The highlight of every wedding dates from ancient Rome. To signify their willingness to share all things, Roman brides and grooms shared a piece of cake. The rest of the cake was crumbled over the bride’s head to guarantee she would produce many children. By the time Christianity arrived in Ireland, one cake had evolved into many thin wheaten biscuits. They were still broken over the bride’s head, and guests scrambled for “lucky” crumbs that fell to the floor.
During the Tudor period, the biscuits evolved into buns made with spices and currants. One bun was crumbled over the bride’s head, some were given to the poor and the rest stacked in a centerpiece, over which the couple kissed for luck.
In the 17th century, English royalists who had fled to France to escape Puritanism returned home bringing French pastry cooks with them. On some obscure wedding day, an inspired French chef frosted all the little fruitcakes with white sugar icing so they would stick together in a tiered mound. But they kept the tradition of dropping the cake on the poor bride’s head.
By the mid-1800’s, the cake-dropping custom was replaced by the brilliant concept of cutting the cake in slices. At about the same time, milling techniques produced fine white flour, and a new cake appeared on the scene. The rich golden pound cake became the “bride’s cake,” while the spicy fruit cake, liberally laced with whiskey and wrapped in marzipan, became the “groom’s cake.”
Eventually the two cakes were combined into a tiered masterpiece. The bottom pound cake layer was sliced and distributed to all attending. The upper fruitcake layer was kept until the birth of the first child. In some cases, a third fruitcake layer was saved for the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary celebration! Regular whiskey drenching allowed it to age as gracefully as the couple themselves.
Any way you cut it, the cake is still the high point of every wedding feast. Surrounded by family and friends, the bride and groom ceremoniously feed each other the first piece, just as newly married couples have done since antiquity. The ancient ritual of sharing a small piece of cake symbolizes the new life the happy couple will share, and the promise of prosperity and fruitfulness their future holds.
Over the many years that Dad shot his brides, he captured some classic images of the wedding couple cutting the cake and feeding each other that first piece. And he always brought home a piece for me. Slainte!