Speaking of the shape of cake…

Check the “cake” entry in the closest convenient food reference, and you’re almost certain to find some ink (or pixels) devoted to pre-Christian societies and round ceremonial cakes. The operative thought being that the shape of cake evolved as a result of pagan ideas about roundness, the sun, moon, time and the phases of life. The final paragraphs of these entries usually contain some pretty profound scribbling on foodstuffs and their symbolic roles in pagan mysticism.

It’s the kind of cart-before-the-horse thinking and writing that, depending on the kind of day I’m having, can really irritate me. Why? Because it assumes that up until the Druids hit on the idea of rounding off the corners on their oat cakes, everybody else was making theirs in the shape of Stonehenge triptychs or mastodons. When of course the simple fact is that any scoop of gruel poured onto a hot rock — which is how it’s thought the first cakes were made — ends up round simply by default. It’s physics.

As with most things that exist as part of the natural word — including the sun, moon, time and phases of life — the elaborate mystical thinking came later. Which means the cake-making tradition doesn’t belong to the polytheistic Celts any more than it does to anyone else. Round is round because that’s just the way nature works.

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