Anyone who entrusts you with a family recipe loves you, and if you’re really close, you’ll get other instructions like, “Why don’t you get a job?”
Such memories bind every family. Heirloom recipes should be treasured as records of home that reflect the character of a people and a region. I’m always on the lookout for old recipes from family lines, for any dish not mentioned in Southern Living or that flood of books devoted to Southern cuisine. Community cookbooks are a fine source of these recipes, but you can bet your bottom dollar that more than a few contributors are simply not going to share essential details because the church secretary was caught sleeping with her brother-in-law.
This holiday season, I happened upon an heirloom that stands out: amalgamation cake. First, you have the name. Yes, it’s a cake, but an amalgamation of what? And why this particular word, which you rarely stumble on in cookbooks not produced by some dreadfully academic organization devoted to foodways? I first heard it mentioned from a friend in Tupelo, who said that it is “an ole-timey Mississippi recipe”. Queries to others brought about a dozen responses, all of them indicating that the amalgamation cake originated from northeast Mississippi and adjacent Alabama. I felt smug about isolating a true north Mississippi heirloom when someone pops up and points out that Ferrol Sams mentions amalgamation cake in A Christmas Gift. “And he’s from Georgia,” she added. I have also found recipes from northwest Tennessee, western South Carolina and a bundt from Florida that was way off all maps.
Recipes for amalgamation cake are few, and no mention is made of it by Southern Living, not in any “Best of the Best” (of MS, TN, AL), not in Rose Budd’s Kitchen, not even in the Tammy Wynette Southern Cookbook, which I found surprising, since Tammy is from Itawamba County, Mississippi, which seems to be ground zero for cake’s origin. This obscurity establishes amalgamation cake as a rural tradition as most treasured Southern heirlooms are.
My research on this recipe turned into something like a grail quest, and just as fruitless. To paraphrase Janet Clarkson (“The Old Foodie”) it’s impossible cite the first source for any recipe, since none are completely new. Meringues were made for centuries before somebody called one a pavlova. At best we can only give the first known written or published version. When it comes to the amalgamation cake the earliest recipe I have found is handwritten, from Itawamba County in 1939, sent to me by Bob Franks in Fulton. Recipes for amalgamation cake are jealously guarded in families, passed down and shared only with close friends and relatives. True to form, every recipe I received came with stringent instructions to follow or I would incur dire karmic retribution.
They all told me to get a job, too.
Amalgamation cake is always made for Christmas, and is similar to Alabama’s Lane cake, made famous by its mention in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Lane cake was created by Emma Lane of Clayton, Alabama who published her recipe in 1898. Most recipes for both cakes result in layers of white sponge cake with a filling of raisins, pecans, and coconut. The main difference between a Lane cake, which has it, and an amalgamation cake, which doesn’t, is liquor. The Lane cake, like its cousin Lady Baltimore, is always infused with bourbon or some such, while the sober amalgamation cake abstains from spirits. The sole exception to this rule is a recipe from my home county (“Vote dry and drink wet!”) Calhoun, which calls for a sweet wine wrap overnight before filling and frosting.
The following recipe is from a Nov. 2011 article in the The Tuscaloosa News, a recipe from Billie Ruth Armstrong Moore, a student in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s “Preserving Your Family History” class. Asked to bring in a family recipe and write about it, and she wrote:
Granny’s Amalgamation Cake was a favorite dessert at Thanksgiving and Christmas which our extended Armstrong family always celebrated at the home of my grandmother, Georgia Elizabeth Shumpert Armstrong. Her home was located near the Evergreen Community which is in the southwest corner of Itawamba County, Mississippi.
Billie Ruth includes hickory nuts, a distinctively rural ingredient, and everyone who shared a recipe with me said that if I didn’t use fresh coconut that I would die and go to a deeper level of hell than I seem destined for already. White raisins were mentioned as a refinement, and seven minute frosting is standard.
11⁄2 cups sugar
1⁄2 cup Crisco
3 eggs (or 9 egg whites)
1 cup milk
21⁄2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon flavoring
9 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
13⁄4 cups milk
1⁄4 pound butter
1 15-ounce box raisins
11⁄2 cups mixed nuts (1 cup pecans and 1⁄2 cup scaly barks or hickory nuts)
1 big coconut, grated
Beat egg yolks well. Then add sugar, milk, and butter. Mix well. Cook on medium heat until thickened slightly. Add raisins and nuts. Cook until thick. Add coconut last. Beat well.