With the kind of election we are having and the unsavory ways some candidates are trying to get votes, my thoughts turn to a much courteous time when gentle persuasion was the order of the day. Before the day itself, homemakers in New England fired up their ovens to bake election cakes. Bon Appetit has noticed a resurgence of interest in this sweet treat.
Election cake started as “muster” cake – dense and fruity spice cake baked by colonial women and given to men who were mustering for military training derived from the classic English fruitcake or plum cake. It contains raisins, currants, molasses, brandy, and spices in enormous quantities. What is unique about this cake is that it is yeast-leavened so it is more bread-like than cake. I imagine it is similar to the Italian panettone.
After the American Revolution, the cake was brought to voting sites to help muster votes and became known as election cake. The new republic celebrated Election Day as a holiday and everyone indulged in the festivities with barbeques, alcohol, and of course, cake. Because women couldn’t vote at the time, this was their participation in the democratic process. Women made enormous quantity of these cakes and plied men with booze to encourage them to vote. Election days were a time to feast and socialize.
Amelia Simmons wrote the first recorded recipe for election cake in her book American Cookery, published in 1796.
“The act of making this cake would have required – not only would women have largely been participating in making it, but they would have all come together, it would have been a community-organized event to bake these cakes to feed people who are coming out to vote or attending town hall meetings,” says baker Susannah Gebhart (NPR interview October 23, 2016).
In 1830, the election cake became known as Hartford Election Cake when the Connecticut town politicians served it to men who voted a straight party ticket and wives established their reputations on the quality of their cakes. (What’s Cooking in America). Unfortunately by 1900, this tradition was lost to the influx of non-English holiday customs and the United States was no longer the only democracy.
The role of cake in American democracy is explored in this entertaining video from the Cooking Channel. According to the Washington Post: [election cakes] was exactly how America used to celebrate democracy in action. Don’t you just wish that we still had the celebratory elections of our new republic? Well, at least if you are a baker, you can have your own festivities with this recipe courtesy of the Washington Post.