The Sweetest Thing

Something Al Gore, Prince, Savage lesbians, and Waconia farmers can agree on: Buttercream cake
Greg Lund
The Buttercream Collection
682 Transfer Rd., St. Paul, 651.642.9400
18172 Minnetonka Blvd., Minnetonka; 952.249.0390

Editor's Note: City Pages food and wine editor Dara Moskowitz is not writing this week. This column is reprinted from the issue of February 12, 2003.

Weddings may always begin in dreams and culminate in roses, but they tend to go through a middle period of shopping and organizing marked by the racking of nerves, the biting of nails, and, in the worst cases, the chewing off of limbs at their base.

Why all the stress? As with so many other situations, the main problem appears to be other people. In straight weddings, the other people tend to be women you love:"Generally, you get so many outside opinions, with six bridesmaids and six aunts telling you what to do and what you're doing wrong," notes David Mess. "Of course, in a gay thing you usually end up with four aunts that won't talk to you, so you don't have to worry too much about what they think." In gay weddings, the outside opinions tend to come from people whose opinions aren't solicited, like snickering teens behind the counter of the chain bakery, or witless senior citizens at the florist's who keep asking when the bride will arrive.

Not something you ever thought of before? Most people haven't, so here's yet another little-known corner of Minnesota food ways: Gay weddings have become pretty widespread over the past decade, and the Buttercream has become the gay-wedding cake of choice. It's also the preferred frosted show-stopper for some 10 percent of all Twin Cities weddings, says Buttercream co-owner David Mess, who runs the company with business partner Gene McDevitt, having become the preferred cake vendor for such prestigious venues as the Nicollet Island Inn, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the Edina Country Club, as well as many, many others.

So just how frequent are large, formal gay commitment ceremonies these days? It's hard to get an exact count, but I'm guessing there are at least a few hundred each year. (I arrived at this number by making half a dozen phone calls and ballparking a hundred last year at various south Minneapolis Christian churches, and then assuming that that probably represents a largish fraction of the total number.)

Paul David Stanko, the minister of music and administrator for All God's Children Metropolitan Community Church in south Minneapolis, says that his church does between 15 and 20 commitment ceremonies a year, and 90 percent of these events go for the full wedding ball of wax: cakes, photographers, little bows of tulle on chairs, and such. Elaborate gay weddings are a trend that's not being seen by the general public, says Stanko. "This upcoming generation, the teens, twentysomethings, and thirtysomethings, they come out so much younger, and into such a different culture than there was, say, 30 years ago, that everything's different for them."

For example, says Stanko, a lot of younger gay parishioners at All God's Children bring their parents to their church for Christmas or Easter, which gives the parents a few years to get used to the idea of gay-friendly church rituals, like marriage. "That's something you'd never see 10 years ago," he says. "A lot more youth are coming out a lot earlier. We have one 20-year-old in our choir who's been dating someone for two years--it never would have dawned on me in high school to start dating someone." Factor together kids coming out that young, kids who find that being gay is a rather normal and unsurprising development, and kids who remain happily in sync with the developmental stages and milestones of their peers regardless of sexuality, and an increasingly usual scenario arises, in which, say, two 27-year-old women from good Edina families fall in love and it has never occurred to them that they would be excluded from the standard $20,000 white wedding. Stanko says that nowadays at about half the commitment ceremonies he sees, parents are there to give one of the partners away.

"Probably this year we've already had four gay couples come in bringing Dad along for the tasting," says Buttercream's David Mess. "We just had one where Dad was so proud, he was beaming. He couldn't have been more proud. He was primarily there to pay the bill, of course, but he wanted to be involved in the process, and he was just thrilled with his daughter's plans. And Mom is often there, of course. It's not always like this. Lately, probably 75 percent of the time, the committed parties are sponsoring the event--but that's different from the old days, when it was a hundred percent. Usually [the ceremonies are held] in people's homes, but they're moving out more into the mainstream reception sites as well, your Saint Paul Hotels and such. Actually, we had one once for two professional women--one was a firefighter, I think, and the other worked in photography. The reception was at the VFW hall in Savage. They were a lovely, lovely couple. Well, we were tasting, and I said: Where's the reception? Well, Savage. And have you shared with them that this is going to be a women's wedding? No, they said--but who's going to argue with 160 lesbians? Well, you've got a point there! I think it's one of the wonderful things about life when you see people comfortable with who they are, with their sexuality and their lives. One thing that's always baffled me is that a lot of individuals who are involved in weddings are gay but they're very hush-hush about it. I could understand if you lived in Why-Not-Minot, but here? Do you really think someone's going to run screaming if they learned their florist was a little light in the loafers? And where would they go?"  

Actually, I suspect it would be nearly impossible for a raging homophobe to throw a really good wedding in this town. Or in America. David Mess pointed that out to me, while also noting that the Twin Cities are in something of a lag when it comes to promoting gay weddings. In places like Florida and San Francisco there can be an almost "gayer-than-thou" competition between venues to try to capture the commitment-ceremony dollar, but a visit to gay wedding resource sites (such as reveals a shortage of local places reaching out to the gay reception market. Which is perhaps why others I spoke to for this article, like award-winning local florist Anthony Shane, say that despite a spike a few years ago led by local companies and governments debuting domestic-partner benefits, the number of commitment ceremonies held in the Twin Cities has actually decreased: "Lately, a lot of people go to Hawaii for their ceremonies, because [gay marriage is] legal there," says Shane. "If they got the domestic-partnership deal wrapped up here so that it was legal, we'd probably see more again." Perhaps that's a revenue stream our cash-strapped legislators should examine: If everyone within driving distance started hosting their weddings in Minnesota? It boggles the mind.

Though maybe not as much as this does: When I visited the Minnetonka Buttercream to taste wedding treats and interview David Mess, one of the problems on deck was the quandary of the woman who was insisting that she be provided with a seven-tier cake that served more than 370 people, for a birthday party where fewer than 30 guests were expected. Mess was busy working out the logistics of getting the likely remaining 300-plus slices to a willing shelter. Who orders that much dessert for so few people? Really, really rich and important people. Mess wouldn't tell me who--unsurprising, because he is the only baker I know of who regularly has to sign non-disclosures about menus and events, because of the VIPs he bakes for. Which Buttercream concoction is Bill Clinton's favorite? Mess wouldn't tell--though he let slip that Prince and Mayte's reception showpiece was festooned with various sizes of Belgian-white-chocolate dolphins, and that Al Gore once had three slices of Buttercream's raspberry chocolate truffle cake. I think a lot more is going on in Minnetonka than I realized. But it's not just about bigwigs, because Mess says what's good for the goose is good for Waconia, and so has devised a special packing system that has allowed his cakes to be transported and easily assembled anywhere, which has led Buttercream to be the frosted-tier favorite for some of the most important weddings of Fargo, Waconia, and Lake of the Woods. By the way, Mess says you haven't been to a wedding till you've been to a Minnesota farm-town wedding, where a 650-person guest list is not uncommon.

How is it that Al Gore, Prince, Savage lesbians, and Waconia farmers have found something to agree on? It's butter and durability, mostly. Mess and Buttercream co-owner Gene McDevitt pride themselves on using only the highest-quality ingredients--real butter, real cream, real berries, fresh grated carrots, whole just-toasted walnuts, and real cream cheese. Which might not seem like a big deal to you, but in the current climate of wedding cakes it's usual for bakers to use horrifying products like Bettercreme®, an icing that, unlike actual food, is unaffected by sun and time. Buttercream Collection cakes are lush and plain in the mouth. They taste homemade in the most old-fashioned way: The white cakes are as light as morning mist, the carrot cake is as dense and dewy as could be. And the cakes cut well, and keep well--an incredibly important factor, because it's normal for a cake to have to stand out in the open air for hours between cutting and serving. These high-performance issues of durability are unique to wedding cakes; it's nothing your mom's cake or a fancy restaurant dessert ever has to endure. Mess worked for 20-some years in both front- and back-of-the-house restaurant and catering positions, which is what led him to dream the impossible dream of wedding cakes, and then perfect it: The durable cake that tastes great.  

Good ingredients creating durability? That seems like the lead-in to a wedding toast, but I'll leave it to you to fill in the details. You've probably got a year, at least for the new suite of weddings that will be seeded this weekend. That's the timetable, you know: proposals this weekend, cake tastings five weeks later, and then, eventually, whether you're gay, straight, farmer, Prince, or president, a big cake on the big day.

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