Cake and charms have a long, tasty history. New Orleanians usher in Mardi Gras season by sharing plastic baby–studded King Cake, which harkens back to pagan tradition in Rome. The Irish bake Barmbrack bread, speckled with raisins and ominous trinkets, in honor of an ancient, autumnal festival. Then there’s the cake pull.
The ritual has its roots in the Victorian era. Brides wore dresses with charms sewn onto the bottom hem, which bridesmaids pulled to take home as lucky keepsakes. Over the years, it’s believed that the dress hem tradition evolved into baking a ring into the bride’s pie. The woman who discovered the ring inside became next in line for marriage. Henry C. McKenzie, a Scottish baker, is thought to have popularized the practice in New Orleans during the early 1920s. Now a popular tradition throughout the American South, the cake pull (or ribbon pull) involves gathering single female friends around the bride’s cake. Ribbons, tied to charms hidden inside, peek out from the bottom layer (these are inserted after it’s baked, but before it’s frosted). On the count of three, the guests pull a ribbon and expose their future, signified by the shape of their charm.
Historically speaking, the ring determines the next to get married; a horseshoe or clover represents good luck; a telephone symbolizes good news; an anchor conveys hope; a heart means love lies ahead; a thimble or button condemns an old maid; and a penny alludes to poverty. Modern cake pulls contain up to 20 charms, and don’t necessarily include tokens of ill-will. New Orleanians also love including images of local culture, which can mean anything from jesters, to fleur-de-lis, to oysters.