I recently had the opportunity to ask Jodi Rhoden, author of our new book Cake Ladies, a few questions I’ve been wanting to ask since working with her on the project. Her charming and informative answers follow. Want to know more about the book? Just click here to read my earlier post.
Q: When did you really first think there was a book in documenting the cake lady tradition?
A: Well, when you own a food business, everybody always asks you when you are going to put out a cookbook. So that got the idea in my mind, years ago, of doing a book. But I knew that my interest in writing, and people, was too
strong to do a book solely of my own recipes. I would want to share the whole culture of being a cake lady. My mother would tell me stories about the cake lady in her hometown, and other cake ladies she had known, and I really identified with that. So it was really a few years into having my cake business, when people began to think of me as a cake lady, that the idea for the book took shape.
Q: How long have you been interested in Southern food culture, and why?
It’s just what I’ve known. I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, but my grandparents were farmers, and their communities (in Monroe, GA, and Tallahassee, FL) were very traditional southern towns. I learned to cook Southern food from my mother as a part of my life- helping her make dinner every night and bake for celebrations. I could make a killer chicken fried steak with gravy from the time I was 10. Sunday dinners in Monroe were from the food my grandfather grew: lima beans and sweet potatoes and fresh tomatoes and onions. And in Tallahassee, it was very obvious that food was the currency of love: when someone wanted to appreciate you, they would bake you a cake, usually a pound cake. But it wasn’t until I was in college, and had become involved in the community gardening movement, that I began to make the connections between the food I had grown up eating and cooking, and the food that I was growing in my own backyard, and the stories that go along with them. It was the first time that I came to see Southern food as Southern food and not just “food.”
A: I really keep coming back to this experience of MEANING, that food has a symbolic value beyond sustenance. I saw that for many of the women, baking cakes held the meaning of expressing love, but for many of them also, and no less importantly, it was a means of economic self-sufficiency and empowerment. That was so inspiring to me. And I learned that everybody has a remarkable story to tell, if only we will listen.
Q: How would you encourage people reading this to get engaged in their own cake lady culture?
A: That’s a wonderful question. Because I do think that many people are searching for meaning beyond “store-bought” culture, and store-bought food. I think it’s really important to remember that we each have a history, and everybody comes from somewhere. So I would really encourage folks to talk to their elders. It doesn’t matter if your grandmother doesn’t bake, or only uses box mixes. Or if you aren’t in touch with your own elders, talk to a neighbor. Talk to her, and find out what food has meaning to her, and start there. Perhaps you will learn about some great, crafty trick to
making a meal or making a cake. Or perhaps you will learn something about HER childhood, her history, and the food she remembers. I think the important thing is that something doesn’t have to be far away and exotic to be interesting. You can start right where you are, with what you have on hand, that’s the true meaning of cooking from scratch.
A: I think my favorite has to be the 10 layer chocolate cake, for a few reasons: for one, it’s so simple, but so elaborate. The recipe is simple, but you make all these layers just, really, for dramatic effect. And also I love that it’s baked all over the South, and everybody has a different name for it. Folks in New Orleans swear by their Douberge cake, but if you are in Virginia, it has a different name (Smith Island Cake), and if you are down east Carolina, it has another name (10 layer Chocolate Cake). And I love Miss Pearl. But I love all the cake ladies, and all their cakes, I’m so appreciative of their love and care.
Jodi Rhoden is a mother, writer, baker, and community food activist. She is the owner of Short Street Cakes, a popular bakery specializing in natural, scratch-made, traditional Southern cakes and cupcakes. Jodi serves as a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and is a board member of the Bountiful Cities Project, a grassroots urban agriculture organization. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her family, and she chronicles her life as a baker, mom, and foodie at her blog.