Election Day in 2016 is known for many things, but “deliciousness” isn’t typically one of them. However, faculty in Sustainable Food Systems Nicole Civita and the class “Landscape, Food, and Culture” decided to change that by making an Election Cake for “Make America Cake Again.”
Election Day, Civita explains, was a “jolly secular holiday” for the Puritans. Colonists used to travel great distances to elect their local leaders, and often had to stay overnight in distant towns. Important families held Election Day celebrations that featured thick, fruit-studded election cakes. What’s more, Election Day was also a time when slaves throughout New England were allowed to organize, celebrate, and elect Black Kings and Governors.
The election cakes were also campaign tools. Campaigning happened, for the most part, on Election Day. Candidates talked with voters in person; officeholders were expected to be at the polls on Election Day and greet all voters.
“Failure to be civil,” Civita notes, “could sink a candidacy.”
Women, excluded from the vote, made election cakes to encourage support for their preferred candidates. Cake baking offered women a way to participate in public political life. The first published recipe called for 30 quarts of flour, 10 pounds of butter, 14 pounds of sugar, 12 pounds of raisins, three dozen eggs, and a quart of yeast (American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796). By 1911, the cake was covered in boiled milk frosting.
In 2016, School of the New American Farmstead instructor Richard Miscovich and his friends at Old World Levain Bakery revived the recipe for “Make America Cake Again,” “a collaboration and celebration among bakeries, food professionals, home bakers, scholars, and educators across the country.” Naturally, Civita was inspired to teach the history of election cake, engage her class in a broader discussion about the politics of disenfranchisement, suffrage, and inclusion, and, of course, bake. To approximate the experience of the early American women who made election cake for the masses, Civita encouraged students to keep the Kitchen Aid switched off and use some good old-fashioned elbow grease.
President Matthew Derr allowed the class to bake one cake in an heirloom mid-18th century ceramic mould, enhancing the connection to the past. The result was dark, chewy, sturdy, and delicious—a hint of the sourdough starter, not overly sweet, but with a lovely crumb and studded with fruit. Students brought samples to share at a recent lunch in Dunbar and members of the community dug in.
As the election season this year winds down, perhaps it’s for the best to have a sweet taste in the mouth.