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

Election cake, as made by OWL Bakery in Asheville, N.C.
Susannah Gebhart
Courtesy of OWL Bakery
Election cake, as made by OWL Bakery in Asheville, N.C.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 24, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this post referred incorrectly to Johnston & Wales University. The correct name is Johnson & Wales University.
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