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A (Very Abridged) History of May Day Cake
Fertility rites, labor strikes, and buttercream all in one bite
May Day, a day historically associated with spring renewal, growth, and radical socialism, feels like an appropriate occasion to step into this new space of writing, recipes, and history after years of putting my work on the back burner. I’m pleased and only the slightest bit queasy about launching penknife, a newsletter about food stories, recipes, and bite-sized bits of food history. So grab a napkin, this story gets messy.
For many cultures over many generations, the first of May, or May Day, was a day to celebrate the arrival of spring. Communities celebrated the shift in agriculture, welcomed spring and all things fertile, blessed butter churns and milk cows in hopes of a prosperous season. In the Gaelic community, May Day is also known as Beltane, a major seasonal fire festival alongside Samhain in the fall and Lughnasadh in the late summer. In Eastern European countries, May Day has both pagan and Christian origins and is usually a day dedicated to welcoming the new season and warding off evil in various forms. Many include a maypole as part of their celebrations. Each culture celebrates May Day with specific foods and dishes, too, including butter and beer in Great Britain; a type of mead and fried dough cakes in Finland; and eggs and sweets in Italy.
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May Day remained a religious or cultural holiday up until the late nineteenth-century, when it became associated with the growing socialism movement in the United States (ironic isn’t it?). On May 1st, 1886, industrial workers across the United States went on strike, demanding an 8-hour workday. This date would later become known as part of the larger Haymarket Affair, so named for the peaceful protests that turned violent in the Haymarket Square in Chicago as part of the larger nationwide strike.
A few years later, the International Socialist Conference declared May 1st International Workers' Day in honor of the efforts and lives lost during the Haymarket Affair in 1886. Today, many countries use the term May Day or Labor Day for May, 1. But in the United States, we celebrate Labor Day in September and it is rarely associated with socialism or any of these historic events (seriously, we don’t even learn about them in school!).
Fast forward to the numerous Red Scares that occurred after both WWI and WWII, when the United States government promoted the fear of communist and socialist uprisings in America. The first Red Scare was specifically in response to the American Labor Movement of the 1910s and 1920s and warned the public about the danger of strikes, unionizing, and workers’ rights.
Around this time, recipes for May Day Cake featuring candy maypoles with matching ribbons started popping up in newspapers and cookbooks across the nation as part of the American May Day revival. This informal revival was born of the nationwide fear of change and the moral welfare of America’s working (and largely immigrant) class. With the advent of the 8-hour work day and the new “abundance” of non-working hours, social reformers from the wealthier (business owning) classes aimed to redirect worker’s attentions to wholesome and traditional American pastimes. And so they brought back, among many other things, May Day and added a few very American flourishes, too.
Of course, these May Day cakes didn't reference the already popular International Workers' Day version of May Day, but instead looped back to the original pagan holiday that celebrated the changing seasons, women, and fertility but was also, most importantly, part of America's constructed white, Anglo-Saxon past. These recipes are wholly American, calling for ingredients such as boxed cake mix, assembly in tube pans or tall, thick layers, and topped with traditional American buttercream (a mixture of powdered sugar, butter, and a little bit of cream). Later recipes suggest tinting the cake and/or the frosting in pale spring hues of green and rose. America was so afraid of labor unions and workers rights, it appears to have momentarily ignored its Puritanical ways to embrace the "lesser evil" of pagan fertility cakes. Whatever proved distracting from the growing interest in unions and workers’ rights.
May Day cakes seemed to fall out of favor around the 1970s (the last mention I could find in our historical newspaper database), but likely popped up here and there as spring or summer birthday cakes or were served at bridal shower luncheons during the appropriate season. None of these recipes even hinted at a connection to May Day’s other well-known socialist history, but with the current renewed interest in social reforms and work-life balance, perhaps we’ll see a resurgence of May Day cakes with maypoles once again.
Contemporary cake interpretation:
May Day Cake with yellow layer cake, elderflower and honey soak, American buttercream and strawberries, local edible flowers, beeswax candle maypole, no ribbons (because that just seems like a fire hazard, honestly).
Frosted on top in green, “bread and roses” is a phrase that is commonly associated with the successful textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, often referred to as the "Bread and Roses strike". The phrase is a metaphor appealing for both fair wages and dignified conditions, and is sometimes alternatively explained as the fight for fair work as well as intellectual respect.
Nothing feels more like a perfect combination of the traditional religious holiday and the social movement memorial than a cake of classic May Day symbols (flowers, honey, eggs, fire) topped with a phrase that has meant so much for American working women.
When writing feels insurmountable, I turn to social media to distill a bit of food history into bite-sized pieces for a too-quick TikTok or a rambling Instagram post. As intentional as I aim to be about making and curating public history, these platforms simply don’t provide enough time to properly unpack these subjects and rarely give the opportunity for citations or further reading. So if you’d like the shortest, food scholar approved version of this story, watch my TikTok:
Bibliography and Digital Resources:
Pairs well with:
Through her social media feeds and her LA whole grain micro bakery Red Bread, baker Rose Wilde serves up delicious bakes with plenty of food politics, too. Her debut cookbook Bread and Roses has been on my to-read list for quite some time and now it’s available for pre-order!
Bread and Roses: 100+ Grain Forward Recipes featuring Global Ingredients and Botanicals by Rose Wilde (follow her at @trosewilde over on Insta).
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