“No Wedding’s a Wedding without a Cake”

The History and Significance of the Wedding Cake 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.”[1] But the cake, with its associated rituals and roots in Victorian id
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