Deeper than pound cake: How a dessert took me on a journey of becoming a chef

9 mins read

For me, the story of the pound cake has two origins: one from the Brits, and the other traces itself to the lineage of women chefs who birthed me. 

When I decided to bake pound cakes for the Bakers Against Racism campaign in June, little did I know that I would go on a journey intertwining both an American favorite dessert and how people’s stories are folded into food like my great-grandmother and grandmother. Now, as I sit and write, this story includes me, a fourth-generation chef.  

What is in a name?

Born in the British Empire in the early 1700s, the original pound cake left out leaveners, other than the air whipped into the batter. As well, it was weighty. Traditionally made from one pound of each ingredient—butter, sugar, eggs, and flour—the name for pound cake was as simple as its ingredients. But there was a reason.

In the days when many people could not read, and more so, women and poor people were not afforded the opportunity to become literate, this humble convention for pound cake made it easier for bakers to remember recipes.

It was in 1796 that the first evidence of pound cake in the US emerged. In a cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, includes two recipes.  Also note that this was the first cookbook authored by an American and published in the US. While American Cookery was published in Hartford, Connecticut, the pound cake has historically been a popular dessert in Southern states.

. . . .

Even after the British lost control of the American colonies, the pound cake remained a renowned dessert in the Southern states. Perhaps it was because the Southern states sided more as loyalists to the British crown than those in the North, but the pound cake was a well-known baked good that was definitely prepared by enslaved people.

For years, Abby Fisher’s cookbook, What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, was considered the first known cookbook written by an African American. Mrs. Fisher, born into slavery in South Carolina, moved with her husband to San Francisco after the Civil War. While there, she created a life and business there manufacturing and selling pickles, preserves, brandies, and fruits. Her recipes were so good that she won awards for her fruit preserves. 

Although Mrs. Fisher could not read or write, it is said that her friends, which included several of San Francisco’s elite, wrote down her recipes and helped her publish her cookbook.  Her cookbook includes two pound cake recipes. Mrs. Fisher’s book was published in 1881, but recently, another cookbook emerged from a southern cook named Melinda Russell. 

Mrs. Russell authored a book titled, A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Recipes for the Kitchen. Published in 1866 in Paw Paw, Michigan, Mrs. Russell, a formerly enslaved woman, was living in the Northern states at the time of publican. Born and raised in Tennessee, Mrs. Russell moved to Michigan after she was robbed while operating a bakery and boarding house in Lynchurg, Virginia. She was in Virginia because she had been robbed previously with the thief taking the money she had to join the African American colony established in Liberia, West Africa. 

For years, Mrs. Russell’s work was unknown due to a fire in Paw Paw that destroyed hundreds of her copies. It wasn’t until the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive gifted the University of Michigan with the only known copy of Mrs. Russell’s cookbook in 2015. The cookbook details baked goods and sweets with one recipe for a plain pound cake. Some of the ingredients were 18 eggs and a whole nutmeg. 

The evolution of the pound Cake in family history

By the twentieth century, bakers began to add artificial leaveners to give it less density.  Today, the pound cake is only in a name. Nowadays, cooks use different proportions of the same ingredients as the original formula to produce a lighter cake. This is the same with the matriarchs in my family.

In 1915, my great-grandmother, Grace was born into a family of sharecroppers in Burke County, Georgia. She would move to the big city of Augusta and make her own way as a popular domestic and cook that commanded the highest wages. My great-grandmother never attended school and could not read, nor write until the late 1960s. Who would teach this 52-year-old woman how to read? Her grand-daughter.

In 1967, at the age of 16, my mother, Clara trained and became a literacy volunteer for the sole purpose of teaching my great-grandmother, her grandmother, how to read. She spent every afternoon and weekends over the course of a year providing reading and writing lessons. This is one of my favorite family stories because it illustrates the bond between grandmother and granddaughter that is common and runs deep in my family. 

. . . .

. . . .

My great-grandmother passed in 2007. At that time, I was not a chef and no one in my family cooked professionally. However, a lot of tears were shed by former employers at her funeral. Mostly, it was because they knew they would never taste her cooking again. Later in life and well after she retired, my great-grandmother traveled around the world at the request of former employers to cook for them. 

This excerpt was pulled from a letter written by Gail Rulison that we received after her passing:

Dear Family, we have been missing Ms. Gracie forever and have not been able to reach you with the contacts I had. The girls talk about Ms. Gracie’s great meatloaf and how she loved each of them. Christina got married last year and wanted so to have her there. She has been missed and will be missed so much more. but knowing she is in heaven we know we can talk to her even more; she was like a mother to me and I will truly miss her…”

Where my great-grandmother stopped, my grandmother, Mary, born in 1932, inherited the same mystical culinary ability as her mom. As a child, she would help my great-grandmother with her domestic work after school. The tasks included washing and ironing, cleaning and cooking.

My grandmother hated every single minute of it, with the exception of the cooking. In the 1940’s, she single handedly cooked and managed the Sears & Roebuck lunch counter in Augusta. There my grandmother gained a large following. The lunch counter was frequented by the doctor’s in the area who were very fond of my grandmother and her cooking abilities. The lunch counter was frequented by the doctor’s in the area who were very fond of my grandmother and her cooking abilities.

In my teenage years, while shopping with my grandmother, we bumped into Dr. O. He was well into his 80s, but still admired her ability to memorize and remember everyone’s order.

“When I walked in the door, I never had to say a word, she just started cooking. She always knew what I wanted,” said Dr. O.  My grandmother recited his order “double hamburger, with grilled onions and syrup with a Coke Float.” I thought he was going to cry. I tried not to gag.

When my grandmother resigned from Sears, the doctors that worked next door at *Talmadge Memorial Hospital protested. She loved to cook, but the salary was not enough to build the life she envisioned for herself. The general manager, under great pressure, offered my grandmother a raise of one additional dollar per week. The raise would have brought her salary to a total of $12.75 per week, plus tips. She refused.

Instead, she secured a great job working at a state hospital with better hours, double the pay and benefits. The doctors from Talmedge wrote to my grandmother and offered to supplement her salary out of their own pockets. My grandfather was suspicious, so it was decided. She declined their offer and went on to work in health care for 32 years. Even though her career path changed, my grandmother is still an avid, professional-level cook. Although she is known more for her savory food, than her cakes, I believe her cakes are the best. 

Life comes into full circle

In 2007, I dropped out of a PhD program and enrolled in culinary school to “follow my passion.” Although, I wear my “All but the Dissertation” (ABD) badge proudly, if one day I am brave enough, I plan to: 1) have the ABD moniker tattooed on my body prominently or  2) finish the dissertation. By the way, the title of the dead dissertation? “Health Disparities of College Students of Color at an HBCU.” The point was that health centers and health promotion programs at HBCUs’ needed to address different issues than PWIs’.

While my research seemed like a novel concept in early 2000, considering the lasting physical, social and economic impacts of slavery, I lost myself in the on-campus data. I can talk your ear off about this topic, but here is a fun fact: 9 of the 10 top health disparities on campus at the time were food related and that was my first formal nudge towards the culinary world.

When I boldly announced my decision to withdraw from my academic program, I could not understand why everyone in my family was so upset. Why were they screaming and crying?

My mother, on the contrary, did not cry. My mother, tired of me making what seemed to be a string of poor life choices, said angrily, “We made sacrifices so you would not have to do this work”. Of course, I’m paraphrasing her words and omitting the profanities:

I did not understand, and honestly, I did not care what anyone else thought about my decision. So, I will stop this story here, because what follows requires several hours of your time and two fingers of brown liquor.

At the time, when I made my career changing decision, I did not know that my great-grandmother traveled the world cooking. I did not know my great-uncle (the brother of my great-grandmother), Freddy, was the head chef at a local fine-dining restaurant. When he passed away, the restaurant went bankrupt and closed because no one else knew the recipes. There are more than a dozen stories like this in my family, stories that never surfaced until I made the godforsaken decision to go to culinary school.

What is important to note is that as a newly minted Black chef, I absolutely refused to cook Southern Cuisine. There were times when I even lied in job interviews and said I was from DC. I did not want to be stereotyped as a “Soul Food Cook.” I overpaid for a Eurocentric culinary education and I intended on using every bit of it. 

When I graduated from culinary school, I started in Modern Cuisine. Eventually,I found my way and ahead of the curve in the farm-to-table movement and the American Regional revival that followed. That trajectory brought me back to from-scratch, Southern, Georgia, Burke County roots and the rest, as cliché as it sounds, is history. That it is the “long-story, short” of how I ended up cooking my culture, the pound cake, despite my best efforts to move from it. 

Your pound cake funds a movement

Your generosity during the Bakers Against Racism campaign raised $2295 for Ark Republic, an independent on-line newspaper. Ark Republic is a member-funded, ad-and-cookie free, media outlet providing original multimedia coverage, columns, art pieces and feature stories of importance and from a perspective of BIPOC.

The humble pound cake is ever changing. Originating in Northern Europe in the 1700s, the Pound Cake became lighter with the addition of leaveners in the 1900s. My grandmother’s generation of cooks took it a step further and added cream cheese to make a softer, airier cake that puffs as it bakes. This is the cake that you hold in your hands.

 Nowadays, you can find pound cake in a variety of flavors from chocolate to eggnog, and even Meyer lemon. The pound cake has evolved. Yet somehow, it is the same thought it has changed hands. It has survived history and is now being used to fight the very system that brought it to the beloved cake to the Thirteen Colonies. What an amazing time to be alive!

 Thank you for your personal commitment to fight racism on every front. Your friendship and thoughtfulness are gifts I will always treasure. Thank you for your love and support. As a 4th generation professional chef, I am humbled and grateful to be able to share my family’s legacy with you.

. . . .

The feature photo is of Dolly Johnson, President Benjamin Harrison’s cook. She can be seen in this photograph in the family kitchen. ohnson came to the White House in 1889, with the Benjamin Harrison family and stayed through four presidential administrations. Often damp and moldy, the ground floor was a difficult place for the White House staff to work and live. This photo is part of the Obama archives. (1584) (Library of Congress)

*Talmade Hospital later changed to The Medical College of Georgia (MCG), and now known as Augusta University (AU) Health.

Chef Cassandra Loftlin travels around the world digging into delicious dishes.

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