Friday, April 24, 2009

Dumb Cake.

The Old Foodie is in a saintly mood again, it seems. Tonight is the eve of the feast of St. Mark - and, if it is relevant to your particular circumstances – a night when some special ritual might help to divine the identity of your future husband. It is, in other words, another opportunity for a little magic and hope, if you missed St.Faith’s Eve last time around.

On certain ‘days’ of the year in the past, the spirit world was considered particularly accessible - which might be a good or a bad thing, depending on the spirit world’s opinion of you at the time. In these times, the new ‘day’ began at sunset – an earthly interpretation of the biblical idea of the Dark preceding the Light. I don’t know who was responsible for taking the arbitrary time of midnight to be the official start of a new day, nor when it happened – it is one of those factoids I have been intending to look up for years. Midnight has no connection with events in the natural world such as sunset or moonrise, and was meaningless in a time when no-one had a clock or any other sort of timepiece in the house. Anyway, I digress.

As on St. Faith’s Eve, young unmarried women could make ‘dumb cakes’ in a divination ritual that would reveal their future husbands to them. The cakes would be made from a simple mix of flour water and salt. One formula was

An egg-shell-full of salt,
An egg-shell-full of wheat meal.
An egg-shell-full of barley-meal.

Not a tasty dish, but the edibility was irrelevant to the magic. An essential part of the ritual was that the entire process be continued in silence (which is why they are called ‘dumb’ cakes – Duh!) There were all sorts of permutations and combinations and variations of aspects of the spell – most required a piece of the cake to be put under the pillow, the future spouse then appearing in a dream (which is why they were also called dreaming cakes.)

A larger interpretation of the same idea was the ‘Dumb Supper’ in which a whole meal was prepared and eaten in silence – either to propitiate the spirits, to allow one to consider ones spiritual fate without the distraction of chatter, or again – in the hope and expectation that the future husband would turn up as surprise guest. Well, it was well before Internet dating, so what was a girl to do? (instructions were quite gender-specific at the time, but I doubt the spirits will mind that we must broaden the idea today.)

It seems that the dumb cake ritual was used quite widely – St Agnes’ Eve, St Anne’s Eve, at Halloween, and even Christmas Eve. I am glad I found this out, for I have been puzzled by a recipe in an American book called Handy Household Hints and Recipes (1916) for some time. The Dumb Cake recipe appears midway between a paragraph on Halloween and one on Thanksgiving, and is also clearly autumnal (or should that be fallumnal, fallmal, fallen?), in its decoration, whereas St Mark’s eve is clearly springnal. It is equally clearly intended to be delicious. A far more likely cake to attract a husband of any gender, methinks.

For those of you who want to try its powers, here it is:

“Dumb cake.”
One and one-half pounds flour, one and one-half pounds sugar, one-half pound butter, two cups milk, four teaspoonfuls baking powder, ten eggs and two gills brandy and a little pulverized mace. Mix as any cake and bake in a flat pan. Now cut off two cornes to make it a triangle; ice top and sides with icing; outline nuts and garnish the lower edge with English walnuts and autumn leaves.

Quotation for the Day.

Hemp-seed I sow;
Hemp-seed I grow;
He that is my true love
Come after me, and mow.

A husband-hunting charm to be used on St. Mark’s Eve. It was believed that if this be done with complete confidence in the efficiency of the charm, the figure of the husband would appear, with scythe, mowing the crop. A husband lured by the prospect of mowing? Try the cake, ladies, try the cake.


Marisa Raniolo Wilkins said...

So what is happening in Venice on this day?
Saint Mark is the patron saint of Venice and although Venetians celebrate his feast day (25th April, the date of death of San Marco) they also celebrate Liberation Day (liberation from the Nazis at the end of 2nd World War) and Festa del Bòcolo (is a rose bud) and it is customary for all women, not just lovers, to be presented with a bud. The very old legend concerns the daughter of Doge Orso I Partecipazio, who was besotted with a handsome man, but the Doge did not approve and arranged for the object of her desire to fight the Turks on distant shores. The loved one was mortally wounded in battle near a rose bush. There he plucked a rose, tinged with his heroic blood and asked for it to be given to his beloved, in Venice.

It is a public holiday and all sorts of events take place.

‘Risi e bisi’ the classic Venetian dish was traditionally offered the Doge (do not know which one) on April 25, the feast of Saint Mark. This is not surprising, it is spring in the northern hemisphere and peas are one of the symbols of the season.

KT said...

great post! (laughs)

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

At first I thought this might be "Cake Baking for Dummies." Totally different. After a talkative week, I would welcome the silence!

Anonymous said...

The night maidens would eat dumb cake was the eve of St. Agnes, not St. Faith

The Old Foodie said...

Dumb cakes - or a variant thereof- were eaten on a number of divination nights, and in some areas it was St Faith's night.