MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As we just heard, Americans don't agree on who should take over the Oval Office. But I hope we can all agree on one thing - cake. It turns out that cake has an important place in U.S. election history. More than 100 years before women had the right to vote, they were making something called election cake basically to encourage men to come out and vote.
Bakers Susannah Gebhart and Maia Surdam, the proprietors of OWL Bakery in Asheville, N.C., heard about these old recipes and are trying to encourage bakers across the country to revive the tradition and - OK, I'll say it - make America cake again. Susannah Gebhart and Maia Surdam are with us now from Asheville. Thanks so much for joining us.
SUSANNAH GEBHART: Thank you.
MAIA SURDAM: Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: So let me say I heard about your campaign in "Bon Appetit," giving credit where credit is due. But where did you two hear about it? Maia, I understand that in addition to being a baker, you're a bit of a food historian. So do you remember how you heard about this tradition?
SURDAM: Well, I actually heard about the cake through Susannah. And she heard about it when it was called muster cake. So actually, even before America existed, the colonists were required to go on military training days, militia days. They would go to these villages, and the women of the towns would make something called muster cake.
MARTIN: Muster like - not mustard like the seed, like the condiment, but muster like..
SURDAM: ...Muster the troops.
MARTIN: Muster the troops. OK, I got it.
SURDAM: Women named the cake election cake. And there were other types of desserts, like Independence Day cake or federal pancake. And these names seem kind of cute or kitchy now, but the cake offered an opportunity for women who didn't have access to formal political channels to nevertheless participate in a civic culture surrounding voting.
And I think that's something to keep in mind because, you know, women can vote in America today, which is wonderful, but it came after a long struggle and a lot of women who fought for that right to vote. And so I think the election cake really symbolizes that, that long struggle and the tradition of women putting themselves, whenever possible and however possible, into the democratic process.
MARTIN: You know, the - "Bon Appetit" was nice enough to include a recipe. They say that the first recorded recipe was written in 1796 by Amelia Simmons in her second-edition book, "American Cookery." Let me just start it off here - 30 quarts flour, 10 pounds butter, 14 pounds sugar, 12 pounds raisin, three dozen eggs - and here's where it gets fun - a pint of wine, a quart of brandy, lots of spices. Do you have a pan that big at the bakery?
MARTIN: I don't - I mean...
GEBHART: Well, I believe...
MARTIN: ...What, do you bake it in a bathtub? I mean...
GEBHART: (Laughter). We're actually making much smaller versions.
GEBHART: However, in the Colonial and - era and the young republic, there were community bread ovens, wood-fired ovens. And these cakes would likely have been baked in loaf format, I suppose. And...
MARTIN: ...So what would you do? Make a huge big, batch and then divide it up into smaller loaves and do...
GEBHART: ...Or rather large loaves.
MARTIN: Large loaves. Yeah, that sounds pretty big.
GEBHART: There's a record - Maia came across a record of one being a foot deep in some of her historical research. And...
MARTIN: ...Is the idea here - was the idea here to - what? - make Election Day a holiday? Was that the idea? To make it fun, make it celebratory?
SURDAM: Well, that was certainly how it used to be. This is Maia. Election Day was treated more like a holiday. And there was this sense that it was something really to celebrate. And people would come out and gather and not just eat cake, but play games and socialize and drink a lot of alcohol. And it was like a big party. We thought that that would be an interesting thing to try to reintroduce, and to reintroduce this cake that could serve potentially as a way for us to celebrate the democratic process.
MARTIN: So, Susannah, don't keep us in suspense. How does it taste?
MARTIN: I understand that you have one, I think, that's kind of - I mean, you have...
GEBHART: ...We do.
MARTIN: You actually have one in the studio there, but you're in North Carolina and we're here. So we are kind of...
GEBHART: And we would love to mail one to you.
MARTIN: ...feeling left out. Thank you. Dropping a major hint here (laughter). How is it? It sounds like fruitcake, kind of like fruitcake, like Christmas cake that a lot of people have. Is that - was that what it tastes like?
GEBHART: It's certainly in the camp of fruitcake. In our version, there's a bright tanginess lended by the - both the sourdough culture and some yogurt that we incorporate. And then, of course, the booze and the dried fruits contribute sweetness. And so in addition to the spices that we add, it's quite a beguiling little cake, but one that I find incredibly delicious.
MARTIN: That's Maia Surdam and Susannah Gebhart from the OWL Bakery in Asheville, N.C. telling us about election cake and hopefully sending us some so we can sample it. Thank you both so much.
GEBHART: Thank you.
SURDAM: Thank you.
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