Thanksgiving means turkey, the Fourth of July equals hot dogs and burgers, and Christmas brings ham, so why doesn’t America have a specific food to eat on Election Day? Perhaps because we’re too mired in disgust and/or despair by the time a presidential election rolls around every four years to be concerned with preparing a special dish. But at one point in time, at least in a certain region of the country, there was something called Election Cake.
While the tradition of baking a cake for Election Day has largely fallen by the wayside, the practice goes back hundreds of years. Though historians disagree on the origins of Election Cake — some say it can be traced to England, some say it was an American invention entirely — they do agree that it was originally known as “muster cake,” referring to the fact that people would travel from far and wide to town centers at election time to cast their votes.
It is often connected with Hartford, Connecticut and called Hartford Election Cake, but historians point out that the cake was baked throughout New England and generally referred to as Election Cake in cookbooks.
In her new cookbook, American Cake, author Anne Byrn writes Election Cake was often baked by candy makers or bakers and sold on Election Day as a way to draw voters out. "Often confectioners sold tickets to the event. On one such Election Day in 1841 in Montpelier, Vermont, the bakery advertised that with a 50-cent ticket you would receive a pound-size serving of cake and the chance of a ring inside."
Following the Revolution, the cakes became tied to the new democratic government, and were baked on Election Day as a celebratory dessert — hence, Election Cake.
Early recipes for the cake, the first of which appeared in a 1796 cookbook called American Cookery, sound not unlike fruitcake. Many contain dried fruit, booze, and spices like nutmeg and mace (but they also got a leavening boost from yeast, which would’ve helped prevent a dense cake). Below, a recipe from 1889.
ELECTION CAKE, No. 6 Miss C. M. Ely
Two quarts flour ; one and a half pounds sugar ; one pound butter and lard ; one pint home-made yeast ; one pint or more new milk. one egg ; one wineglass (sherry) of brandy and wine, mixed ; two nutmegs ; one pound raisins.
Mix at 2 P.M., adding half the butter and sugar, worked to a cream, with yeast, milk, a little salt, and all the flour. When light, at evening, work in the rest of the materials. Beat well. Let it rise over night, and, in the morning, work over, put in pans, and let it rise an hour. Bake in moderate oven. Frost the loaves.
Recipes for the cake evolved over decades. Here’s one from a Fannie Farmer Cookbook published in 1965:
#ElectionCake recipe I'm using from my 1965 Fannie Farmer cookbook. #MakeAmericaCakeAgain pic.twitter.com/sLdtRtt5Pi— heatheraki (@heatheraki) November 3, 2016
As the American Historical Association explains, Election Cake gave women a way to feel like they were participating in the new democracy even though voting at that time was a privilege reserved for the few — namely, property-owning white men: “Unable to cast their own votes, they nevertheless contributed to the civic culture of celebrating the young republic through food.”
Election cake - it's a thing. Women used to bake these and offer to voters (sometimes in effort to sway toward a particular candidate). It was a way of participating even though they couldn't cast a ballot. Not only can we vote now, but a woman is on the ticket - and damnit, we can still bake cake. #makeamericacakeagain #electioncake
Election Cake seemingly never gained much traction beyond New England, and by the early 1900s it had faded into obscurity as women’s suffrage gained traction. As new generations of Americans took the right to vote as a given, rather than a hard-won battle, the practice of celebrating Election Day by baking a cake fell out of a favor.
But leave it to the raging dumpster fire that is the 2016 presidential election to send Americans in search of any excuse to consume sugary carbs: A growing number of American bakers, led by Susannah Gebhart of Old World Levain Bakery in Asheville, North Carolina, have rediscovered the glory of election cakes and are attempting to #MakeAmericaCakeAgain.
While anxiously waiting for election results to roll in tonight, it may be tempting to forego food altogether in favor of a bottle of whiskey — but consider channeling that energy into baking instead, whether it’s a 19th-century recipe or one of those uber-patriotic, berry-studded flag cakes often seen at Fourth of July barbecues. We may not be able to control the outcome of the election, but we can control our cake consumption.