In the first known cookbook written in the United States, Amelia Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery, you’ll find some recipes that seem familiar like the pumpkin pie or the roast turkey, but also the so-called Election Cake.
American Cookery’s recipe speak about “thirty quarts of flour, 10 pound butter, 14 pound sugar, 12 pound raisins, 3 doz eggs, one pint wine, one quart brandy, 4 ounces cinnamon, 4 ounces fine colander seed, 3 ounces ground allspice; wet flour with milk to the consistence of bread over night, adding one quart yeast; the next morning work the butter and sugar together for half an hour, which will render the cake much lighter and whiter; when it has rise light work in every other ingredient except the plumbs, which work in when going into the oven.”
These are all rich ingredients, expensive and rare when the book was published, that explain how Election Day used to be celebrated. It is also known as Oak Cake, Hartford Election Cake, and Training Cakes, because another name for Election Day was Training Day.
Election Day was considered an important holiday in early New England and, in importance, it ranked second only to Thanksgiving.
Early Americans, flocking to town from their rural homesteads to cast their ballots, treated the occasion like a party, including alcohol and food to match and women, who at the time were denied the vote, provided refreshments to voters in the form of a dense buttery cake.
Ruled by the English, colonial American farmers were called to military practice for days of training sessions (know as mustering) to the nearest designated towns. They traveled, sometimes for days, and descended on the nearest designated towns for days of training sessions (mustering) and nights of socializing, carousing, and partaking of what become know as “Muster Cake.” The cake was served either at the church supper preceding the town meeting, or sold outside the polling place, like a one-cake bake sale, to help sustain voters.
These cakes were baked to celebrate Election Days at least as early as 1771, before the American Revolution of 1775. The Election Cake, as all cakes baked in colonial homes, was yeast-leavened, as there was no commercial baking powder, and they were baked in brick fireplace ovens. Colonial women vied with each other as to who baked the best cakes as families exchanged visits and treated their guest with slices of this cake. Historians feel that the recipe for Election Cake was adapted from popular period English yeast breads.
Despite studded with dried fruits and flavored with booze like the very popular English fruitcake, the texture of these cakes was definitely more dense due to the addition of eggs, sugar, and lots of butter. The only way to bake such gargantuan cakes was in large communal ovens.
Dense and rich, the cake provided fuel for weary voters, many of whom had traveled long distances to cast their ballot. Both the large numbers of people flooding into town and the special food and drink laid out for the occasion turned Election Day into a pleasant holiday.
While yeast-raised cakes largely disappeared after the advent of artificial leavening, also election-day rituals have partially faded from the American consciousness. As more Americans have gained the right to vote, there has also been a decline of sorts of celebration and excitement ar voting itself. Early on, when the Election Cake was first made, it was during the time when it was mostly propertied white men who could vote. But things changed, and that change was an affront to many who saw new voters as a threat.
About the history of women’s suffrage, and the history of Black Americans and other racial minorities trying to get the right to vote, their voting was not met with revelry and excitement, with women jailed and Black Americans beaten and killed for attempting to cast a ballot. It was a hard fight. And it’s still an ongoing fight. Such tension doesn’t exactly lend itself to a pleasant holiday….
Images from web – Google Research