“Tinder for the 20th century” Dumb Cake: 1911

Yesterday was the 24 April – St Mark’s Eve.

Normally I don’t keep track of whichever saint we are celebrating on whatever day, but a Twitter post by Foods of England made me sit up and take notice of St Mark.

Just Mark, sitting on a lion while a disembodied hand waves at him from above.

Because, you see, St Mark’s Eve is the chance of a year for women to see into their own future, in a limited sort of way. Specifically, it’s a chance for unmarried women to get a glimpse of their future husbands through the use of *~*ritual magic*~*.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m already married. And while that may be true, the opportunity to check that there wasn’t a future husband out there was too good to pass up. Perhaps one who was willing to build me a replica Roman kitchen in our garden rather than moaning about “building regulations” and “fire hazards” and “parental responsibility to spend our money on school shoes instead” blah blah blah…

The ritual

According to Foods of England there are a few versions of Dumb Cake and the ritual that goes with it. The name may come from the Middle English word “doom” which originally meant “fate” or “judgement” – as in the Domesday Book (sometimes spelled Doomsday).

Anyway, the basic principals of the ritual were the same: unmarried girls had to bake some sort of cake together in silence. They would either eat the cake themselves or give it to another girl to eat, and that night would dream of the man they were to marry.

Cake before bed was an idea I could get behind. Though there seemed to be a few versions of the cake, many of them had missing ingredients or required the use of more girls than my family of 3 could accommodate.

In the end I settled on the 1911 recipe from Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District by Charles Dick. It seemed most appropriate – a complete (if very plain) recipe requiring the use of only 2 girls and, as Peterborough is not that far from me, semi-local.

Dumb Cake. On Midsummer Eve three girls are required to make a dumb cake. Two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put a piece under each of their pillows. Strict silence must be preserved. The following are the directions given how to proceed: The two must go to the larder and jointly get the various ingredients. First they get a bowl, each holding it and wash and dry it together. Then each gets a spoonful of flour, a spoonful of water and a little salt. When making the cake they must stand on something they have never stood on before. They must mix it together and roll it. Then they draw a line across the middle of the cake and each girl cuts her initials each on opposite sides of the line. Then both put it into the oven and bake it. The two take it out of the oven, and break it across the line and the two pieces are given to the third girl who places a piece under each pillow and they will dream of their future.

Not a word must be spoken and the two girls after giving the pieces to the third girl have to walk backwards to bed and get into bed backwards. One word or exclamation by either of the three girls will break the charm.

Another variation is that two only make the cake and go through the same form as the preceding, only they divide it themselves, then each eats her portion and goes to bed backwards as in the first case and nothing must be drank or a word spoken.

Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District.‘ by Charles Dick (1911)

The process

I had to make peace with the prospect that this might not work. Firstly, I was married and in every case the ritual stressed it was for unmarried girls. Secondly I intended to rope my husband into helping me; the recipe said it should be two girls making it, but I thought that he might appreciate the chance at seeing if there was a future husband for him too.

As the recipe made it clear the girls should go to bed as soon as the cake had been baked and eaten we decided to make it relatively late, so as not to waste our evening. Personally, I’d have quite liked an evening of silence.

We began by finding things we had never stood on before. I chose two books and spent much of the following hour slowly descending into the splits as the books slid further apart on the tiles. My husband, being a bit more practically minded, put one foot in a gift bag and one foot in a bag of our daughter’s toy blocks.

He was very smug about this. I mean, he couldn’t say anything, obviously, but the whole time we were cooking he just radiated smugness.

Then we began our cake in silence. Together we scrubbed a bowl and dried it. We each put a spoon of flour, a spoon of water and a pinch of salt into the bowl and mixed it up to a dough.

We rolled the dough out and shaped it into a circle. Then we scored it down the centre with a knife and added our initials to each side. The cake (although let’s be honest – it was bread dough really) was baked for 12 minutes while we shuffled around each other without saying a word and trying to make as little noise as possible. Of course within three minutes I’d slipped off my book-shoes and pulled a pile of plates off the side as I fell.

Once it was cooked we took it out of the oven together and very solemnly broke it in half. We ate our halves in silence, then, walking backwards, made our way upstairs (if you’ve never walked up steps backwards you’d be surprised at how tricky it is. I looked like a broken marionette, exaggeratedly lifting each leg because I couldn’t judge the step height.)

When the cake’s this plain, how good a husband are you hoping to attract?

But did it work?

This morning the first thing I asked my husband was what he’d dreamed of. His reply was “you”. Lovely, I thought.

“But…”

“But?”

“We were having an argument, and I decided I didn’t want to be married to you anymore.”

Ah.

My outcome was equally disappointing. Rather than a dashing prince, or an exciting adventurer (or even my current husband I guess I should add), I dreamed of Jim Henson. You know, the guy who invented the Muppets and who passed away in 1990.

Trouble was, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Jim Henson, so what I actually dreamed was that I met a man in a full body banana suit – like the ones people run in for charity – who told me he was Jim Henson.

Bloody dumb cake indeed.

E x

13 thoughts on ““Tinder for the 20th century” Dumb Cake: 1911

  1. This makes me think of the 1980s children’s comic book character, Bananaman!

  2. I cannot tell you how much I look forward to your posts! You have a firm fan in South Dakota, USA.
    P. S.
    Regardless of what you may of heard of our governor (which frankly may just be nothing or something ridiculed by comedians) but please know there are sane people in this country.

    1. Thank you! This has made my evening.
      News of your governor hasn’t reached us in the UK yet (at least not as far as I’m aware) but I had a quick Google and… ah. All I can say is I hope you’re doing OK and staying safe at this moment!

  3. Is there an age limit on this activity or any requirement about being a maiden etc? Iā€™m putting April 24th in my diary. Current husband pretty much worn out so I may need a new one by then.

  4. Hilarious as usual. Do you write as well? I for one would be straight to Waterstones.

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