A piece of cake

In this cake filled season, let me add some trivia inspired by a personal experience.

This story started more than three years ago, to be exact on my birthday (at the end of September). A German colleague brought a wonderful cake for coffee break – one that I can eat, namely without sugar and white flour. I thoroughly enjoyed it. At one point I noticed a little discussion among some colleagues, most of them American. The question was whether what we were eating should really be called ‘cake.’ I found this very amusing and decided to do a little research, which later helped me to explain what cognitive anthropology is about.

So what was the problem?

coffee banana bread with chocolate and nutsSchwarzwälder Kirschtorte

My birthday ‘cake’ was what we call in German ‘Kuchen.’ In school we learn that the English word for ‘Kuchen‘ is ‘cake.’ This is beyond controversy but what most English teachers and dictionaries don’t tell you, is what English speakers consider to be ‘cake’ and what not.

Just look at the two pictures above: On the top one a Banana bread (click on the photo and you will find a recipe), on the bottom one a Black forest cake. I have always wondered why ‘Banana bread’ is called bread, when in my understanding it is a cake. My birthday cake was fairly similar, which is why my German colleagues and me called it cake, while the American and British colleagues considered it to be ‘sweet bread.’ In contrast, the Black forest cake is for me as German speaker not a cake but a ‘Torte.’ Now it gets even more complicated because American English has no equivalent for this category. The Brits use at least a French loan word – gateau. The meaning of the French word is very close to the German word ‘Torte‘ but this does not mean that all people using either of these two words (German speakers, Brits, French) necessarily put the same things in this category.

This is probably more than enough information for most people.

However, for those who know some German or want to know more, the following charts might be interesting. They are based on my conversations with two colleagues – one American, one Brit. I asked them to categorize certain types of cake or bread that they knew, including several Austrian specialties. Below you can see what we discovered.

It was most amusing to realize how different you can categorize everyday items in three cultures that are not so far from each other and even have some common roots.

Germans might be puzzled by the heading ‘Mehlspeise’ which is a typical Austrian word, unknown to most Germans, except maybe in the south of Germany, and often misunderstood because it literally means ‘flour dish’ – which could be all kinds of things for Germans but is reserved for sweet ‘flour dishes’ in Austria. The other deviation from Standard German shows that there are even differences in cake categories between Germany and Austria: ‘Topfentorte‘  – note the word ‘Torte‘ in it – is called ‘Käsekuchen‘ (lit. cheese cake) in Germany. ‘Topfen‘ is the Austrian equivalent of ‘Quark‘ in Germany but in this case the end product has the word cheese in it. Who knows why? I did not research these differences.

Whatever you call the things you baked for Christmas, and no matter whether you celebrate Christmas on the 24th in the evening (German/Austrian tradition), or  on the 25th in the morning (British/American tradition) – I wish you a joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ, Yeshua Ha-Mashiach, Isa Al-Masihu. His coming to earth is the greatest miracle and the reason for our eternal hope. Don’t let this get lost in all the other things connected to Christmas.

3 thoughts on “A piece of cake

  1. Interesting! Every time I dabble in a new language I find more reason to look for word “use,” not (dictionary) “meaning”!

    Since many Americans are less than half a dozen generations from ancestors who immigrated from elsewhere, Christmas is one time when you’ll see more foods from “the old country.” Irish, English, German, Italian… and what we call these dishes and how we think about them depends on if Grandma is around to keep our categories straight. My family often makes Scandinavian specialties for holidays, though possibly – unknowingly – with an American twist. A friend of mine who has some German roots was attempting “stolen” yesterday but her husband – whose family is Irish I think – called it “fruitcake” and said he wouldn’t try it!

  2. I think the fundamental difference in English is between yeast based products: breads and the cakes which have a different (can vary) raising agent. For me, gateau is a subset of cake, not a different category as you have set it out.

    This basic division is then influenced by the texture of the finished article. So, banana bread is called bread, even though it is not a yeast product.

    There is an additional complication for the British with the addition of scones which are a separate category despite having certain bread-like and cake-like qualities. I don’t know of an equivalent in any other country – but then the Brits can’t even agree on how to pronounce the word!

  3. I also recently heard from one friend (don’t remember the nationality) that it is a matter of baking form – if you use a bread form, it is called bread. The funny thing is that this kind of form is mainly used for cakes in Austria, while breads are often loaves made without a baking form.
    @Marti – calling a Stollen a fruit cake is offensive 😉 or would he call a minced pie a fruit cake? maybe you don’t know minced pies which are very British.
    @Eddie – ok, I did not check that, whether gateau is a subset. Maybe ‘Torte’ can be seen as a subset of ‘Kuchen’ as well. I forgot the Scones, but are they not the same as Muffins?

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