Notes from a Culinary Gumshoe

Anyone who entrusts you with a family recipe loves you and will give you other instructions like, “Why don’t you get a job?” Such memories bind us all. Heirloom recipes should be treasured as records of home life 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 that harangue of books and magazines 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 found a recipe that stands out: amalgamation cake. Yes, it’s a cake, but amalgamation is a word you usually stumble on in cookery works by dreary academic organizations devoted to foodways. I first heard it mentioned from a friend in Tupelo; 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 popped up and pointed out that Ferrol Sams mentions amalgamation cake, “And he’s from Georgia.” Recipes also hail from northwest Tennessee, western South Carolina and a bundt from Florida that seems way off all maps, but they are few. No mention is made of amalgamation cake in “Southern Living”, not in any of Quail Ridge Press’ “Best of the Bests” series, nor in any of my Jackson cookbooks. It is in The Mississippi Cookbook, published by the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service in 1972, confirming that amalgamation cake is a rural tradition.

Courtesy of Bob Franks, Fulton, Mississippi
Courtesy of Bob Franks, Fulton, Mississippi

Research on the origins of this recipe became a grail quest for me, but as Janet Clarkson (“The Old Foodie”) claims, it’s impossible to cite the first source for any recipe, since none are completely new. “Meringues were made for centuries before somebody called one a pavlova,” and 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; those who shared recipes with me said if I didn’t use fresh coconut that I would die and go to a deeper level of hell. 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 the Lady Baltimore, is always infused with bourbon or some such, while the sober amalgamation 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. The following recipe was published in The Tuscaloosa News, Nov. 2011, 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, 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 scaly bark hickory nuts, a distinctively native ingredient. White raisins were mentioned as a refinement, and seven minute frosting is standard.

BATTER
1 1⁄2 cups sugar
1⁄2 cup Crisco
3 eggs (or 9 egg whites)
1 cup milk
2 1⁄2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

FILLING

9 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
1 3⁄4 cups milk
1⁄4 pound butter
1 15-ounce box raisins
1 1⁄2 cups mixed nuts (1 cup pecans and 1⁄2 cup scaly barks)
1 big coconut, grated

Bake batter in 2 or three layers. For filling, beat egg yolks well, and then add sugar, milk and butter. Mix well and cook on medium heat until thickened slightly. Add raisins and nuts, cook until thick, add coconut last. Beat well, cool, spread between layers, then assemble and frost cake. Let rest several hours–overnight if possible–before serving.

The Agony of Ambrosia

One Thanksgiving as we were unpacking her car, my sister Cindy passed me a sack of oranges, a pineapple and two coconuts. I shuddered, knowing she wanted to make ambrosia. Ambrosia, literally translated, means “immortal,” which is appropriate because it takes forever to make. It’s a fruit salad traditionally made with orange, pineapple and coconut. Some sort of sweetener is also involved, either syrup macerated from the fruits themselves or, more formally, grenadine or maraschino. Because ambrosia is so time-consuming, most people nowadays use processed ingredients like canned mandarin oranges, Dole pineapple chunks and zip-lock grated coconut. But Cindy was an old-school kitchen Nazi; it was going to be done right.

First, the coconuts; I twisted a clean screwdriver into the eyes, a Phillips head, which come to think of it is probably the best tool for the job. (I wouldn’t be surprised if some outfit actually sold a customized screwdriver with a teak handle for fifty bucks as a “coconut pick.”) Then I drained the milk and drank it with a jigger of rum. Cindy already had a claw hammer out for the next step in this brutal affair, so I broke the nuts into pieces with it on the back porch. Once the meat was extracted, it had to be skinned and grated. This took about an hour. Fortunately, the pineapple was soft and ripe. I twisted the top off, trimmed it a bit, set it off in a glass of water and assaulted the fruit, quartering it, cutting out the core, peeling off the skin and nicking out the eyes. I diced the flesh coarsely, sprinkled a little sugar on it, and set it in the refrigerator. Sis said she could not find Valencias, which are sweeter, so she had navel oranges which despite their shortcomings in the sugar department are infinitely easier to section. Frankly, I’d rather have my teeth filed with a rock than section citrus, but somebody had to do it, and in a half hour I had about a quart of orange sections to macerate.

Cindy, always the traditionalist, opted for a layered presentation. The oranges were drained and pressed into the bottom of a cut-glass bowl. Then a generous sprinkling of hand-grated coconut, the pineapple, also drained, topped with the rest of the coconut. The juices from the maceration processes were saved, mixed together and some was poured over the salad before serving (not much, just enough to moisten) and the rest was reserved for rum punch. Cindy’s ambrosia was a dish for (and from) the ages. How I wish she were still here to bully me into making it.