Stirring up memories
November 8, 2005
sweet,” Mother always told me, “and good, and kind, and
try.” My answer was always
the same whether I was skipping in the door of pre-primary Sunday School or
forty-some years later calling to see how she was faring as her own health
failed. Sometimes, I crossed
have been pleased a couple of weeks ago.
I don’t know about
good and kind and gentle, but we were plenty sweet. At the Southern Foodways Alliance
Symposium at the University of Mississippi in Oxford
the subject was sugar. We talked about
it, listened to others talk about it, read about it; most of all we consumed
is a big part of life—particularly in the South. We started right off with how it is a
part of our language—not only being sweet, but having a sweetheart,
things being sweetness and light.
And how many of you remember, as I do, Grandmother asking for a kiss by
saying “give me some sugar”?
has been around a long time.
first speaker speculated well over two-thousand years ago, the folks in New Guinea were
happily chewing on a sweet cane.
Soon it migrated to India
and from there into the world. The
word for sugar in most European languages comes straight from Sanskrit.
enough of the history—what about the food? The eating? Oh, my! Try duck étoufée with
pepper jelly, or a cane syrup vinaigrette, chicken barbequed in Cheerwine, a
thick cherry soft drink—in fact, we had a soft drink tasting! For me the blue ribbon went to the aptly
named “Triple Crown Brownie Cupcake with Woodford Reserve Bourbon
Ganache.” Appropriately, the
chef was Sara Gibbs from Lynn’s Paradise
Café in Louisville.
the chicken and cupcake, I’m amazed I stayed awake to hear the afternoon
programs, but how could I go to sleep when the subject was desserts? A panel chewed on three old southern
favorites: Lane Cake, sweet potato
pie and Tex-Mex pralines. (I suppose they’re saving
dewbie, tea cakes and pound cake for another time!)
are intriguing, but the discussion of Lane Cake caught my fancy. I’ve heard of it all of my life,
but never wondered why it was called Lane Cake. Neil Ravenna, the director of culinary
arts at Shelton State
Community College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
and a chef to boot, had the straight story—it’s part of his
wife’s family lore. The Lane
Cake was first written about by Mrs.
Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama
in her recipe book Some Good Things to
Eat sometime around 1898.
a cake to make your teeth hurt.
It’s usually three or four layers of a white cake glued together
with a raisin-loaded egg custard, plus a “wine-glass of good whiskey or
brandy.” Then, at least in
some versions, including Mrs. Lane’s,
it’s covered with a boiled white or seven-minute frosting.
both Neil and John Egerton writing about the cake in that great reference book,
Southern Food, point out that the original Lane Cake is
but a starting point—there are almost as many variations as there are
good local cookbooks put out by churches and women’s clubs across the
South. Many recipes are
secret—Neil didn’t offer his, but he did give us Mrs. Lane’s original. (I won’t share it, ‘cause I
didn’t get up to Neil to ask permission—I got involved in a heated
discussion about the pronunciation of praline—and
the next thing I knew, he was gone.)
felt challenged. As soon as I got
home on Monday, I started flipping through my cookbooks—is there Lane
Cake in Southwest Georgia? Did I need to
ask? I found a couple. Then, in a strike of coincidence, Pam
Searcy of Bainbridge gave me a call.
She’s a serious cookbook collector; would I like to look at some
I? But more about that another
time. I jumped in the Jeep and
whipped over to Pam’s. By the
time I went to bed I’d flipped through over 30 cookbooks from as near as
right here in Bainbridge and the Munroe School in Quincy—where Lane Cake
becomes “Mama Lane’s Cake,” and as far away as Memphis and
Alexandria, Louisiana. I found at
least 10 Lane Cakes. None the
same. They seem to get richer and
richer as time flew by, the newer versions adding nuts, coconuts and
cherries. The alcoholic content
picks up as well!
morning, I was back to Lane Cake and rereading Mrs. Lane’s original recipe. She doesn’t take the credit for
naming it. “”My prize
cake, and named not from my own conceit, but through the courtesy of Mrs. Jamie
McDowell Pruett of Eufaula,
Eufaula. That’s not too far away. I grabbed the phone and called Vera
Custer remembering that her late mother-in-law, Victoria Clayton Custer, hailed
Vera remembered Lane Cake and would I like to borrow Miss Victoria’s cookbooks? Back into the Jeep.
Cake certainly is a part of the South.
Tried and True Recipes published
by the Alabama Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1926 has
two recipes. One adds English
walnuts to the raisins, the other both nuts and coconut. The interesting note? In those mid-Prohibition days, both
recipes call for the traditional wineglass of whiskey or wine, maybe even
sherry. Wild women!
Southern classic, Southern Cooking by
Mrs. S. R. Dull, in its 1941 incarnation offers the recipe without comment as
to its history. Mrs. Dull makes it
in three layers and adds pecans to the filling. But Miss Victoria, intimidated by no one, not even
the august Mrs. Dull, has written “too much flour unless sifted
first,” firmly in the margin.
admit, I’ve never made a Lane Cake, but I’m going to as soon as I
get all these cookbooks returned.
That may take a while because they make tasty reading. When I do make my cake—maybe for
Thanksgiving—I’m going to follow the recipe offered by Annie
Reynolds in our own Historical Society’s Cookbook published in 1985. I’ll let you know.
Decatur County Lane Cake
(adapted from the Decatur County Historical Cookbook)
8 egg whites, well-beaten
1 cup sugar
2 cups sugar
1 cup milk
3 teaspoons baking powder
3 1/4 cups plain flour
flour and baking powder 3 times.
Cream butter and sugar. Add
dry ingredients and milk alternately.
Add beaten egg whites.
Bake in 3 or 4 well greased cake pans for at 350 degrees for 30-40
8 egg yolks
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups pecans, chopped
1 cup fresh coconut, grated
1 cup raisins
Cherries if desired
butter and sugar together. Add
remaining ingredients and cook in a double boiler until thick. Remove from heat and add a scant cup of
bourbon and 2 teaspoons of wine.
have more about the Southern Foodways again
soon. I didn’t even get to
the deep-fried pimento macaroni and cheese. Yummy!
you ever deep-fried mac and cheese?
Or made a Lane Cake? How
about Sweet Potato Pie? Let me know.
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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network