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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

An Election Baking Selection

Elect to Celebrate Elections


With this bitter election campaign dragging along to its conclusion, we thought we would try to sweeten the experience of the final couple of weeks before November 8th by reminding our readers of an earlier post of ours: Election Cake. We're moved to do this partly because of a recent post about Election Cake on the NPR website, brought to our attention by Tony Stavely: A History of Election Cake.

This NPR "history" of the famous cake is unfortunately less than historically accurate. The discussion makes it sound as though Election Cake originated in North America and as though it developed as something uniquely suitable for colonial elections and other communal occasions of that era such as militia muster or training days. But Election Cake is, like so many early New England recipes, English in origin; the colonial North Americans who made it were baking their cakes according to old English recipes. This cake is one of many variations on the traditional English "great cake." It came to be associated with the festivities surrounding spring elections and town meetings that took place throughout colonial New England. Because of that association, it was also known as "March Meeting Cake" and even "Connecticut Loaf Cake."

Election cakes were often enormous affairs, involving many pounds of flour and butter. In the NPR story, Amelia Simmons's 1796 "Election Cake" recipe, from the second edition of her book, American Cookery, is given (sadly, without attribution). It calls for 30 quarts of flour, 10 pounds of butter, 12 pounds of raisins, 3 dozen eggs, and so on. But the modern recipe reader should understand that many early modern cake recipes were huge by our standards, sometimes because they were made for celebrations but often simply because the households they fed were far larger than the average modern household.

 

Since getting a brick bake oven properly fired was an arduous and time-consuming process, baking usually occurred only once or twice a week. Many early colonial households had no bake oven. So for a small fee housewives brought their prepared doughs to taverns to be baked, or to a neighbor's better-equipped house. Under these circumstances, household bakers made sure they baked enough cakes, breads, and puddings to last quite awhile.


Despite the magnificence of many early cakes, the great cake that evolved into Election Cake was particularly fondly remembered by many nineteenth-century New Englanders, not only for the captivating aroma it gave off when baking or the delectability of its raisin-studded interior, but also because it symbolized one of their most cherished principles--self-government on the local and colonial level.

Perhaps you'd like to try making Lydia Maria Child's "Election Cake," given in our earlier post on the subject. It's both authentic and delicious--and not quite as large as Simmons's. Enjoying a warm slice of old-fashioned Election Cake might put you and your family and friends in a celebratory mood on election night this November. At the very least, it will remind you of the deep traditions, held through many generations, that undergird our American democracy, principles that no flash-in-the-pan (to use a culinary metaphor!) demagogue can easily displace.

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