The Tell-Tale Tart: Chronicling Campus History with Cake
Birthdays—at my age, they are just another day in our gradual and inevitable march through time, but my one pleasure in marking my incremental increase in years is eating cake. Cake is my favorite food, and I’ve mentioned it in other blogs before, but since I had a blog due on my birthday this year, I decided to exploit the situation for my own advantage and write about this exquisite dessert.
Cake is an iconic, beautiful marker of momentous occasions and our biggest celebrations: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and graduations. Birthday cakes have a long history in Europe, where they began as fruitcakes. The modern layered birthday cake became popular in early America where there were fewer bakeries and home bakers used layers to make taller cakes more quickly (Byrn 2016:266). Although bakeries are more plentiful now and bake many birthday cakes, they carry on the tradition of being tall, layered spectacles. Check out the awesome options offered on campus by MSU Bakers!
Anniversary celebrations also frequently include cake. For its centennial anniversary in 1955, MSU had a large and ornate layered cake made. For MSU’s sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary in 2005, the Dairy Store released an ice cream flavor that remains a favorite today: Sesquicentennial Swirl. It is vanilla ice cream with white cake and green frosting swirls. Cake evokes such feelings of communal celebration that it was incorporated into this celebratory flavor.
Last year I wrote about an 1884 banquet held for the MSU class of 1886. They served ten (10!) different types of cake at this occasion, including chocolate (my personal favorite). My perusals of earlier cookbooks found they rarely included chocolate cake, and it only became popular in the 1880s after companies like Hershey arose and railroads facilitated travel and the spread of ingredients and ideas. The first chocolate cake recipe wasn’t published in the US until 1886 (Burn 2016:68), so these MSU students were ahead of the curve!
Although cake can act as a public symbol of jubilation, it can also play an important role in everyday life. As much as I enjoy birthday and wedding cake, so do I enjoy grabbing a coffee and cupcake with a friend, or enjoying a slice at home by myself when relaxing after a long week. It is these little moments that do not get captured in photos posted in the newspaper, but instead these are moments captured in the memories of students as part of their experiences here at MSU.
The earliest mention I can find of cake on campus is from the diary of Edward Granger in 1858. On Christmas Eve he wrote, “12 o’clock (midnight) Mr. Charley and Bush have just returned from an expedition to the lower regions. The booty consists in about a peck of fried cakes, to a portion of which we have been giving ample justice” (UA10.3.56, Folder 1). Whether these fried cakes were more like donuts or johnny cakes we cannot be sure, but it’s obvious that these scandalously-procured items were a sinful treat for these mischievous college students. Granger also revealed an affinity for ginger treats, which inspired the ginger cake we served at our 1860s meal reconstruction last spring.
One of the most entertaining accounts of cake come from Maurice Grenville Kains in a memoir from the Michigan State College of Agriculture Class of 1895. He recounts a take from Boarding Club A, when the notorious Joe Bush would sneak into the dining hall before everyone else so that he could position the pie or cake of the day near his seat so he could choose the biggest piece and also assure that he would get a second piece once the dessert was passed back around. His fellow students grew tired of his hijinks and delayed him from entering early one day, and “when he saw his place, the whole room burst into a roar of laughter; for beside his plate was a little pig trough!” (Kains 1945:135).
The Anna E. Bayha Home Management House was one of four buildings on campus built to give women students the task of living in and running their own homes (see Lisa’s post from a few years ago for more information). Each year, the Bayha House residents made photo albums documenting both everyday and special events that went on in the house. In the Fall 1949 Album is a delightful page titled “Char Baked a Cake” with comments such as “frosting is good!” inscribed on the page (UA.15.3, Vol. SB10, Scrapbook 10, 1947-1953). This is a lovely peek into the lives of women on campus, and it appears they enjoyed both baking and eating their culinary creations.
The Bayha scrapbooks even provided us with a clue to an archaeological mystery on campus. CAP found pieces of distinctive plates with raised edges at the Gunson trash pit. The Gunson house later became the Bayha House, and a photo from the 1946 scrapbook shows the ladies serving cake on the same style plates! We do, however, know that this type of plate was likely used for serving cake and other desserts, and may have been specially reserved to function as cake plates on campus.
Cake has undoubtedly played a significant role in the history of MSU, acting as a symbol of celebration, community, friendship, leisure, and even defiance in both the public and private lives of student and faculty alike. With the popularity of Sesquicentennial Swirl, the vast array of cakes available in the cafeterias, and the gorgeous creations of the MSU Bakers for birthdays and graduations, I think cake will continue to be an iconic treat on campus for a very long time.
Well, that’s enough from me. Writing this blog has made me hungry, so I’m going to follow in the footsteps of my MSU predecessor’s and go eat some cake!
Byrn, Anne. American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best-Loved Cakes. New York: Rodale, 2016.
Kains, Maurice G., editor. Fifty Years out of College: A Composite Memoir of the Class of 1895 Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science. New York: Greenberg, 1945.
Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections:
UA10.3.56, Edward Granger Papers, Folder 1
Diary of E.G. Granger, 1859
UA.15.3, College of Human Ecology Records, Vol. SB10
Scrapbook 10, 1947-1953