On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which a conservative Christian baker in Colorado refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple because he opposes same-sex marriage and believes his actions are protected by the First Amendment.
At first glance, the object at the center of the case — a wedding cake — may seem like an unlikely candidate for a fight over civil rights. But the baker at the center of the case, Jack Phillips, has said that his cakes are a deep artistic expression of his religious beliefs, and the couple who tried to hire him, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, have found that the dessert has become a symbol of equality or the lack thereof.
And in fact, wedding cakes have never been about just flour and sugar. Many different meanings have been baked into wedding cakes throughout history.
To the ancient Romans, for example, a wedding cake was a symbol of good luck.
“Ancient Roman wedding ceremonies were finalized by breaking a cake of wheat or barley (mustaceum) over the bride’s head as a symbol of good fortune,” according to the food studies journal Gastronomica. “The newly married couple then ate a few crumbs in a custom known as confarreatio — eating together. Afterwards, the wedding guests gathered up the crumbs as tokens of good luck. The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), wrote that the breaking of the cake over the bride’s head mellowed into crumbling the sweet wheat cakes over her head.” That history has even been linked by some to the modern tradition of the couple smearing the cake onto each other’s faces.
Similarly, in medieval England, if the bride and groom could share a kiss over a tall stack of sweet buns, then they’d experience a “lifetime of prosperity,” according to the article, by Carol Wilson. Guests could get a taste of that “lifetime of prosperity” as well. In one iteration of a so-called “bride pie,” the guest who happened to be served a slice containing a coin would be blessed with good fortune — a tradition similar to the one surrounding King Cakes — and if a guest found a ring, then that was thought to mean that he or she would be married in a year. There is also a record of a savory “bride pie” or “Bride’s Pye” made out of “oysters, pine kernels, cockscombs, lambstones (testicles)” in the 1685 cookbook The Accomplisht Cook. Another iteration served in Yorkshire is said to have served with a “plump hen full of eggs” in the center lined with minced meats “said to sum up the complexities of marriage.”
How the cake is eaten has thought to have mattered as well. “A taste of the cake before the wedding means loss of the husband’s love (while a piece of cake kept after the big day ensures his fidelity),” the article adds. And eating the cake was also not only associated with being rich in terms of money but also fertility, so guests were thought to have been specifically required to eat a piece to ensure that the couple would be able to have children.
The origins of the modern wedding cake can be traced back to the one made for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840, argues Claire Stewart in the book As Long As We Both Shall Eat: A History of Wedding Food and Feasts. “The massive cake was festooned with a sugar sculpture of Britannia (the female figure who stands in as the physical embodiment of Britain),” she writes. “A dog at Britannia’s feet represented faithfulness, with sculptures of the bride and groom, amid fluttering turtledoves, draped safely in classical Roman garb.” It was coated with white icing, which was a luxury at the time due to the cost of refined sugar and the time required to make it. The white icing has also been interpreted as a symbol of virginity, and this wedding would also popularize another tradition at the center of the modern wedding: wearing a white wedding dress.
These traditions would make their way across the pond as American lifestyle magazines like Godey’s Lady Book wrote about them. In 1886, the 49-year-old Grover Cleveland became the only President to get married in a White House ceremony, when he wed the 21-year-old Frances Folsom — and pieces of their wedding cake, a fruitcake, have since become tourist attractions.
By the 1930s, the tradition of the bride cutting the first slice had evolved. “Since she was soon to become a housewife, it made sense for the bride to take on these serving activities a preparation for a lifetime role,” Cele C. Otnes and Elizabeth Pleck argue in Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding. By the ’40s, and ’50s, they write, the tradition of the groom helping the bride cut the cake emerged, a response to the development of a harder-to-cut stiffer icing and also a demonstration of “the male provider role.” Cake toppers became popular in the ’50s, amid the rise of increased economic stability represented by the growing middle class and suburbanization.
TIME observed that phenomenon in 1961, as the burgeoning “wedding industry” offered many options for customizing every aspect of wedding tradition — including the cake: “In Los Angeles many brides blithely order chocolate wedding cakes instead of the traditional fruitcake,” the story noted, and one planner encouraged the couple’s parents to arrange to store “a layer of frozen wedding cake for presentation to the bride and groom as a first-wedding-anniversary present.”
That business would only get bigger in the age of television and then the Internet, and so did the rituals it supports. And no matter what the Supreme Court decides, the cake’s meanings will continue to evolve.