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Stirring up memories


Sugar, Sugar
November 8, 2005

            “Be sweet,” Mother always told me, “and good, and kind, and gentle.” 

            “I’ll 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 my fingers.

            She’d 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 it.

            Sugar 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”?

            Sugar has been around a long time.  Our 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.

            But 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. 

            After 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!) 

            All 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. 

            It’s 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.

            But 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.)

            I 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 of hers?

            Would 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!

            Tuesday 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, Alabama.”

            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 from Eufaula. 

            Yes, Vera remembered Lane Cake and would I like to borrow Miss Victoria’s cookbooks?  Back into the Jeep.

            Lane 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!

            That 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.

            I 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

            Sift 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 minutes.


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

            Cream 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.

            I’ll have more about the Southern Foodways again soon.  I didn’t even get to the deep-fried pimento macaroni and cheese.  Yummy!

            Have 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