By Walter W. Woodward
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2017
At last summer’s Democratic national convention, delegates introduced Connecticut as “the home of the pizza and the hamburger.” They might more appropriately have praised us as the home of the Connecticut Election Cake.
From the earliest days of the republic until the late 19th century, elections in Connecticut were joyous events, even when bitterly contested. The idea of democracy itself—that in America the people chose their own rulers—was a sweet one, and the entire week surrounding the May election and inauguration of state officials was an extended period of pomp, circumstance, parades, and celebration.
How gay [the election]was . . . how everybody looked forward to it!” wrote an unnamed “Hartford Lady,” reminiscing in The Hartford Courant on April 30, 1867. “How the country people poured in . . . to see ‘lection. Every house was in apple pie order, summer arrangements completed . . . fireplaces filled with lilac blossoms and flowers.” In addition to election parades, “there was a grand ball in the evening then, . . . an election sermon … preached before the governor and legislature.
Crucial to every fete was an Election Cake. “After the parade,” another participant recalled in The Courant (May 29, 1867), “the governor and his suite were in the court house, the cake would be passed around to friends and spectators in a large open basket with a fine white napkin covering it, on which rested the great loaf frosted and sugar plummed in an elaborate manner.” “Oh the quantities of cake,” wrote “Hartford Lady.” “A batch of election cake was 12 loaves, but there had to be more than one batch, and plenty of sponge cake with it. . . Children could have a cent any time they asked for it on ‘lection day. And cake! A big piece, not a slice, every time they run into the house.”
Election cake was a memorably delicious mixture of spirit-infused cake, richly frosted and studded with raisins, sugar plums, and other fruits. Making it, especially in the quantities required during the election week, was a formidable challenge. “Lovers of it when it is just right say that no other cake equals it,” wrote a Courant reporter on April 12, 1876. “To obey the best recipes the accomplished cook must sit up all night with it” to make sure the dough rose properly. The reporter added that, “Nobody can make it but an old Connecticut housekeeper, and each housekeeper and her circle of adherents know that she makes it a deal better than any of her rivals.”
In 1877, when the legislature voted to move inauguration day to early January, many feared for the continuation of Connecticut’s election celebrations. The election sermon had already been discontinued (in 1832), and now, since “the governor’s foot guards are not armed with snow shovels,” the public parades were likely to end, too. “The sermon has gone out, the parade is going out, [and]though the whole institution may become a thing of the past,” the Courant writer opined, “one feature of it will always remain, and that is the election cake.”
Now, when elections often leave so many with a bad taste in their mouths, may be just the right moment to bring back the Connecticut Election Cake, and to celebrate again the sweetness of democracy.
Walter Woodward is the Connecticut state historian. Listen to his podcasts at gratingthenutmeg.libysn.com, and find out where is speaking at cthistory.org.