‘Steaks and Cakes’ – Wedding reception menus have evolved over centuries – BG Independent News
By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Today’s American wedding receptions are separate from many marriage celebration traditions of the mid-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 for the cake to be served, the cake was traditionally a slice of fruitcake – in a box to take home.
Today’s elaborate and towering white wedding cakes are relatively new to American wedding receptions, according to Wood County Park District historic farm specialist Corinne Gordon.
Gordon recently spoke 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 teas are all tied to the museum’s new exhibit, “Allure & Illusion: A Rose Colored Romance.” The exhibit showcases over 40 local wedding dresses from 1855 to 2001 and discusses the foundations of wedding culture and how modern ideology is changing what it means to marry and fight for the American dream.
Now back to the cake.
More than 170 years ago, options were very limited. Wedding cakes were traditionally rich, dense fruitcakes with white icing. The slices were cut ahead of time, placed in individual-sized boxes and sealed with ribbon, Gordon said.
Women who are not yet married often put the cake boxes under their pillows to dream of 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.
“It allowed the development of pound cake” rather than fruitcakes, 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 sourdough because his wife was allergic to eggs and yeast. The invention has considerably facilitated the manufacture of cakes.
“Before that, you had to beat eggs for an hour,” Gordon said.
Cookbooks offered helpful suggestions, such as using a wooden spoon — not hands — to mix batches of cakes. And since measuring cups were not available, women were advised to find a teacup of the correct size to measure the ingredients.
Then, in 1894, less bitter chocolate became easier to acquire – and the advancement was undoubtedly welcomed by many.
Since most weddings took place in the morning and at the bride’s house, breakfast was served at the reception.
Gordon said it was considered rude to congratulate the bride.
“It implied that she was lucky to be proposed,” she said.
And no entertainment – like music – was provided at the reception.
“It was considered an honor to just be invited,” Gordon said.
Breakfasts ranged from simple to extravagant, with menus including goose pate, truffle tongue, hot clam broth, turtle soup, and sweets. Farm families may have planned weddings in advance and reserved a pig for the reception, she said.
As the wedding hours moved later in the day, the menus changed. By the mid-1900s, white wedding cakes—decorated with flowers or miniature figurines of the bride and groom—became the norm.
The cake was no longer prepackaged to take home, but became a tiered centerpiece at entertaining.
Gordon showed a photo of “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro with an ornately decorated six-tier cake.
“These were amazing, ridiculous cakes that maybe got more and more people making fancier cakes,” some even adorned with fountains, Gordon said.
Often a small portion of the cake was kept in the family’s freezer, to take away on the couple’s first anniversary or the baptism of their first child.
A recent trend, Gordon said, is for engaged couples to select local foods for their reception menu. And in some cases, the cakes became very personalized, she said, showing a cake with Fruity Pebbles cereal inside.
Tea attendees shared their own stories about their wedding reception food. A woman of Polish descent recounted her morning wedding in 1966, followed by a full breakfast for the guests.
A woman of modest means has recounted her 1976 wedding reception meal prepared on a budget – ham and cheese sandwiches and potato salad.
Another woman said her reception had been prepared by her mother, with her father insisting on taking care of the cake. When the delivery truck arrived with several wedding cakes for the day, the bride-to-be spotted one with showy plastic purple orchids.
“You bet it was mine,” she said, laughing now. Her mother took a hot knife and quickly pulled out the orchids.
“What was he thinking? she said of her father.
And one woman said she had a piece of wedding cake over 100 years old in her freezer. Her grandmother had sent the coin to her sister in Oklahoma to put under her pillow to dream of her future husband.
At some point, the cake was moved to the granddaughter’s freezer, where she is reluctant to throw it away.
“I still have it – I don’t know what to do with it,” she said.