Failure comes in many forms; mine took the shape of a cake. Three layers of white sponge cake, filled with a bourbon custard laced with pecans, coconut, and raisins, and covered in fluffy white frosting. Decadently sweet, bourbon saturated, and towering on the table; this is the Lane Cake.
My first Lane Cake was a disaster. They say “pride goeth before a fall” and that is exactly what my cake layers did: all three of them sunk right in the middle. One was so gummy I had to throw it out. I should have seen this as a sign of things to come, but I persevered, rationalizing that I could just put some extra filling in the crater and everything would be fine. I put the filling between the layers and frosted the outside. It looked picture perfect.
Until the next morning. I woke up and there was my prize cake drooling out the sides of the cake carrier and dripping down the countertop and onto the floor. While the extra filling kept the cake from splitting or being lopsided, it was too much to force between the layers; the frosting, once so voluminous and pristine, was breaking down. The extra liquid, a boozy, sweet syrup, oozed out and poured down the side of the cake. If the horrifying visual was not enough, the overwhelming odor of alcohol permeating my small dorm added insult to injury. As the coordinator and student leader of Substance Free housing, that should be the last thing my room smelled like.
I felt like a failure. This cake was not being served until the next day and I could only imagine how much worse it would look. I staked my reputation on this cake, even though no one, other than my mother who occasionally supervised its construction, knew I was making it. She attributed the mess to the humidity; I attributed it to a severe deficiency in baking skills. My Lane Cake’s dissolution became an issue of pride. Individually none of the elements were that hard, I should have been able to handle this.
Lane Cake is not for the calorie or budget conscious, requiring nearly a dozen eggs, a half cup of good quality bourbon (or apple juice if you’re a teetotaler), three cups of sugar, and three sticks of butter. Creating this culinary confection is a laborious process. Both the layers and the frosting require beating two separate bowls of egg whites to soft and stiff peaks respectively. With electric mixers this task is relatively easy, but when the cake was developed in 1898 by Emma Rylander Lane, it was a tedious and tiring endeavor. Because the frosting and filling are made from eggs, they both need to be cooked before the cake can be assembled. For the frosting this means seven minutes of continuous beating over a double boiler. Creating the cake requires an entire afternoon. Especially if you forget to check just how many eggs you have or whether or not that milk in the fridge is whole or not.
I baked the Lane Cake for a class called “Material Culture in the South.” We were studying Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and my professor requested a cake for class. I wanted to make something from the book and had two options: a simple pound cake or a Lane Cake. I fancied myself a skilled baker, so I chose the Lane Cake. Ms. Maudie Atkinson bakes one in the book when Aunt Alexandra first arrives in Alabama. The main character, Scout, describes it as being “so loaded with shinny it made me tight.”[i] Ms. Maudie has a reputation as a baking sensation and the Lane Cake is her crowning glory. The other women in the neighborhood beg for her recipe, but she refuses to share it. It is her pride and joy and she wants to keep it that way. If everyone else could make it, how could she show it off?
A signature recipe is a time-honored tradition for Southern women, especially dessert recipes. Calling something an original creation is one thing, but gaining notoriety for it is the real achievement. If that happens, people will desire your cake at all the important community functions. Too fancy for Sunday dinner or informal visits, the Lane Cake belongs at church homecomings, Christmas dinners, welcoming parties, and anywhere else a ten-pound cake would not be considered gaudy. Naturally, this leads to an overwhelming sense of pride—and possibly superiority—, but there are ways to counteract that.
Southern pride is part of Southern hospitality. They feed each other. Praise for one’s Southern hospitality leads to the development of Southern pride. And Southern pride leads to one to extend more Southern hospitality. Both, along with baking, are traditions in my family—traditions I was not living up to. My great-great aunt was always baking; she was active in the Jonesboro, Georgia, social scene and always had somewhere or someone to take her confections to. My grandmother kept a roll of cookie dough or a pound cake in her freezer at all times just in case a visitor stopped by and she needed to offer them something. I have yet to see my mother set foot in someone’s house without food in hand. These women inherently knew the Southern hospitality and pride rulebook.
Never let your guest leave empty handed and never arrive empty handed.
Impress guests with your ability to pull out a fresh baked good at a moment’s notice.
At a party, make sure the “sideboard is groaning” so that no one leaves hungry and, more
importantly, so they can see how much effort you put forth for the occasion.
Be sure to act humble and assure them that it was “no trouble at all.”
Always dismiss what you made.
“It might be a little dry,” I say as I hand someone a piece of my second attempt at a Lane Cake, made nearly a year after the first. While I do think the cake dried out, this statement sets me up for compliments later. Point out some miniscule flaw and make sure you tell everyone. It gives the appearance of humility even when the only reason you tell people is so they will gushingly reassure you of how delicious, moist, and beautiful it is. They know what you are doing, but they play along anyway. It is an unspoken code.
Pride and envy make you a better baker. The pride makes you simultaneously guard your recipe ferociously and take it to every possible function where someone with a discerning palate could potentially replicate it. Envy pushes you to create your own fantastical cake. It stretches the limits of your creativity and forces you to try recipes and techniques you would normally attribute to gourmet bakers. I never would have made the Lane Cake if I was not proud of my, at the time, limited baking skills, or if I was not envious of some fictional character’s.
I took my cake to class anyway even if it was the saddest thing I had ever seen. I made sure to tell people that it looked awful and apologized repeatedly for it and in return they all told me how wonderful it tasted. I felt that Southern pride creeping up despite my Lane Cake’s shortcomings. I later heard that my professor said she “would never ask a student to make it again.” Although not how I envisioned it, my Lane Cake still achieved notoriety.[ii]
[i] Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird, (New York: Hachette Book Group, 1960), 171.
[ii] Image Credits:
Figures 1, 2, 3, and 6 taken by author.