Here come the groom's cakes

Jim Smeal created this cake for graduates of The Citadel.

This is the busy season for wedding cake bakers: June is the most popular month for U.S. weddings, with nearly 11 percent of marrying couples saying their vows, and many of them serving up fondant-finished concoctions to celebrate.

Throughout much of the country, a wedding cake is the only pastry associated with matrimony. But area bakers say the Lowcountry continues to uphold the tradition of the groom's cake, a Victorian period relic that folklorists were pronouncing dead as far back as 1977.

"The separate groom's cake was commonly seen in America until about 30 years ago," Margaret Baker wrote in a 37-year-old paper cited by Cherry P. Levin in her comprehensive overview of groom's cakes. Levin's 2013 paper for Digest: A Journal of Foodways and Culture. Levin relied on fieldwork in southeastern Louisiana to conclude, "The tradition is not only alive but flourishing in the southern part of the United States."

According to Andrea Felber of Duvall Catering & Event Design, between one-half and three-quarters of their wedding clients serve a groom's cake.

"All are related to a special hobby," Felber says, citing golf and fishing as popular motifs. "One woman actually created a Monopoly board with events related to her groom's hobbies and important moments in their relationship."

Or as Levin put it in her academic assessment of the practice: "The Southern groom's cake openly affirms individual masculine characteristics and male personality in the otherwise controlled space of wedding ritual."

In other words, a groom's cake is seen as a last bulwark against the frilliness and femininity of big white gowns, floral bouquets and signature pink cocktails (although, as Levin points out, "rarely does the groom participate in choosing his own cake." The design is almost always left up to the bride and her mother.)

"Groom's cakes are usually fun themes, and all about the groom," Hayden Campbell of Ashley Bakery says.

It's unclear where the groom's cake got its start. There were two cakes served at weddings in pre-industrial England, one for eating, and one for breaking over the bride's head, but neither cake was understood to belong to the groom. The idea of preparing a light, sugary cake for the bride and a dark, heavy fruitcake for the groom may have migrated from France in the 1600s. By the 1800s, the tradition was ingrained.

The fruitcake has evolved into a chocolate cake. And around Charleston, it's typically served at the rehearsal dinner. "I would say that half of the wedding cakes we do on a given weekend order groom's cakes from us for the rehearsal dinner," Campbell says. By contrast, in southeast Louisiana, groom's cakes are almost always served at wedding receptions.

Unlike wedding cakes, groom's cake trends don't vary much from year-to-year. Jim Smeal of Wedding Cakes by Jim Smeal says alma maters figure into many of the cakes he makes.

Felber adds, "The local guy trends are definitely anything related to their SEC/ACC schools."

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.