American Wedding Cake – Mid Century

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My parents original wedding cake, made by my grandfather and uncle, and a re-creation at their 50th Anniversary Dinner.

 

The planning started about a month ago.   I called the restaurant in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where we were to celebrate my parents’ 50th anniversary dinner.   It was the fifty story Skylon Tower, overlooking the Falls. My parents had eaten there on their honeymoon in 1967, the same year the Tower – a symbol of mid-century prosperity – was built.   It was our hope to recreate a tier from my parents’ original wedding cake.   It would have their original topper and integrate some of the same decorations.

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The Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

“We have white iced cheesecakes,”   the Skylon kitchen manger told me, and gave an ear popping price.   So we decided to look into ordering from an outside bakery and carrying it pre-decorated into the restaurant.   We thought that would give us more quality control to recreate the cake. That turned out to be far too complex logistically, so we called the restaurant again. This time, they told us that tiramisu was the only available cake flavor.   Finally, the week before, we called to confirm the order and were told it would now be a raspberry sponge cake.   Ok, we thought, as long as the cake was white iced and our specific décor could be integrated, whatever flavor turned up at dinner would work.

In the end we did get a delicious raspberry flavored, whipped-icing cake.   The restaurant very graciously used the sugar daisies and the white chocolate swans my sister handcrafted and carried up in their cooler to Canada. With these design elements, we were able to make the cake look very similar to their original wedding cake, which was a delight to my parents.

So we asked mom and dad what flavor their cake was.   Mom replied, “It was a simple white sheetcake.   Back then (in the 1960s) wedding cakes didn’t have all the complex flavors they do today.”

 

But as a baker’s daughter our parents’ wedding cake was anything but simple, aside from the flavor.   Their cake was a whopping six-tier menagerie of confection.   It was mounted with swans, sugar wedding bells and sugar buttresses holding blue roses, each layer with a different icing design. My grandpa, the baker, had made very nice  cakes for his friends, and extended family.  But this cake had to be a showpiece.   After all, it was the most important cake a baker could make – his own daughter’s wedding cake.   Grandpa used a photo of my parents’ wedding cake in his bakery advertisements until he closed it in the early 1970s.

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Some of the wedding cakes my grandfather made in the 1960s.

Dad and his groomsmen wore white jackets with black pants, while my mother wore her Jackie Kennedy bouffant hair style, and a pillbox hat with veil also popularized by the First Lady. My maternal grandmother wore ivory satin, while my paternal grandmother wore a dress and pillbox hat a shade darker than the baby blue the bridesmaids wore.   All these colors were integrated into the cake.

 

Wedding cake designs at mid-century were all about the outside.   It was form over flavor. Over the top flavors were not the norm for the standard American wedding.   My uncle, who decorated my parents’ cake had gone to decorating classes to learn sculpting with gum paste and other techniques.   The story was that Grandpa and my uncle dropped one of the cake tiers in transit and had to make some on-site triage repairs.   Setting up and leveling a six-tier wedding cake seems to me to be a game of Jenga – the builders needing to possess architectural genius to get it right.   But the cake didn’t topple over, a testament to the longevity of their union.

 

So when did wedding cake flavors expand and what started it all?   The lavish celebrations of today didn’t become popular until the 1970s.   Weddings before 1960s rarely had a full dinner reception, most served cake and punch only.   Some were even held during the week, as opposed to the weekend.   As weddings became more complex into the 1980s, the cake flavors began to mirror that trend.   Cake tastings to decide between tropical mango or raspberry cream, became a favorite part of the planning process.   As retail grocers bumped out the mom and pop indie bakers around the country, those left began to focus on cake decorating as a survival mechanism.   Unique flavors, as well as decorating prowess, became a way for them to differentiate between the retail commercial bakeries and their other indies who were still holding on.   Wedding cakes became smaller, and the outsides became more simple, as the inside flavors became more interesting.

 

In the end, does the flavor of the cake really matter? Do people really remember the type of cake they stuffed their faces with at weddings? Most probably remember who got drunk and jumped into the pool or who danced the wildest. What is important is the life the couple creates for themselves and the family they build.   My parents’ cake may have been vanilla, but the family they created is anything but.   We are a complex blend of sweet, spicy, savory and fruity, all wrapped up into one crazy unit.

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