Forklore: Bigger! Richer! Cake!


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Another in our series of rediscovered gems from food historian Charles Perry:

Historians debate whether there’s a pattern in history. There certainly is one in food history: bigger, richer pastries.


Our word cake originally meant small, flat pastry, which is why we speak of something ‘caking up’ when it accumulates a crust. In a word, cakes were pancakes. With time, they became higher and richer, and these days a lot of people think of them as essentially platforms for frosting.

The English call these giant modern cakes by a French name, gateau. But in France, gateau originally meant a kind of bread. Bigger and richer, bigger and richer.

This kind of thing has been going on as far back as we can see. The ancient Greek word plakous meant a pancake (the Romanian and Hungarian words for pancake, placinta and palacsinta, go back to it). In the Middle Ages it became a rich spice cake.

Since they now no longer had a word for a thin cake, the Greeks started using the word pitta, which had meant one of the ‘cakes’ or layers that pitch forms as it oozes from pine trees. And what does that word mean in Greek today? Thick, savory filo pastries like the spinach-stuffed spanakopita.
Bigger and richer. Bet on it.

--Charles Perry