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A History Of Election Cake And Why Bakers Want To #MakeAmericaCakeAgain

Oct 23, 2016
Originally published on October 24, 2016 8:25 am

Donald Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" is an easy one to adapt for whatever your cause. There are ones like "Make America Gay Again," "Make America Skate Again," "Make America Read Again," "Make America Fair Again." You get the idea.

Bakers, of course, had to get in on the action. How could you pass up "Make America Cake Again"?

For bakers Susannah Gebhart and Maia Surdam, it's more than just a slogan. (They actually formally call it "Making America Cake Again" on their website, anyway.) The two proprietors of OWL Bakery in Asheville, N.C. want people to know more about America's culinary history and its connection to politics.

The two are encouraging professional and home bakers to make "election cakes" during October, with free recipes online. Election cakes have a long history in what is now the U.S., going back to the 13 Colonies.

The history is laid out by Bon Appetit. "Muster" cake, as it was called before the American Revolution, was "a dense, naturally leavened, boozy fruit and spice cake — baked by colonial women and given to the droves of men who were summoned for military training, or 'mustered,' by order of British troops."

Later it became known as election cake. Women would make it in massive quantities to encourage men to vote and come to town hall meetings. Unlike today, Election Day was a festive occasion, with lots of food and the booze flowing.

Election cake represents a "connection to our shared history through food as well as an opportunity to bring attention to the upcoming election and issues concerning voter rights and access," the bakers write on their website. Gebhart and Surdam are quick to credit Richard Miscovich of Johnson & Wales University for researching and creating a recipe from historical records, from which their election cake is adapted. (He's also responsible for #MakeAmericaCakeAgain, as noted by Bon Appetit.)

Enough history. What about, you know, the actual cake?

"It's quite a beguiling little cake," Gebhart tells NPR's Michel Martin. She says it's "in the camp" of fruitcake and "not too sweet," but describes the sweetness that is there as "complex."

Gebhart and Surdam joined NPR to speak about the "Making America Cake Again" project, the history of election cake, and what it all has to do with women's rights.

Interview highlights contain extended Web-only answers.


Interview Highlights

On the origin of election cake, known as "muster" cake

Maia Surdam: Before America existed, the colonists were required to go on military training days, militia days. They would go to these villages and the women of the towns would make something called "muster" cake.

Susannah Gebhart: It intrigued me because it is a naturally leavened cake. So rather than being leavened with chemical leavening like baking soda or powder, which wouldn't have been available at that time, it was leavened with a sourdough culture. And as a baker who makes sourdough breads, that was really intriguing to me. And so we did a little more research and then understood that this tradition of muster cake was later translated into — and then the name changed — to election cake in the young republic.

On Bon Appetit's picture of a recipe from 1796 which uses huge amounts of flour, butter and sugar

Gebhart: Election cake, when you read that description, it includes massive quantities of things — of these ingredients. And it really speaks to the fact that these cakes were made for a lot of people. They were intended to be served to the masses, to people who were celebrating the democratic process and the election. ...

We're actually making much smaller versions. However, in the Colonial era, in the young republic, there were community bread ovens — wood-fired ovens. These cakes would likely have been baked ... in loaf format. ...

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.

On why the communal history of these cakes is important

Gebhart: I think it really speaks to the community nature of what we're trying to do. Even though we are a bakery, we're a business. We've harnessed the "village" of bakers across the country — the community of bakers — to also make these cakes. And part of the proceeds of them are going to the League of Women Voters. And so it just feels really significant that many people, including home bakers and professional bakers, can be baking these cakes around the election season and bringing the community back into the tradition, the celebration around our democratic process.

On historic Election Days

Surdam: Election Day was treated more like a holiday and there was a lot of revelry included around the day. And there wasn't just one Election Day. This, especially during the Colonies, Election Day happened in different places in different times. But there was this sense that it was something really to celebrate. And people would come out and gather and not just eat cake, but play games and socialize and drink a lot of alcohol, and it was like a big party. And so that was something that was really interesting to me as I was doing the research. ...

There have been many things that have changed since that time. But certainly, the idea of people celebrating Election Day as a national holiday is one of them. We thought that that would be an interesting thing to try to reintroduce and to reintroduce this cake that could serve potentially as a way for us to celebrate the democratic process.

Gebhart: It's about bringing people together across political divides, across backgrounds and really engaging in a friendly and intentional way.

On the historical relationship between election cake and women's participation in politics

Surdam: It was mostly women who were baking and men who were voting, especially in the early [history] of this cake. But the cake offered an opportunity for women who didn't have access to formal political channels to nevertheless participate in a civic culture surrounding voting. And I think that's something that's really important. ...

I think that's something to keep in mind, because women can vote in America today, which is wonderful. But it came after a really long struggle and a lot of women who fought for that right to vote. And so I think the election cake really symbolizes that — that long struggle and the tradition of women putting themselves, whenever possible and however possible, into the democratic process.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we just heard, Americans don't agree on who should take over the Oval Office. But I hope we can all agree on one thing - cake. It turns out that cake has an important place in U.S. election history. More than 100 years before women had the right to vote, they were making something called election cake basically to encourage men to come out and vote.

Bakers Susannah Gebhart and Maia Surdam, the proprietors of OWL Bakery in Asheville, N.C., heard about these old recipes and are trying to encourage bakers across the country to revive the tradition and - OK, I'll say it - make America cake again. Susannah Gebhart and Maia Surdam are with us now from Asheville. Thanks so much for joining us.

SUSANNAH GEBHART: Thank you.

MAIA SURDAM: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So let me say I heard about your campaign in "Bon Appetit," giving credit where credit is due. But where did you two hear about it? Maia, I understand that in addition to being a baker, you're a bit of a food historian. So do you remember how you heard about this tradition?

SURDAM: Well, I actually heard about the cake through Susannah. And she heard about it when it was called muster cake. So actually, even before America existed, the colonists were required to go on military training days, militia days. They would go to these villages, and the women of the towns would make something called muster cake.

MARTIN: Muster like - not mustard like the seed, like the condiment, but muster like..

SURDAM: ...Muster the troops.

MARTIN: Muster the troops. OK, I got it.

SURDAM: Women named the cake election cake. And there were other types of desserts, like Independence Day cake or federal pancake. And these names seem kind of cute or kitchy now, but the cake offered an opportunity for women who didn't have access to formal political channels to nevertheless participate in a civic culture surrounding voting.

And I think that's something to keep in mind because, you know, women can vote in America today, which is wonderful, but it came after a long struggle and a lot of women who fought for that right to vote. And so I think the election cake really symbolizes that, that long struggle and the tradition of women putting themselves, whenever possible and however possible, into the democratic process.

MARTIN: You know, the - "Bon Appetit" was nice enough to include a recipe. They say that the first recorded recipe was written in 1796 by Amelia Simmons in her second-edition book, "American Cookery." Let me just start it off here - 30 quarts flour, 10 pounds butter, 14 pounds sugar, 12 pounds raisin, three dozen eggs - and here's where it gets fun - a pint of wine, a quart of brandy, lots of spices. Do you have a pan that big at the bakery?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I don't - I mean...

GEBHART: Well, I believe...

MARTIN: ...What, do you bake it in a bathtub? I mean...

GEBHART: (Laughter). We're actually making much smaller versions.

MARTIN: OK.

GEBHART: However, in the Colonial and - era and the young republic, there were community bread ovens, wood-fired ovens. And these cakes would likely have been baked in loaf format, I suppose. And...

MARTIN: ...So what would you do? Make a huge big, batch and then divide it up into smaller loaves and do...

GEBHART: ...Or rather large loaves.

MARTIN: Large loaves. Yeah, that sounds pretty big.

GEBHART: There's a record - Maia came across a record of one being a foot deep in some of her historical research. And...

MARTIN: ...Is the idea here - was the idea here to - what? - make Election Day a holiday? Was that the idea? To make it fun, make it celebratory?

SURDAM: Well, that was certainly how it used to be. This is Maia. Election Day was treated more like a holiday. And there was this sense that it was something really to celebrate. And people would come out and gather and not just eat cake, but play games and socialize and drink a lot of alcohol. And it was like a big party. We thought that that would be an interesting thing to try to reintroduce, and to reintroduce this cake that could serve potentially as a way for us to celebrate the democratic process.

MARTIN: So, Susannah, don't keep us in suspense. How does it taste?

GEBHART: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I understand that you have one, I think, that's kind of - I mean, you have...

GEBHART: ...We do.

MARTIN: You actually have one in the studio there, but you're in North Carolina and we're here. So we are kind of...

GEBHART: And we would love to mail one to you.

MARTIN: ...feeling left out. Thank you. Dropping a major hint here (laughter). How is it? It sounds like fruitcake, kind of like fruitcake, like Christmas cake that a lot of people have. Is that - was that what it tastes like?

GEBHART: It's certainly in the camp of fruitcake. In our version, there's a bright tanginess lended by the - both the sourdough culture and some yogurt that we incorporate. And then, of course, the booze and the dried fruits contribute sweetness. And so in addition to the spices that we add, it's quite a beguiling little cake, but one that I find incredibly delicious.

MARTIN: That's Maia Surdam and Susannah Gebhart from the OWL Bakery in Asheville, N.C. telling us about election cake and hopefully sending us some so we can sample it. Thank you both so much.

GEBHART: Thank you.

SURDAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.