My Rouses Everyday, May & June 2018
As the story goes, sometime in the late 1800s, Emma Rylander Lane left her native city of Americus, Georgia, and moved with her husband to the town of Clayton, Alabama.
It was there that she created a four-layer white cake made with flour, baking powder, butter, sugar, egg whites and vanilla. She spread a heated mixture of egg yolks, butter, sugar, raisins, whiskey and vanilla between the layers and frosted the whole cake with a boiled, fluffy white icing. When she entered it in a baking competition at a county fair in Columbus, Georgia, the cake took first prize, so Lane named it Prize cake. But a friend later convinced her to lend her own name to the dessert, and so the cake appeared as Lane cake in Lane’s cookbook, Some Good Things to Eat, self-published in 1898.
The modern cake had recently made its debut, thanks to the widespread availability of white flour and the invention of baking powder: a quick, easy and reliable alternative to yeast. Baking powder revolutionized cake making, which took on a particular fervor in the South, where for centuries “a Southern cook’s reputation was judged more by her baking than any other culinary endeavor,” wrote food historian Damon Lee Fowler in Classical Southern Cooking.
Baking powder rendered cake layers airy and fine, so to avoid losing the richness of the old English-style cakes, Southern bakers added dense fillings of fruit and nuts between the cake layers instead of directly into the batter. The whole cake was then enveloped in a light, white icing. Southern women invented a number of these extravagant cakes around the turn of the century, including the Lady Baltimore, Moss Rose, Robert E. Lee and Japanese Fruitcake.
Lane Cake was an immediate hit in Alabama. Because it was so labor intensive, it was usually reserved for birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions. As Appalachian food writer Fred Sauceman notes in his Lane cake entry in The Encyclopedia of Alabama, “In Alabama, and throughout the South, the presentation of an elegant, scratch-made, laborious Lane cake is a sign that a noteworthy life event is about to be celebrated.” — as in To Kill a Mockingbird, when a Lane cake is baked to welcome Aunt Alexandra to Maycomb. Describing it, the child Scout states, “Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight.”
The most famous mention of a Lane cake is in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The Finch’s neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, keeps her recipe closely guarded, though clearly bourbon — or shinny, as Scout calls it — tops the ingredient list, “Miss Maudie made a Lane cake so full of shinny it made me tight,” she says in Chapter 13.
Indeed, the Lane cake’s alcoholic edge gave it a slightly wild reputation, especially in Alabama’s dry counties. It was nicknamed the “Ha Ha cake” for this reason and became popular at Alabama eggnog parties held at Christmastime. In Alabama, Lane cake is still tightly wed to the Christmas season. Lane herself had suggested that the cake is best if made a day or two before serving, to allow the flavors to blend. Some Alabamians recall their grandmothers making a Lane cake during Thanksgiving weekend and letting it stand until Christmas, when it was served at family gatherings and holiday events.
But Emma Rylander Lane’s hours experimenting in the kitchen, and the time and resources she took to publish Some Good Things to Eat, were not solely about personal satisfaction or sharing good recipes. As she explains in the preface: “The object of this book is to meet some of the most imperative needs of the Southern housekeepers … The first thought of every woman when she assumes the duties of a home should be her kitchen, as the health, happiness, and prosperity of a family depend largely upon the wisdom and economy of the housewife.”
Lane was part of a national wave of women writing cookbooks with the express purpose of helping homemakers run economical and healthy households. The second half of the 19th century saw an explosion of American cookbooks, written mostly by women who were dissatisfied with European recipes that were often viewed as expensive, complicated and vague. As an alternative, American women created cookbooks geared specifically for homemakers that took a common sense approach to cooking. These cookbooks were methodical, direct, easy to follow and comprehensive, often containing several hundred recipes. They were also intended to be universal — useful for beginners or experts, rich or poor.
Like Lane, other cookbook authors of the era revered the homemaker’s work as the foundation of family health and happiness. One author compared the government of a family to that of a nation. Another likened the craft of cooking to building a house. As a result, these cookbooks extended far beyond recipes and cooking advice to include instruction in every facet of household management, including food preparation, family health, nutrition, home maintenance, sickness, child-rearing, kitchen organization and equipment, mishaps and emergency situations, rules of etiquette and hospitality, kitchen gardens, and ideas for recycling, repurposing and using things found in nature.
And 19th-century cookbook writing was not confined to just white women. In 1881, Abby Fisher authored the oldest-known cookbook written by a former American slave. Fisher was born in South Carolina, likely in 1832, and likely of a union between a slave and her owner. She grew up in plantation kitchens, where she learned to cook, and eventually moved to Alabama. In 1870, Fisher was married with 10 children and working as a cook in Mobile. Sometime in the next decade, the Fisher family relocated to San Francisco, where Abby Fisher began a pickling and preserves business and worked as a caterer for the wealthy.
Fisher flourished in San Francisco, winning medals for her pickles, preserves and sauces at state fairs in San Francisco and Sacramento. She was often asked to compile her recipes in a cookbook, and though unable to read or write, she acquiesced, dictating her recipes to several prominent white patrons. In the preface to What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Fisher states that the book is “based on an experience of upwards of thirty-five years” and is intended to be “a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking.”
As it turned out, cookbooks were only the beginning of a movement of women determined to help each other, families and eventually all of society. During the Progressive Era (1890-1920), as women churned out cookbooks in record numbers, they also stepped into the public sphere in new ways. Technological advances, public education and social trends allowed women to be far more active outside the home than before, resulting in a proliferation of women’s organizations. Though art and literary clubs were founded first, women soon moved beyond goals of self-improvement to societal improvement. As American cookbook expert Jan Longone noted in a lecture she gave at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, women “started with helping themselves and each other and moved into helping all of society.”
In Alabama, the Alabama Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1884, addressed a range of social issues including alcoholism, women’s education, poverty, child labor, prison reform, and homes for abandoned women and children. In 1895, the literary clubs of major Alabama cities merged to form the Alabama Federation of Women’s Clubs. The initial 130 members soon shifted the Federation’s focus to civic affairs, tackling a wide variety of issues including illiteracy, public education reform, juvenile delinquency and treatment of juvenile offenders. As Mary Martha Thomas described in her book, The New Woman in Alabama: Social Reforms and Suffrage, 1890-1920, it would eventually become the largest women’s organization in Alabama, and would lay the groundwork for the Alabama women’s suffrage movement.
This work is an excerpt from Blejwas’ book on Alabama food history, forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press.