To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So goes the proverb I trot out every time I see an intellectually sophisticated food writer projecting a complex theory onto a self-evidently simple thing. Take cakes. Check the “cake” entry in your average food reference and you’re pretty sure to find some ink (or pixels) devoted to pre-Christian societies and round ceremonial cakes, their shape having developed as a result of associations between roundness and the sun, moon, time and the changing phases of life. It all adds up to some fairly profound thinking on food and its symbolic role in pagan mysticism.
But what if all those pagan cakes were round because, well, that’s just the shape cakes are? A double-handed scoop of grain-and-water gruel poured on a hot rock by a Neolythic proto-Joe (the act thought to have given birth to the first bread, cookie or pancake depending on who you listen to) would, just by accident of physics, settle into a round, or at least round-ish, shape.
To my way of thinking that shape would have had some clear built-in advantages to early man, not the least of which is that it would have cooked up more evenly than a cake in the shape of say, a mastodon, even though that’s the shape I’m pretty sure I’d have made as a caveman. The things are just that cool.
I’m no food anthropologist so I can’t claim any special authority here. But it seems to me that early humans, being notoriously short on leisure time (not to mention decorative pans) would have gone with what was natural and easy in the cake-making department. Pagan cakes were round because well, that’s just how they came out. You didn’t have to go out of your way to make’em that way.
It’s beyond dispute that humans did go on to ascribe deep spiritual significance to round baked goods (the communion wafer springs immediately to mind). But I believe that evolution is just one more instance of people inventing newer and better uses for something already at hand.