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Issue 08 – Christmas 2021

The Jungle

Iced Bunting

On cakes capturing a moment.

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During peak wedding season this summer in western Pennsylvania, the entryway of the wedding department of Bethel Bakery offered a cool respite from the heat. Inside, the chill kept the buttercream icing on the cakes firm and unmelted. In the window display, a white four-tiered cake had a garland of lifelike gum paste roses twined around it. There was also a cake with iced green vines cascading from yellow and white bouquets, and a cake dappled with strung edible pearls and wrapped with ribbon. In the walkway of the bakery’s wedding department were information pamphlets entitled “The Wedding Cake.”

When I was a bride-to-be, the wedding cake occupied less space in my mind than my dress selection and far less than the ceremony at my local parish. Still, it was difficult not to be somewhat captivated by the mythology surrounding the American wedding, an event young girls begin to envision after being introduced to Disney. The cakes in the window, vertiginous like castles, and with ornate ball-gown layers, recalled the enchantment on the faces of Drew Barrymore and her friends in The Wedding Singer.

Cake may seem like a trivial feature in the wedding planning process, but Americans in 2019 spent on average five hundred dollars on them, hardly a marginal expense. I was curious about the wedding cake industry when I was browsing for my own. I’m not alone in that fascination. The industry has captured Americans’ imaginations through shows like Cake Boss on T.L.C., which features the nationally known Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken. The show regularly features grandiose wedding cakes, like the one modeled after an imperial palace, with grand staircases and a central water fountain. It probably also had plumbing.

But reality television is not reality, although that doesn’t preclude smaller businesses from the excitement of making wedding dreams come true. The wedding industry boomed in Pittsburgh after lockdowns forced many couples to scale down the size of their weddings or to postpone them until the following year. Bethel, which is one of Pittsburgh’s most popular bakeries for wedding cakes, adjusted accordingly, with smaller cakes for smaller weddings and at-home cake tastings. 

The bakery has the wedding cake production business down to an art and a science. When I visited, behind the neatly arranged front window display was a group of bakers, pastry chefs, and artists, stationed in two kitchens. Mysterious sounds and saccharine smells emanated from the busy rooms. The employees, who were nearly all women, were at their stations, focusing on creating bits and pieces and odds and ends for cake orders, each according to her expertise. 

During my tour, Lori, Bethel Bakery’s fondant specialist, gingerly used a spatula to remove a delicate white gel from a lace mold; the gel, which is edible naturally, would later be woven carefully around a cake tier. In the back kitchen, multiple industrial ovens baked cake layers and hundreds of pastries, which were placed in multiple levels of trays on rolling racks. One employee was working on wrapping pastry dough around dozens of wooden dowels, which eventually became lady locks filled with delicate white buttercream. The pastry is a favorite for the Pittsburgh cookie table, a tradition at local weddings. 

The heat was a stratospheric separating wall between the baking department and the decorating department, the latter of which was where the temperature-sensitive cakes were prepared.

“The most beautiful thing about a wedding cake is that every single department touches it,” said Nicolette Liles, the bakery manager. “It’s not just icing, not just the decorators. Every single department has a hand in this.”

Bethel Bakery has been in business since 1955, when wedding cakes had more standardized styles and the mass-produced bride-and-groom toppers were in vogue. Although weddings have been celebrated with cakes since Roman antiquity, the white-colored wedding cake didn’t emerge until the seventeenth century, and the color was initially not symbolic but rather a product of the white refined sugar with which it was made. White icing on a cake became a symbol for purity in Victorian England. After it was used on Queen Victoria’s wedding cake in 1840, it was commonly called “royal icing.” 

Wedding cakes have rapidly changed as technology, taste, and culinary techniques have developed. Today, softer, creamier buttercream has dethroned the Queen’s harder icing. The standard Wilton bride-and-groom topper has also largely become a kitschy Americana relic, sold on eBay in plastic and porcelain as a souvenir from a bygone era. 

The ornate, beribboned cake of the mid-century, often festooned with iced bunting and columns, is mostly passé, according to Emily, a consultant at the bakery. The brides of 2021 want tall, narrow cakes, increasingly with texture instead of rhinestones and showy embellishment, and they often want their cakes carefully personalized. Couples usually prefer the initials of the bride and groom or “Mr. and Mrs. (Last Name)” as toppers. 

Brides have more choices than they did in the last century. Kelly, who has worked at the bakery for thirteen years, says inspiration for cakes during consultations used to come from large, leather catalogues that featured pre-determined design options with room for limited alterations, or from magazines brought in by brides. This was the standard in the wedding cake industry.

“People got to see more things, and they wanted their cake to be an expression of themselves,” Kelly told me. The popularity of websites and apps such as Pinterest and Instagram, has made design possibilities for wedding cakes endless. On Etsy, one shop selling cake-topper figurines prompts customers to send high-resolution photos of the bride and groom’s faces and the respectives tuxedo and dress each will wear. The figurines even account for minute characteristics such as complexion and eye color. Another bestselling cake topper depicts a groom with an Ohio State Buckeyes jersey exposed beneath his tuxedo.

The consultants and production team at Bethel have worked together in what Liles has likened to a “sisterhood” to pull off unforgettably idiosyncratic requests. Many brides want zany, whimsical cakes. Emily described a wedding cake request that included black fondant and blood streaks painted on the cake’s sides and spider and skeleton details for a couple who chose to get married on Halloween. 

Others want cakes that look like refrigerator doors covered in fragmented pieces of their lives—photos, to-do lists, and cards that are meaningful to the couple. Liles showed me a picture of a wedding cake that tracked the couple’s relationship from the time they met up until their engagement with various symbols. The bakery also had a request to recreate the handwriting of the bride’s late grandmother with a Bible verse. “This is meaningful to people for the rest of their lives,” Liles said. “To us, they’re beautiful cakes that go out every week. But each one is so important to the people they’re going to. It’s a moment, not just a product.”

Perhaps for this reason, parting with their creations is bittersweet for the people at Bethel. Wedding cake bakeries are tasked with listening to the couple before synthesizing and recreating the most personal details of their lives in an edible form, often over the course of weeks or months. The women at Bethel reflected wistfully on brides of weddings past as if these clients were close friends, and spoke of parting with the cakes in the manner of empty nesters who just sent their youngest child off to a distant college. They could recall every detail of previous wedding cake orders: personal stories behind the cake requests, the batter and filling flavors, venues, and even the weather on the day that the cake was scheduled to be delivered.

During my tour, Jess, a cake decorator, was freehand painting vines and flowers on a cake that was expected to look like a vision from the fertile gardens of Persian poetry (my words, not the bride’s). The illustrations included butterflies, sparrows, and other creatures. Her mise-en-place looked like that of a painter’s—bottles of food coloring for icing were neatly arranged at her station like a palette, and two small tubs of green and black icing were prepared to detail the dainty plants and animals. 

I asked her how it felt knowing that she would soon have to part with her creation, which was destined for digestion.

“It’s defeating,” she smiled. “But you know what, I know I did this for my wedding and said, ‘We will not be cutting the cake until dessert time, when it’s just time to dance on the dance floor.’”

The notification of a successful cake delivery relieves the anxiety of management at Bethel, who are all too familiar with Pittsburgh’s steep hills and potholes. The cakes will be ogled by a newlywed couple, eager to make the ceremonial first cut of the cake, which will be immortal only in photos. 

Ars longa, vita brevis does not apply here.

Marlo Slayback is the national director of student programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Her writing has appeared in the Spectator, National Review, and other publications.

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About the author

Marlo Slayback

Marlo Slayback is the national director of student programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Her writing has appeared in the Spectator, National Review, and other publications.