our fairy dresses and decorated liberally with hundreds and thousands, glace cherries, silver balls, and whatever else we found in the baking cupboard. Woeker en Woel, Paarl’s biggest tuisnywerheid (a cooperative selling food, needlework, and other things made by women at home) used to sell them in batches of twelve in beer boxes. They were iced in green and pink and I remember them as being enormous – about the same size as flat, brown mushrooms. By no stretch of the imagination could these be considered elegant.

The rise of the cupcake began during the late 90s, and many pin this to the opening of the Magnolia Bakery in New York City in 1996. The Bakery sells individual, beautifully-decorated cupcakes alongside its more usual selection of cakes and pastries. Of course, other bakeries may well have been doing this for decades, but what makes Magnolia different is that it is in Manhattan, and that it is fashionable. The ascendancy of the cupcake was confirmed in 1998 when a couple of episodes of the then wildly popular HBO series Sex and the City depicted Carrie and her friends scoffing cupcakes in the Bakery.

Adre Meyer's Cupcakes at the Hope Street Market in Cape Town

Since then, macaroons, pies, and whoopie pies have been dubbed the ‘new cupcake’, but to little effect. Even with the apparent current backlash, cupcakes appear still to sustain a baking industry: there are legions of recipe books (even Martha Stewart deigned to write one), blogs, websites, market stalls, bakeries, and cafes dedicated solely to cupcakes. This is also a global fashion which spread quickly from the eastern seaboard of the United States to the rest of the world.

In Britain, the cupcake was popularised by Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000). Unlike other food writers, she acknowledges that their appeal is based on a nostalgia for childhood. She notes: ‘At about the same time I started getting into top cupcake and fairy-cake mode, ostensibly for children, I noticed that the people who really seemed to get excited by them were the children’s parents. I think it’s not till you hit 30 that nostalgia is even a remotely comforting option.’

In contrast, the Telegraph’s Xanthe Clay writes, in all seriousness, that her favourite cupcake decoration is ‘summer berries whose freshness cuts the sugary icing. Perched atop each cupcake like a Philip Treacy hat, they’re as exuberant as Carrie’s wardrobe and they taste fabulous.’ This is food – almost literally – as fashion. Valentine Warner adds:

I think it’s the re-branding of this childish treat that gets me so cross. Or perhaps it’s not the cupcakes that annoy me but, rather, their west London devotees climbing into huge urban four-wheel-drives holding wee shiny boxes crammed with mouse-sized cakelets.

Cupcakes are associated with women. They’re girly. They’re ladyfood. And this isn’t inherently problematic. In fact, some contemporary feminists argue – rightly – that the labelling of cooking, baking, knitting, needlework, and other ‘feminine’ pursuits as being silly, frivolous, or demeaning is sexist. They point out that all over the world, suffragettes embroidered banners and other protest material, and held tea parties and cake sales to raise funds for the campaign for women’s right to vote.

I’m not, of course, accusing Valentine Warner of misogyny – although I do feel that some of the anti-cupcake movement is informed by a dislike of things associated with women – and I think his point that cupcakes are simply glorified children’s food is important. Cupcakes are marketed to women on the grounds that these little treats are dainty, pink, and pretty – like women (or, rather, girls, or ladies). They are safe for slim, demure ladies to eat: they contain fewer calories than a wedge of cake, and they’re easy to pick at with a (mini) cake fork. When Warner describes the cupcakes as ‘mouse-sized’, he could as easily be referring to the women who buy them.

Like cupcakes, this gendering of food isn’t anything new. As I noted a few weeks ago, some Victorian doctors advised that women, children, and invalids be fed carbohydrate-heavy, bland food to ensure that their delicate systems remained calm: too much red meat, fruit, or spice would upset them and cause them to behave inappropriately.

What concerns me is that we’re still associating children’s food with a particular kind of childlike femininity. Why are cupcakes marketed so successfully to well-off, educated middle-class women? (And cupcakes are often exorbitantly expensive so it’s only well-off women who can afford them.) In a nasty irony, when Sex and the City depicts Carrie eating cupcakes it isn’t to emphasise her healthy attitude towards food (that we should eat everything in moderation), but, rather, to indicate that even when she does eat cake, it’s small, childlike, and entirely unthreatening (as she is).

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).

Nigella Lawson, How to be a Domestic Goddess (London: Chatto and Windus, [2000] 2003).

Valentine Warner, ‘Valentine’s Notebook,’ Delicious, May 2011, p. 49.

Other sources:

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘Scientists, Pseudoscientists, and Faddists’ and ‘Too Rich and Too Thin?’, in Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 86-97, 194-211.

Susie Orbach, ‘Interpreting Starvation,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 133-139.

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Doris Wit, ‘“How Mama Started to Get Large”: Eating Disorders, Foetal Rights, and Black Female Appetite,’ in Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of US Identity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 183-210.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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