So I, Cesci am victorious once more and thus have the (honour?) apparently of writing this month’s blog posts. Part of me is becoming suspicious that Miranda might be bribing the enthusiasts so that she doesn’t have to battle WordPress.
I will concur that I did pick quite a wide topic of things-hidden –in –pies for this episode and I did not even touch on people escaping from prison with files bakes in cakes, although there are some great real life examples of this: William Blewitt broke out of an American prison in 1804 using the cartoon classic of a file hidden in gingerbread and in 1906 Charlie Howard was given to permission to marry his girlfriend and she brought her own wedding cake in, complete with hacksaw.
So there are two main reasons why folk might hide things in cakes apart from smuggling – entertainment and haruspicy. For the classicists out there, I am quite aware that a haruspex would divine the will of the gods and thus the future specifically from entrails (its hepatomancy if it is the liver) but there will be no gore here, for that you should have picked cannibal pies – instead I am appropriating it here to be the telling of the future using the innards of cake.
We have seen lots of examples of hidden fillings on Bake Off, although as of yet nothing alive. There was Victoria’s homage in ‘hidden design cakes’ in Series 3 with her pastry 4 and 20 blackbirds, but apart from that all we’ve seen is a lot of union jack battenbergs of varying success.
So going back to the blackbirds in pies, these have historical precedent seemingly rooted in the catchy titled 1598 guide ‘Epulario, or The Italian banquet wherein is shewed the maner how to dresse and prepare all kind of flesh, foules or fishes and also how to make profitable and necessary things.’ Which specially includes a recipe for ‘a pie which birds can remain alive in’. The pastry for these kind of pies which might also contain other jumpy things like frogs and even, in a pie served to Charles 1st, a dwarf, is worryingly known as ‘coffin pastry’.
I am aware that Fortune telling from cakes might seem a bit obscure and not traditional tarot, but there are lots and lot of examples of fortune telling with food. If you take the apple and peel off all the peel in one piece you should be able to throw it over your shoulder to reaveal the initial of your intended. There’s also Obi divination which involves throwing coconuts around and Tasseography, a posh way of referring to reading tea leaves or coffee grounds (I am not sure if anyone has tried it with coffee cake). There are special cup and saucer sets you can get for this so maybe you could throw your slice of cake at it and see what happens. My favourite of food future prediction is Cromniomancy which is onions. This involves placing onions on an altar with names of lovers or questions written on them and then see which ones sprout first and strongest. This might well be the first historical precedent for the ‘Gingham Altar’. In Frazer’s iconic study of comparative religion ‘The Golden Bough’ he claims that alongside romance, onions were used to predict rainfall by salting them and seeing the patterns of seepage. No evidence yet whether this is the etymology of ‘knowing your onions’.
I would argue that food fortune telling is symptomatic of ‘Pareidolia’; seeing things in things (especially faces) as the brain compensates and also of the Barnun principle which cold reading is based on. This involves making statements vague enough that they seem to specifically apply to everyone: Bertram R. Forer tested this in 1948 by giving it to lots of students as a unique assessment, when they had in fact all received the same one. You can find a full list of the statements here but I think that the following three are very apt for Bake Off:
- You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
- At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
- Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
Two specifically bakery examples for fortune telling that you will straight away be familiar with are Christmas pudding and Fortune Cookies (which have NOTHING to do with Asia). Christmas pudding and its lucky sixpence has its roots in 12th Night cake where the guest with the bean in their slice would be proclaims that evening’s ‘Lord of Misrule’. This tradition also survives in Mardi Gras King cake which is a scary rainbow cake with a plastic baby in it (apparently representing Jesus). The King of the cake will be showered with power and honour for the night, but it also means you have to host next year’s party.
In All Silver and No Brass, Henry Glassie observed county Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, that at Halloween girls engaged in ‘light-hearted divination’. Fruit cakes, called “bracks,” are still made for Hallowe’en with a ring baked into them. The girl whose slice includes the ring can expect to be married within the year (Glassie 1975: 115). These cakes turn up in James Joyce ‘The Dubliners as well ‘with the other charms, rosary for a nun and clay for death – because those were apparently your four choices in Ireland.
In the southern states of America ‘charm cakes’ form a key part of wedding celebrations. The bridesmaids gather round the cake to pull a ribbon out from between the tiers to find a charm on the end of it, one has to be a ring, much like the throwing of the bouquet and the irish Barmbrack, the lucky ring-puller will be next to marry. This tradition is supposed to originate in New Orleans as part of a French or French creole dynasty but there is no clear history and is more likely linked to 12th night cake and some clever marketing. However before there was wedding cake we have much earlier (1665) reference to wedding pie, which again served central to the feast, would have a ring hidden in it. The closest to ‘ribbon pulling’ is the 17th century tradition in Europe where bridesmaids would pull small gifts and favours directly off the bride’s dress and veil.
So these bakery predictions /fondant fortune telling have not been subject to any strict scientific testing but there is one case where the results are pretty a 100% accurate and that is Gender reveal cakes. These are a pretty recent American tradition, I haven’t been able to find exactly when but the earliest I’ve found is about 2012, as an extension to the baby shower. So the family ask the sonographer to give them the baby’s gender in an envelope which they then pass straight to a baker who then makes a pink or blue sponge, or fill it with skittles. Like the Ribbon Pull Charm Cakes, these appear to be an entirely fictive tradition, and a bit of a sinister one at that, I’m quite concerned how many of these cakes include gun motifs as a ‘boy’ indicator. That’s a whole gender signifiers Judith Butler conversation for another time…
Bibliography (YUP its that kind of show!)
- The Golden Bough (1890) James Frazer – Contains some fun folk traditions of food prediction
- Epulario (1598) Giovanne de Rosselli – The original guide to baking your blackbirds
- The File Inside the Cake: True Tales of Prison Escapes ( 2011) Jesse Rhodes Available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-file-inside-the-cake-true-tales-of-prison-escapes-15653967/#uFjb2TxJLQgV8hi5.99
- Irish Halloween History (and a tasty Barmbrack recipe) (2016) Zack Gallagher Available at http://www.irishcentral.com/culture/food-drink/the-irish-halloween-history-and-my-family-barmbrack-recipe-175135841-238154971
- Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (2014) Helen Hester – Food Porn and beyond!
- Ribbon Pulls in Wedding Cakes: Tracing a New Orleans Tradition (2006) Gaudent, M in ‘Folk-lore’ (Vol 117)
- Site-seeing through Asian America: On the Making of Fortune Cookies (1992) Tajima, R.; Gordon, A. F.; Newfield, C. in ‘Translating cultures: the future of multiculturalism?: Mapping multiculturalism’