Cakes in Literature: Exploring Cultural References

Historical References to Cakes in Literature

Throughout history, cakes have been a recurring theme across various cultures and their literary works, reflecting their cultural values and norms. One of the first instances of cakes being depicted in literature is found in the works of classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. These societies often associated cakes with luxury and religious rituals.

Ancient Greece and Rome

In ancient Greece, cakes were often associated with divine figures such as Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Consequently, cakes played a significant role in religious rituals designed to ensure plenty of food and bountiful harvests.

Similarly, Romans considered cakes as an integral part of their banquets and feasts. The iconic Saturnalia festival, held in December, featured the consumption of specialized fruitcakes known as “placenta,” which were dedicated to the gods to secure their blessings and favor.

Cakes in Ancient Literature

The rich historical narrative of cakes is further explored in ancient literary works like Homer’s Odyssey. In this epic poem, the cunning character of Athena disguises herself as a beautiful woman named Mentes to gain information about the hero Odysseus’s whereabouts. During their conversation, Athena presents Mentes with “a lovely honey cake” as an act of hospitality, demonstrating the symbolism of cakes as an integral part of social interactions and unity.

Cakes in Medieval Literature

The significance of cakes continued in the medieval period, where they played an essential role in various contexts. Epic poems often featured references to cakes, while King Arthur’s legend showcased cakes as a token of hospitality in the famous “birthday cake” scene where Sir Gawain receives twelve exquisite cakes to celebrate his birthday.

Cakes were also prominently featured in religious texts like the Bible, serving as emblematic of the importance of sharing and community. One of the most famous instances includes the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus Christ feeds a multitude with a limited supply of bread and fish. This story underscores the significance of food, including cakes, in bringing people together and representing community and fellowship.

Cakes as a Motif for Social Class and Status

Throughout the history of literature, cakes have played a significant role in reflecting the perception of social hierarchy among readers. As symbols of luxury and indulgence, they have often been used by authors to depict characters’ wealth and status in society.

Cakes in Victorian Literature

It is during the Victorian era that cakes truly began to take center stage in British literature. One of the most famous examples can be found in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. In the novel, the character Oliver, born into poverty, is offered Christmas pudding as a token of his arrival in a kinder environment. The way the author presents this scene emphasizes the profound impact that a simple cake can have on people’s lives and reveals the extent of the social divide that existed during the time.

Cakes in 20th Century Literature

Later in the 20th century, authors continued to use cakes as a means to explore social stratification. In George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, the protagonist, who is living in extreme poverty, ponders the scarcity of cakes and other luxury items across different social classes. The novel masterfully captures this disparity, with the author underlining the power dynamics at play through the simple imagery of cakes.

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Significance in the Depiction of Haves and Have-Nots

Through these works, cakes have acted as an intermediary between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” They have played an essential role in the narrative, serving as a valuable indicator of a character’s social standing. Whether represented as a symbol of wealth and indulgence or as a reminder of scarcity and struggle, the iconic image of cakes in literature reveals the authors’ desire to shine light on societal inequalities.

Cakes as a Symbol of Celebration and Festivity

Throughout history, cakes have been a beloved centerpiece at various cultural celebrations, ranging from birthdays and weddings to national holidays. These sweet treats are not only delicious but also hold strong symbolic significance across different societies. The linguistic expressions that accompany cake-related celebrations further emphasize their importance in these events.

The Role of Cakes in Birthdays

Blowing out candles on a birthday cake is a popular tradition that has transcended generations and national borders. The origin of this practice, which dates back to ancient Greece, saw people adorning moon-shaped honey cakes with candles to symbolize the goddess Artemis. Nowadays, birthday cakes come in various shapes, sizes, and flavors, but their purpose remains the same – to unite friends and family, mark the passage of time, and provide a moment of delightful indulgence.

Cakes in Weddings

Wedding cakes have been a staple at nuptial celebrations for centuries. The tradition of the tiered wedding cake, which symbolizes prosperity and good luck, originated in ancient Rome, where sweetened bread was stacked high during the wedding ceremony. The cutting and sharing of the cake by the newlyweds symbolize their commitment to providing for one another and the promise of a prosperous future.

Cakes During Holidays

Cakes have also played a significant role in the festive celebrations of various cultures. For example, the Russian sweet bread known as “kulich,” a round, braided bread-like cake, is traditionally served during the Orthodox Easter feast. In many Western countries, Christmas season is synonymous with delectable fruit cakes and yule logs.

Cultural Expressions Celebrating Cakes

Cakes symbolize not only celebrations but also the warmth, familiarity, and comfort of home. This is evident in the numerous sayings and proverbs found in different cultures that refer to cakes as an emblem of domestic bliss and emotional connections.

In English, the phrase “to have one’s cake and eat it too” exemplifies the struggle between desire and satisfaction, while in Swedish, “a piece of cake” means something is effortless, in line with the sense of achievement symbolized by cakes.

The Cultural Significance of Iconic Types of Cakes in Literature

Throughout history, specific types of cakes have appeared in literary works, providing a unique insight into the cultural norms and identities of the time. As cake has evolved from simple sweet breads to more refined and decadent creations, its presence in literature has taken on different forms. In this section, we will explore the cultural significance of various iconic types of cakes and their appearances in representative works from different regions and time periods.

Pound Cake

A classic and quintessentially American cake, the pound cake dates back to the 18th century. With its name originating from the equal proportions of its main ingredients – a pound each of flour, butter, sugar, and eggs – the pound cake exemplifies the American values of simplicity, proportion, and balance. This cake’s straightforwardness and reliability, along with its ability to adapt to various cultures and palates, make the pound cake a beloved and enduring presence in literature.

Sponge Cake

Often hailed as the lightest and fluffiest of cakes, the sponge cake has its origins in 16th-century Europe. This delicate creation, made primarily with eggs, sugar, and flour without the use of butter or oil, delighted the elite class due to its intricate preparation and heavenly taste. With its close ties to European aristocracy and culinary prestige, the sponge cake has been featured in several literary works set during this time, notably in Jane Austen’s Emma.

Fruit Cake

Another European favorite, the fruit cake, is characterized by its rich, dense texture and abundance of dried fruits, nuts, and spices, all held together by a generous amount of liquor. Fruit cakes were often prepared in advance and allowed to mature, making them a perfect choice for celebrations and religious events, such as Christmas. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, set during the decadent Roaring Twenties, features the luxurious Gatsby enjoying a decadent fruit cake on several occasions.

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Comparison of Cultural Significance

Cake Type Cultural Significance Representative Literary Work
Pound Cake Simplicity, balance, adaptability N/A (an American standard)
Sponge Cake European aristocracy, culinary prestige Jane Austen’s Emma
Fruit Cake Luxury, festive celebrations F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

As we have explored the cultural significance of iconic cake types in literature, it becomes clear that cakes transcend mere dessert. These delectable creations serve as symbols of cultural identity and human experiences, with the power to bind us together and tell the story of our diverse world.

The Dark Side of Cakes in Literature

While cakes have traditionally been associated with joyful occasions and indulgence, they have sometimes taken on a more sinister role in works of literature, particularly in crime and detective fiction. This darker side of cakes in literature is exemplified in various works, where cakes become murder weapons, key plot points in criminal activities, or instruments in the pursuit of justice. Let’s take a closer look at some of these instances.

Cakes as Murder Weapons

One of the most famous examples of a cake being used as a murder weapon can be found in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novel, “A Pocket Full of Rye.” In this story, a man is poisoned after eating a cake that was laced with deadly poison. The cake plays a crucial role in the unfolding crime, and its lethal nature is at odds with its traditional image as a celebratory and comforting food.

Cakes as Central Plot Devices

Cakes can also serve as central plot devices in crime fiction, driving the narrative forward and raising tensions among the characters. For example, in Diane Mott Davidson’s culinary mysteries, cakes are often used to unravel a murder mystery, as the protagonist, Goldy Bear, is a professional caterer who uses her culinary skills to help solve crimes.

In other instances, cakes may be used as a means to uncover a criminal’s identity, as in the case of the German short story “Der Kuchen der Generalin” by Ingrid Noll. In this story, a mysterious cake with a hidden message leads the characters on a suspenseful chase to solve a series of political murders.

Cakes and Crime Fiction Tropes

The use of cakes as a dark element in crime fiction can be seen in the sub-genre of detective novels and has evolved into a distinctive literary trope. This trope takes advantage of the contrast between the innocent, comforting image of cakes and the sinister actions perpetrated through them, heightening the perception of danger and suspense in the narrative.

The enduring presence of cakes in crime fiction demonstrates their unique ability to encapsulate a palpable sense of incongruity, making them a particularly effective tool for suspenseful storytelling. This dark side of cakes in literature adds depth to their symbolism and cultural significance, highlighting their versatility as a literary device.

Cakes as a Symbol of Female Identity and Artistry

The act of creating and baking cakes has often been associated with domesticity and traditional female roles in numerous literary works. However, this association has also led to cakes serving as a metaphor for women’s creativity, ambition, and liberation. By examining literary texts that deal with women’s experiences and roles, we can see how cakes provide a powerful tool that allows women characters to resist and disrupt societal norms and stereotypes regarding their abilities and interests.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist, a woman confined to her room due to her husband’s belief that it would help cure her “temporary nervous depression,” experiences a psychological breakdown. Throughout the text, the woman expresses her desire to defy her restrictive circumstances and the societal expectations placed upon her. In this context, cakes can be read as a metaphor for creativity and escapism.

In the story, the woman is aware of the cakes her husband enjoys, and she envisions her husband eating them and finding solace in a world outside their oppressive home. By proxy, these cakes symbolize the woman’s desire to assert her independence and free herself from the confines of her environment.

“The cakes were gone, he had eaten them all. He likes them! but they are bad for one’s teeth and make one fat.” – Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”

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Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

“The Lottery” is a famous short story by Shirley Jackson that critiques the rigid societal norms and traditions that cause people to blindly follow customs, accepting violence and cruelty as a consequence. In the story, the inhabitants of a small town partake in a lottery where the “winner” is stoned to death by the other villagers.

In the text, cakes play a significant role during the celebration of the lottery, strengthening their thematic connection to social norms and traditions. Initially, the cakes are meant to be an emblem of happiness, innocence, and shared human experiences. However, their presence at this violent and dystopian event takes on eerie undertones, demonstrating how a symbol of celebration and communal togetherness can, in reality, be a tool for oppression and binding control.

“Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. ‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.” – Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery”

Nella Larsen’s “Passing”

In Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing,” the theme of duality and the characters’ attempts to defy societal expectations are prominent. The story follows two childhood friends, Clare and Irene, who are both light-skinned African American women who can “pass” as white. While Irene leads a comfortable upper-class life and is uninterested in challenging the racial and social boundaries of her time, Clare goes to great lengths to marry a racist white man, hiding her Black identity from him.

Cakes in “Passing” represent the dual nature of these characters and their attempts to defy societal norms. In one scene, Clare serves a cake to her white husband and friends, with Irene in attendance. This sequence provides a chilling look at the facade that Clare lives under and the risks she must take to avoid exposing her true identity. The act of serving a cake, in this case, becomes symbolic of Clare and Irene’s attempts to transgress the boundaries of race, class, and expectations of their time.

“She was passing her husband, and now and then, as she moved to meet the new arrivals, she would strike herself, a startling indication of a slightly uncertain balance.” – Nella Larsen, “Passing”

Cakes in Contemporary Literature and Their Enduring Significance

Despite the ever-evolving literary landscape and changing times, cakes have maintained their presence in contemporary literature, proving their lasting cultural impact.

Examining modern works like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, we can observe the enduring relevance of cakes in literature today.

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary

In Fielding’s iconic contemporary novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary, the protagonist, Bridget Jones, is a 30-something Londoner constantly trying to balance work, love, and life. Bridget’s character is depicted as a modern woman, grappling with self-improvement, and one of her goals is to improve her health.

Throughout the novel, cakes act as a symbol of Bridget’s struggles with food, self-control, and the conflicting messages women face about their bodies and health. Here’s an excerpt from Bridget Jones’s Diary:

“Monday 10th January
127 lbs. (Must Stop Pigging), cigarettes 2 (v.g.), alcohol units 6 (enough to stun a bloke), calories 1800 (fant), house a tip. Targets: Weight 11st 9lbs, alcohol units 2 (v.g.), food (Min 5 fruit and veg).”

Bridget’s dieting attempts and the presence of cakes in her life highlight the ongoing tension between self-discipline and indulgence, offering a glimpse into the contemporary experiences of women and their relationships with food.

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series

In Stephen King’s sprawling Dark Tower series, there are several instances where cakes and other baked goods appear, often serving as a symbol of hope and comfort in bleak circumstances. King’s epic fantasy series explores themes such as good vs. evil, redemption, and the quest for personal fulfillment.

Cakes, often associated with indulgence and excess, become more than just treats in the context of this dystopian world. They provide a brief respite from the harsh realities that the characters face and offer a glimpse of the sweeter moments in life.

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy

In Suzanne Collins’ bestselling Hunger Games trilogy, food plays a significant role in exploring the stark contrasts between the privileged citizens of the Capitol and the oppressed districts. Cakes, as symbols of both celebration and extravagance, are a recurring theme throughout the series, reflecting the division and inequality within this dystopian society.

Although they may be seen as simple and indulgent, cakes in the Hunger Games serve as a lens through which Collins examines larger societal issues, such as wealth disparity and the struggle for power. The inclusion of cakes in this modern, dystopian narrative demonstrates that despite the changing landscape of literature, certain themes and motifs continue to resonate with readers.

As these contemporary works reveal, cakes remain a valuable tool for authors to explore societal norms, cultural identity, and personal experiences. The enduring significance of cakes in literature stands as a testament to their power as cultural, historical, and emotional symbols that continue to captivate audiences across time and space.

Category: Cakes & Baking