The Girl In The Cake

[Today’s post is sponsored by my dear friend and colleague, Oreana Harless LCSW, inarguably the best social worker in all of Idaho. She tells me she like Vegas, she likes kitsch, she likes history, and she likes to eat. Therefore, this tale seems a natural to dedicate to her]

When one thinks about it, having a grown woman jump out of a baked pastry is rather odd. Where did this practice originate?

As with most things decadent, we have the Romans to thank, although they merely got this ball rolling, and future generations of lecherous males perfected it. To the Romans, food WAS entertainment. Wealthy hosts tried to outdo one another with exotic fare: peacocks, ostriches, and rare songbirds were oft on the menus. Then, someone thought up the idea of stuffing one entree inside another, and the fad caught on. A host might carve the belly of a beef only to reveal an entire roasted pig inside. Petronius wrote of dishes that were staged to make the animals appear that they were still alive: baked fish arranged to be swimming in a sea of sauce, for example, or a roasted rabbit with a fowl’s wings attached to appear as Pegasus taking flight.

With the passage of the Roman Empire, the wealthy of medieval times and the Renaissance kept up the practice. Peacocks grilled and then adorned in their original plumage. Fried roosters decked out in (thin paper) armor doing battle with equally cooked suckling pigs. You get the grotesque picture.

Having to always up the ante, eventually it was decided to use live animals. An Italian cookbook from 1474 had one Maestro Martino explaining how to make a hole in the bottom of a pie’s crust such that

“some live birds, as many as it will hold [can be put inside], and the birds should be placed in it just before it is to be served; and when it is served before those seated at the banquet, you remove the cover above, and the little birds will fly away. This is done to entertain and amuse your company.”

Robert May, author of a 1660 British cookbook, describes how these birds would tend to flap everywhere, creating “a diverting hurley-burley amongst the guests.”

[sidebar: this trend may have inspired the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” in which four-and-twenty blackbirds are presented in a dish to the king]

[sidebar: today, this practice lives in the form of “pie birds,” diminutive ceramic figurines placed in pies to allow steam to escape]

Once again, in keeping up with the Joneses, in 1626, the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham presented Charles I with a pie from which emerged a dwarf.

You see where we’re going with this, don’t you?

Depending on the social mores of the age – think Stuart Restoration, think pre-Victorian Hanoverians, think Edward VII, think the Roaring Twenties – attractive women began to replace mere birds and dwarfs, not surprisingly as such banquets were thrown by rich males for other rich males, all of the dutiful wives staying at home. One particularly debauched party was thrown by Stanford White, a prominent NYC architect, in 1895. His enormous pie contained a nearly-naked 16 year old beauty, one Susie Johnson, much to the delight of the diners. This is now known to history as the Pie Girl Dinner… go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait.

[sidebar: White’s excesses were the eventual end of him, since he was murdered by the enraged spouse of a former pie girl – White, you see, apparently performed this schtick more than once. The fact that White had deflowered the maiden before putting her in a pie didn’t help his case with said enraged spouse]

By the 1950s, it became downright mainstream for office blow-outs and alcohol-fueled conventions to feature an attractive woman in a giant cake, usually in a skimpy bathing suit or completely nude, depending on the audience and event. The girl-in-cake trend became so pervasive that it was even featured in Marilyn Monroe’s landmark 1959 film Some Like It Hot.

And while a few still made actual cakes – one 1975 AP story said that a baker in San Francisco would create just such a confection for $2000, plus $50 for the jumper – it became cheaper and more convenient to fabricate a ‘cake’ out of cardboard.

Political correctness, media coverage, and shareholder oversight sounded the death-knell of such festive gatherings in business venues, surviving today mostly by the patronage of denizens of the Vegas bachelor party scene.

I just wish I could expunge from my memory the visual of James Franco and Seth Rogen popping out of a cake to celebrate Jimmy Fallon’s birthday. Yuck.

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