As the 2016 election season reaches its climax, one of our research fellows has provided us with a delicious treat to celebrate the occasion. Bryce Evans, senior lecturer in history at Liverpool Hope University, England, is researching the history of an aptly named historical goodie: the election cake.
This dish has its roots in the enormous cakes New England women baked to sustain militias. However, after the American Revolution it became associated with elections and was offered as an incentive for men to cast their ballot. Although there are many variations on this treat, it is typically filled with a variety of dried fruits, spices, and plenty of booze. The cake is unique in that it contains yeast, making it resemble more of a bread than a cake.
Evans is particularly interested in how election cakes varied in size over time as America itself was changing. The original 17th-century election cakes were enormous—big enough to sustain large numbers of male voters. As America gained its independence and became more industrialized and urban, the cakes became smaller, resembling more of a sweet loaf. This can be attributed to the cake being baked domestically rather than communally and the influx of different ethnic groups who preferred cooking by stove rather than by hearth.
The Winterthur Library collection is rich in materials related to this dessert, including recipe books and other items focused on the history of American foodways. “The material in the Downs Collection has given me unique insight into the history of the election cake, and although researching cake sounds a tad decadent, it’s about more than just cake, it’s about understanding what a changing recipe says about a changing American society,” notes Evans.
Although the cake disappeared from popular memory around the middle of the 20th century, this election cycle has seen a resurgence in the tradition. Bakeries across the country are baking the treat again, and just last week Evans was interviewed by the BBC in the UK to provide insight into this historical recipe.
The riches of the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera are not limited to the written word—the librarians have taken a keen interest in the subject and have turned into bakers this election season to help Evans with his research. “Bryce became interested in election cake, and we were discussing how unusual it is because the recipes called for yeast, which you would use with bread not cake,” Downs Librarian Laura Parrish noted. “I checked a couple of cookbooks I had at home and found a modern recipe, so I decided I would make an election cake. His interest became my interest.”
It is this creative, supportive, and dynamic environment that makes the Research Fellowship Program at Winterthur a special and integral part of the institution. Fellows do not merely pore over dusty manuscripts by themselves in the library but are immersed into a community that cares deeply about material culture research. Staff and fellows brainstorm, collaborate, and even bake in order to better understand the deliciousness of the American past—even if it means getting flour all over the kitchen!
If you are interested in coming to Winterthur to research the sweet treats of America’s past or to explore our rich collections for materials related to other aspects of American history, please come and join our community by applying to the Research Fellowship Program. For more information on the program, view our brochure.
Applications due January 15, 2017
Post by Thomas Guiler, Manager and Instructor, Academic Programs, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library