In for a pound cake: taste and traditions that truly unite
By Tim Askins
Pound cakes at rest await their evening dress.
Images by The Poundcake Man, Clemson SC.
Who doesn’t love the aroma of a pound cake just out of the oven? Those exotic wisps of vanilla or almond floating in air supported by a body of eggs, butter, sugar and flour baking merrily away can certainly delight an appetite. Although the smell of bacon frying in the morning may well raise the dead, the smell of a pound cake baking is sure to open heaven’s door, knock or not.
My mother thought that boys should be able to cook in addition to shooting straight, catching and cleaning fish and starch ironing a dress shirt. Thank the good Lord she did not expect straight A’s at school. Her technique did not include recipes but was a wisp of this, a tad bit of that, a little, a bunch, a dab, don’t overdo it — how’s it taste? Not bad? OK, don’t overcook it. Don Blount, a naval architect renowned for fast hulls, once told me, “If it looks right, it probably is.” That was my mother’s mantra when cooking.
It came as no surprise, then, that when her granddaughters pressed Mother for some of our family’s favorite recipes, they came at a cost. A tad, a bit, a little, a smidge quickly becomes relative to a generation used to formulas that add up. The grands pressed on, however, and before Mother passed they had recovered 90 years of cooking love and inspirations. However, she drew the line at the pound cake: “Why would anyone need a recipe for pound cake?”
Indeed, the ubiquitous dessert of the South was simply a pound of the four ingredients and had been for more than two and a half centuries. This simplicity likely accounted for its popularity in a society where not everyone was literate. The first known written account of the pound cake came in 1754 — the same year the king of England granted my predecessor, Hugh Askins, land in the “wilderness” of Williamsburg County near the present-day Nesses, South Carolina. As it happened, England is also the likely origin of the American pound cake.
Charleston’s own Sarah Rutledge included several versions of the pound cake in her 1847 publication of The Carolina Housewife or, House and Home: by a Lady of Charleston. By this time, the pound cake had become a staple Southern culinary delight. The Carolina Housewife professed to be aimed toward our “native cooks” and families of modest means, including more than 550 recipes contributed by family and friends.
The pound cake fit right in — she included an Indian pound cake made with corn flour, a ginger version, lady cake, little cake and brown cake versions. And then there was her pound cake with a glass of rose water, a glass of brandy and nutmeg along with directions on how to dress a calf’s head to imitate turtle for soup. Sarah and I would have gotten along simply fine: a glass for the dish and a glass for the cook.
The pound cake, it seems, has more versions than Bubba Blue had ways to fix shrimp. You can find lemon, lime, chocolate, coconut, vanilla, peanut butter, almond and banana versions, and that’s before we start talking about icings and toppings. And for the true aficionado, try making some French toast with any of the varieties. Everyone, it seems, has a favorite family recipe — or so I thought. My friend Whitey Nauss recently told me that if his mother, a dear and proper Florence lady, had a recipe for pound cake, it would have started with a can of cream-of-mushroom soup.
Modern adaptations have included 7 Up, ginger ale, Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew, Nehi, root beer, Big Red soda and virtually any type of liquor or spirits imaginable, but alas, no cream-of-mushroom version. I will forever associate the 7 Up version with the African-American community. My childhood nanny, Maggie, made one that she brought for us often. The pound cake is intricately woven into black culture and is another shared cultural/culinary item much like BBQ, okra, hoppin’ john and yams. I would wager you cannot go to an African-American wedding, birthday or funeral (known locally as a Home-Going) without seeing a pound cake or three. The pound cake can rival any spirit-filled preacher in preparing the spirit.
The first written record of an African-American recipe dates to 1881 when Abby Fisher published What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking. Born into slavery near Orangeburg, S.C., Abby Clifton was a remarkable woman by anyone’s standards. Her mother was from S.C. and her father was from France, giving rise to the possibility of an illicit relationship with a plantation owner. She worked as a plantation cook until emancipation and then made her way to Alabama, where she would marry Alexander Fisher. The couple had 11 children, the last being born in Missouri.
In the late 1800s, Missouri was a popular jumping-off point for people migrating west. It is possible she hired on as cook for a wagon train. In any event, the next record of her is in 1880 in San Francisco, where she lists herself as a “pickle and preserves” manufacturer with a business that bore her name, Mrs. Abby Fisher & Co. She would win a number of awards for her pickles, preserves, sauces and jellies.
As a consequence of her plantation upbringing, Mrs. Fisher could neither read nor write. She persisted in publishing her cookbook, as she states as in the foreword, “as a complete instructor, so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking,” by dictating the recipes to her friends and sponsors, all from memory. This feat was complicated by her heavy Southern accent, which at times was challenging for her scribes to translate. Recall all she accomplished despite slavery still fresh in her memory and 40 years before women’s suffrage won women the right to vote; this makes her achievements even more amazing.
Mrs. Fisher included a gold and a silver pound cake in her book. They relied on a combination of whipped egg whites and “the best yeast powder” for leavening. Most traditional recipes are risen only by the mechanical process of properly creamed butter and sugar. Imagine beating a pound of butter into something light and fluffy using just a wooden cake spoon with slits, a silver spoon or a wooden paddle.
The advent of the electric mixer made this process more foolproof. One of my absolute delights as a child was getting to lick the batter or icing from the beaters of my mother’s Sunbeam Mixmaster. It may have been the carrot that enticed me into the kitchen. After eggs and grits, the pound cake was the next thing we learned to cook. She took advantage of her children’s competitiveness by enticing us with a dime placed on the kitchen windowsill. The first one to make the pound cake got the dime. My sister, an accomplished artist in her own right, has gone on to make “hundreds” of pound cakes, and her birthday cakes are themselves works of art. My brother Bob also made a name for himself around the Episcopal church in Columbia with his “Little Pound Cake,” a descendant of Mother’s half pound and Sarah Rutledge’s lady cake.
To be certain, one always “makes” a pound cake, never “bakes” a pound cake. And it should have smooth sides and a hole in the middle. I suppose for a fancy occasion you could justify a scalloped Bundt pan and, in a pinch, even a plain old loaf pan can do. Early cooks and modern traditionalists use the ever-trusty Swiss army knife of the kitchen — the cast iron skillet — to produce a pound cake with more crust, mimicking a piece of toasted pound cake.
It seems like there was always a pound cake on the counter growing up, usually on a Tupperware plate with a cake cover. Pound cake accompanied each episode of “Bonanza”following the requisite four services at the Baptist church every Sunday. If company was coming, it might make it to a pedestal plate and be served on china dessert plates. Otherwise, a napkin would suffice, and many a piece was stolen on the run and stuffed in a pocket before it could be discovered. Unless, of course, you were going for the ice cream and peaches — that deserved a bowl. My brother reminded me that we were warned not to run in the kitchen or bang about when the cake was in the oven so that the cake wouldn’t “fall.” Of course, as kids we liked the dense, chewy-gooey goodness of fallen pound cake, and a cake that fell meant more cake for us, so we would sometimes forget the warnings. When we started going away for college, there would usually be a huge piece of pound cake wrapped up with our care package for the trip back to campus.
If you were to ask my dad, I think he would have taken a slice plain (maybe toasted) with his coffee over just about anything else. Imagine my surprise to find the Café Americana in Kenitra, Morocco, serving a “quatre-quart,” the French variant of pound cake that I enjoyed with café au lait. A year or two later while sailing in St. Barts, I found their version of the “quatre-quart” with rum and bananas added for some island style.
In the Rivera Maya they serve panqué, which often includes chopped nuts and drizzled icing for birthdays. In Bogota the ponqué, a Spanish phonetic approximation of pound cake, is so popular you find individual slices of prepackaged pound cakes sold in grocery stores, neighborhood markets and supermarkets. Ponqué is famous as a companion to the Colombian soft drink Pony Malta and comes in many flavors: marbled, chocolate, vanilla, orange and even vanilla covered in a chocolate shell. In the Bahamas pound cakes are often marbled with coconut, guava, pineapple, even rum and bananas (like in St. Barts) and made in a bundt or loaf pan. They also have the Pound-Cake Bush (parthenium hysterophorus) used to combat “weakness” and coughs as a wash or is made into a tea for diabetics, though widely considered an invasive species.
No matter where you go, how you make it, what you call it, how you top or flavor it or what you chase it with, the humble pound cake is our cross-cultural door of shared traditions that bind our ties across religious, racial and ethnic divides.
Tim Askins is a USCG Master Mariner and has been a licensed captain since 1980. He continues to operate his real estate development and construction business while devoting time to his farm, children, and wife, Karen. He is an advocate for wildlife habitat with Quail Forever and returning ex-convicts to the workplace with the Turning Leaf Project.