Chapter 3

Marriages, weddings and their cakes

Simon Charsley

In the classic British wedding cake, form triumphantly replaces any consideration of eatability, let alone of nutrition. Its cutting rather than its eating is the focus of attention. Categorically it belongs with foods but it highlights their capacity to carry huge loads of social and cultural significance, almost to the point of caricature.

As a spin-off from a study of rites of marrying in Glasgow in the 1980s (Charsley 1991), 1 the intricate history of this amazing creation was researched and an account of it eventually published in 1992 as Wedding Cakes and Cultural History. 2 Though stirrings of change were already clear at the period, and are discussed there, it was the classic form of the British wedding cake which demanded attention. This was an essentially mysterious object, constructed to an elaborate prescription but provided with little of what the anthropologist away from home might have termed ‘native exegesis’. Though always thought of as a cake, in the singular, it was, ideally and frequently in practice, a construction of three cakes of declining size set one above the other. The two upper ‘tiers’ were raised on sets of pillars, each standing on the top surface of the tier below. Each was iced and decorated in a distinctive style of piped ‘royal’ icing, generally white; each was a reduced reproduction of the one below. Inside the shell of hard white icing was a fruit cake, heavy, dark and spiced. Hardly anyone, either the makers or those who might spend the equivalent of a week’s salary on such a cake for their wedding, had anything to say in explanation of the form or its meanings.

This became the lead problem for the research: what part had meanings played, despite contemporary unawareness of them, in the creation and continuation of a food item which had so

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