US Election 2016: Is this cake the sweetest thing to rise from a bitter campaign?
- 1 November 2016
- From the section US Election 2016
It may be the sweetest thing to come out of the hellish oven that is this year's US election.
As the sun rises over the Old World Levain (OWL) Bakery in Asheville, North Carolina, a heady, warm scent of spices floats through the air outside.
In the kitchen, bakers Susannah Gebhart and Maia Surdam are working with sourdough culture, dried fruit, butter, sorghum syrup and generous measures of sherry and whisky to revive an American tradition - the "election cake."
"It was originally from New England," says Surdam. "When colonists were required to participate in militia training, women in villages would make something called 'muster cake' for the troops."
"There was an air of festivity," Gebhart adds, "and not only for those who were training. There were games, there was a lot of food, and it would be a source of entertainment."
After the American Revolution the cakes - derived from similar "great cakes" which the early colonists would have eaten in Britain - became linked to politics rather than gatherings of citizen soldiers.
Bryce Evans, a food historian at Liverpool Hope University, notes that in early America, elections were held in the spring, and election day itself became a secular rival to the Catholic holiday of Pentecost.
The early cakes were of gigantic proportions - one recipe called for "Thirty quarts flour, ten pounds butter, fourteen pounds sugar" and would have made a cake weighing one hundred pounds.
"They are enormous and filled with alcohol and fruit with the intention of getting men to vote," says Evans, who's spending this election season researching the cake's history at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
Starting as early as the 1800s, however, the idea of election cake began to get a bit stale - urbanisation, increasingly localised voting and a declining number of citizens tracing their roots to New England and to Britain meant that the trend died out.
"Although it's still mentioned in recipe books, even until the 1960s and 70s," Evans says, "it's always as a heritage dish, something that is from the distant past."
Gebhart also points to the changing tastes of America: "Lighter, fluffier, less heavily spiced cakes came into fashion. The election cake might have been a bit passe at a certain point."
She read about the recipe on a food blog, and at a conference with other bakers earlier this year an idea was born.
It's a safe bet that Hillary Clinton has the trendy bakery vote sewn up - a brief non-scientific survey of OWL customers fails to find any vocal support for Donald Trump. And picturesque Asheville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a relatively liberal enclave in western North Carolina. In 2012, President Obama won the city handily despite losing the state.
But Gebhart insists the election cake revival is strictly neutral, with profits donated to the non-partisan League of Women Voters. The OWL bakers say their choice of charity is a nod to the ways in which women influenced the political process well before they were granted the right to vote.
"There have been records of women baking these cakes not only to serve to everyone who attended the polls, but also to campaign for certain candidates," Gebhart says.
"For me, the election cake is bringing people together and baked goods are the most primal icebreaker," she says. "It's great to make something that's unusual and that gets people talking and is intended to be shared.
"There's a lot of bad feeling around this election and I think we forget how lucky we are to live in a country where there are, presumably, peaceful elections."
While incorporating regional ingredients like syrup made from sorghum, a cereal grain, and Kentucky bourbon, the OWL bakers have mostly stuck to tradition with a naturally leavened sourdough culture and heirloom spelt flour that produces a dense, moist, tangy loaf. (Their recipe can be found here.)
As the latest batch emerges from the oven there's a steady stream of customers in and out of the bakery, some of whom have made a special trip to try the cake.
"I think it's a great idea to make the election a bit sweeter," says Cindy Krimmelbein. "Anything for a little relief from all the divisiveness."
"The flavour was really good," says Summer Kole, as her small daughter happily chomps on a piece. "But then the texture threw me off... I found it confusing."
She reflects for a second.
"So in a way," she says, "it's a cake that fits this election."