Read It and Eat: Southern Literary Recipes

There are a lot of things the South is known for, both good and bad, but one of the great things is food. In New Orleans, you have Creole and Cajun food that finds its origins in the multicultural background of Louisiana. North Carolina, Memphis, and Texas are all known for their barbecue, each with a distinctive style that makes them unique. The coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia have their own low country boil and seafood specialties. Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia each fight over which one invented Brunswick stew, one of my favorite southern stews, and people all over the South have a different recipe for it.

The South is also known for its literary traditions that date back all the way to the humor traditions of the “old southwest,” which mostly is comprised of the states west of Georgia and the Carolinas. The Southern Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s saw some of the most famous works in southern literature. This time period gave us William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Tennessee Williams. The post-World War II period was dominated by women: Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Harper Lee. Throughout it all, “Southern Gothic” permeated many of the most famous works with its dark romanticism and southern humor. Southern Gothic authors included the likes of Dorothy Allison, Walker Percy, Ambrose Bierce, Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite, Truman Capote, Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, and Williams.

While there is a lot to dislike about the South (racism, right-wing politics, homophobia, religious zealots, etc.), you can’t go wrong when you combine the South’s love of food and it’s love of a good story. Probably the most famous marriage of the two is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg. In Flagg’s novel, the titular restaurant is the go-to spot in Whistle Stop, Alabama, for satisfying meals—and heartwarming company too. Flagg describes the quintessential dinner: “Idgie and Ruth had set a place for him at a table. He sat down to a plate of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, turnip greens, fried green tomatoes, cornbread, and iced tea.”

I used to love to pick the tomatoes while they were still firm and green, slice them up, and fry them. You’ll find them as a popular side, an appetizer, or offered as an off-the-menu seasonal special that’s prepared in a new, creative, flavorful way, usually with some type of special sauce or topped with seafood, such as shrimp Remoulade. I’ve even had them as the main dish on a BLT, which is quite delicious. While this Southern staple deserves its fame by simply being delicious, it also has Alabama native Fannie Flagg to thank for its unwavering popularity. In 1987, Flagg published the novel Fried Green Tomatoes, which would later be adapted into a major motion.

Anyone can make fried green tomatoes and enjoy them at home. To serve four to six people, the ingredient list is fairly simple and straightforward: cornmeal, flour, buttermilk, vegetable oil, seasoning salt (or Cajun seasoning if you want a kick), and pepper. The recipe starts with unripe green tomatoes, which are soaked in buttermilk and coated with flour and cornmeal mixture, and fried. Start with three medium-size green tomatoes, which you need to slice into ¼-inch slices, dredge through the cornmeal mixture, and fry until golden brown.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon + 1 teaspoon seasoning salt, divided (preferably Lawry’s)
  • ½ teaspoon pepper + ½ teaspoon pepper, divided (you can substitute Cajun Seasoning)
  • 3 green tomatoes, cut into ¼-inch slices
  • Vegetable oil

How to Make It

Step 1
Soak the slices of green tomato in buttermilk with seasoning salt and pepper; set aside. Combine ½ cup all-purpose flour, ½ cornmeal, 1 teaspoon seasoning salt, and pepper in a shallow bowl or pan. Dredge tomato slices in cornmeal mixture.

Step 2
Pour oil to a depth of ¼ to ½ inch in a large cast-iron skillet; heat to 375°. Drop tomatoes, in batches, into the hot oil, and cook 2 minutes on each side or until golden. Drain on paper towels or a rack. Sprinkle hot tomatoes with salt.

It’s just that simple, but the next recipe is not. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch’s neighbor, Miss Maudie Atkinson, makes a bourbon-loaded Lane cake that’s famous all over the town of Maycomb, Alabama. Miss Maude says in the book, “I’ll make him a Lane cake. That Stephanie’s been after my recipe for thirty years, and if she thinks I’ll give it to her just because I’m staying with her, she’s got another think coming.” Honestly, I have never eaten a Lane cake. I was always thought of this cake as a very fancy and complicated cake to make and to be even more honest, I am not a great baker. I can cook up a storm, and if I have a recipe, there is nothing I can’t cook. But when it comes to baking, I have only two specialties: a cranberry cake and cherry-pistachio cookies.

More than 100 years ago, Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama entered the annual baking competition at the county fair in Columbus, Georgia. She took first prize. The cake came to be known as The Lane Cake and gained literary fame in 1960 when it was featured in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In March 1966, Southern Living featured the cake in its second issue. It is still a popular layer cake; however, it has undergone many changes since Mrs. Lane’s original recipe, mostly in the filling ingredients. Many bakers use other fruit in the recipe instead of the raisins. Coconut, pineapple, and pecans are popular additions. In North Carolina, chopped apples and cinnamon are used along with raisins, and apple brandy makes a good addition to the fruit.

Recipes for this cake vary from kitchen to kitchen and state to state. Part of the charm is making your own creation with ingredients that your family likes or are popular for the season. This isn’t one of those desserts where you can pop in and out of the kitchen; it takes some effort, but the moist cake, I am told it is totally worth the wait. It’s packed with Southern flavors like toasted pecans, coconut flakes, and dried peaches. The Lane Cake is topped with a Peach Schnapps-infused frosting that’s both incredibly unique and fluffy. Bourbon is one of the primary components in the dessert, which helps the flavor to improve as it ages.

1898 County Fair Winning Recipe

Cake Ingredients:

  • 3 1/4 cups sifted cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 8 egg whites

Instructions:

Step 1
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put wax paper in the bottom only of 4 9-inch cake pans.

Step 2
Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.

Step 3
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter. Gradually add the sugar, mixing well until light and fluffy.

Step 4
Combine the dry ingredients with the creamed ingredients gradually while adding milk as you go. Mix together well and add vanilla while mixing.

Step 5
Separate the egg whites from the yolks and save the yolks for use in the filling. Beat egg whites with an electric mixer in a separate glass bowl until soft peaks form. Gently add the beaten egg whites to the cake batter. Be careful not to over mix (see tips below). The batter will be smooth but look slightly granular.

Step 6
Divide the batter evenly into the 4 pans. Bake in a 375-degree oven until the edges shrink slightly away from the side of the pans and cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center of each layer comes out clean—approximately 20 minutes. Place pans on wire racks to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.

Step 7
Turn the layers out of pans onto wire cooling racks; remove the wax paper and turn the layers right side up; cool completely.

Recipe for Filling:

  • 8 egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup seedless raisins, finely chopped
  • 1 cup pecans, chopped
  • 1 cup bourbon or brandy (or other alcohol of choice) or grape juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Step 1
In a bowl, beat egg yolks well. Add sugar and butter to the egg yolks and continue to mix well. Put in a 2-quart saucepan and cook over medium heat; stirring constantly until thick (this might take as long as 15 to 20 minutes to get thick).

Step 2
When thickened, remove from heat. Stir in raisins, pecans, bourbon, and vanilla.

Step 3
Cool slightly. Spread generously between each cake layer.

How to Make the Frosting

You can use your favorite frosting recipe for this cake, or the Seven Minute Frosting recommended here. Some people frost just the sides of the cake and put the filling mixture on top with just a rim of frosting around the edge to keep the filling in place on top. It’s your choice.

Seven Minute Frosting:

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 6 large egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Step 1
Set a heatproof glass bowl over a pan of simmering hot water. In a bowl put the sugar, corn syrup, 1/4 cup water, and egg whites. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until mixture registers 160 degrees on a candy thermometer (about 2 minutes).

Step 2
Remove the bowl from the pan. Using an electric mixer, beat the mixture on high speed until glossy and soft peaks form (about 5 minutes). Beat in the vanilla.

Step 3
Immediately frost the sides and top of the cake.

1966 Southern Living Recipe

This version of the Lane cake is complete with a peachy makeover and an unforgettable meringue frosting.

Ingredients

Cake Layers:

  • 2 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups butter, softened
  • 8 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 3 cups all-purpose soft-wheat flour (such as White Lily)
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Shortening

Peach Filling:

  • Boiling water
  • 8 ounces dried peach halves
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 8 large egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut
  • 3/4 cup chopped toasted pecans
  • 1/2 cup bourbon
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Peach Schnapps Frosting:

  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup peach schnapps
  • 2 teaspoons light corn syrup
  • 1/8 teaspoon table salt

How to Make It

Step 1
Prepare Cake Layers: Preheat oven to 350°. Beat the first 2 ingredients at medium speed with an electric mixer until fluffy. Gradually add 8 egg whites, 2 at a time, beating well after each addition.

Step 2
Sift together flour and baking powder; gradually add to butter mixture alternately with 1 cup water, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stir in 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract. Spoon batter into 4 greased (with shortening) and floured 9-inch round shiny cake pans (about 1 3/4 cups batter in each pan).

Step 3
Bake at 350° for 14 to 16 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire racks 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks, and cool completely (about 30 minutes).

Step 4
Prepare Filling: Pour boiling water to cover over dried peach halves in a medium bowl; let stand 30 minutes. Drain well and cut into 1/4-inch pieces. (After plumping and dicing, you should have about 2 cups peaches.)

Step 5
Whisk together melted butter and the next 2 ingredients in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, 10 to 12 minutes, or until thickened. Remove from heat, and stir in diced peaches, coconut, and next 3 ingredients. Cool completely (about 30 minutes).

Step 6
Spread filling between cake layers (a little over 1 cup per layer). Cover cake with plastic wrap, and chill 12 hours.

Step 7
Prepare Frosting: Pour water to a depth of 1 1/2 inches into a small saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat. Whisk together 2 egg whites, 1 1/2 cups sugar, and next 3 ingredients in a heatproof bowl; place bowl over boiling water. Beat egg white mixture at medium-high speed with a handheld electric mixer 12 to 15 minutes or until stiff glossy peaks form and frosting is spreading consistency. Remove from heat and spread immediately over the top and sides of the cake.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

One response to “Read It and Eat: Southern Literary Recipes

  • Beau

    As a native of Savannah, I was taught that Brunswick stew was based on a Brunswick, Georgia recipe. Thanks for the commentary. I have a love/hate relationship with the South and I am grateful for the authors and poets who rose above the terribleness of our culture to find meaning and hope and amazing beauty.

Thank you for commenting. I always want to know what you have to say. However, I have a few rules: 1. Always be kind and considerate to others. 2. Do not degrade other people's way of thinking. 3. I have the right to refuse or remove any comment I deem inappropriate. 4. If you comment on a post that was published over 14 days ago, it will not post immediately. Those comments are set for moderation. If it doesn't break the above rules, it will post.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: