The Compromise Cake

My friend Michelle Hudson, who volunteers at the St. Luke’s Thrift Shop, always has an eye out for community cookbooks or ones decidedly offbeat such as the eggplant cookbook in the shape of an eggplant she once found. Several weeks ago, she ran upon a Christmas Sampler from the girls of Ladies’ Night Out at the First Baptist Church of Florence, Mississippi and therein I found a recipe for compromise cake, not just any old compromise cake, mind you, but “The Compromise Cake”.

The recipe just stopped me in my tracks; just what kind of compromise does this cake represent? Given the zeitgeist I suspected some sort of quasi-political origin such as a traditional dessert for such a Southern political event as a barbecue or a fish fry, but when I passed the recipe around on social media for clues, a friend, upon seeing the applesauce ingredient, pointed out that apple cakes were traditionally served at hillbilly weddings back in the day, so maybe the compromise is between the groom cake and the bride cake.

That’s how I learned about apple stack cakes, which mountain housewives made from apples they’d dry for the winter. Pieces of apples were threaded onto strings and hung in the rafters or in a special outbuilding that had a small kiln inside for drying fruit and other foods. Dried apples are sweet, pliant and flavorful and were cooked with water and molasses into a thick, fragrant sauce. The layers were made with sorghum, dried apples and a little flour, thin and crisp, really more like a big cookie than a cake, and applesauce was spread between the layers. Stack cakes usually had at least five layers and most people believed there must be an odd number. Stories were told about poor mountain brides who could not afford a wedding cake and were gifted with stack-cake layers donated by friends and family members. The layers were allegedly brought to the wedding, stacked on site, and cut on the spot. Purportedly the more layers, the more popular the bride.

The catch is that at any height, because of the dryness of the layers, a stack cake must sit for at least two days. Given that time, the moisture from the apples–and more often than not the applesauce between–softens the layers a bit, melding the flavors and making the cake moist and delectable. Cutting into a stack cake as soon as it is assembled is a disservice to the cake and the cook. So, the wedding theory is a charming story, but a freshly stacked cake is no gift at all, and if people then were really that poor (and I assure you they were) likely a groom’s cake was just not even considered.

So, the mystery remains, and I offer the recipe as a hopeful aside, an incidental, a footnote, not to past matrimonials, but to present reconciliations.

The Compromise Cake

1 1/2 c. applesauce
1 c. raisins
1 c. chopped pecans
1 1/3 c. sugar
2 c. cake flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 c. chopped dates
1/2 c. shortening
2 eggs
2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. vanilla

Grease bottom of 10-inch tube pan; line bottom with waxed paper. Grease and flour lining and pan; set aside. Combine applesauce and soda; set aside. Combine raisins, dates and pecans; set aside. Cream shortening; gradually add sugar, beating well at medium speed. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Combine flour and spices; add 1/2 cup flour mixture to raisin mixture; toss gently and set aside. Gradually add remaining flour mixture to creamed mixture, mixing well. Add applesauce mixture and raisins mixture. Stir in vanilla. Spoon batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake an additional 20 minutes or longer or until toothpick tests clean. Cool in pan 15-20 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on wire rack.

Aunt Jett

When I knew her in my childhood, Jett cooked the same way she had for over sixty years. She learned at her mother’s side, a woman whose people settled a wilderness. They sustained themselves and their families on corn and pork with whatever else they could grow or kill. Food was important to them; it was one of their few sources of satisfaction and pleasure unaffected by morals or religion. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

Jett always had something fixed for whatever company might drop in: stewed greens, limas, black-eyed peas, green beans, new or creamed potatoes, fried chicken, pork chops or breaded steak, and if it was summer she’d have fresh sliced tomatoes, fried okra or corn on the cob. She served her meals with sliced onion, cornbread or biscuits and sawmill gravy with sweetened tea to drink; she seasoned with streak-o’-lean, salt, black pepper, and maybe a little cayenne and sage. No more fundamental meal can be imagined. Jet’s cooking was simple, but not coarse; it had a balance and symmetry all its own, dictated by the teachings of long-ago voices set in concert with the rhythm of the seasons.

Jett thanked God before we ate, and that too is elemental of our sustenance.

Aunt Jet (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.
Aunt Jett (left) with her sisters Maude and Virgie.

Notes on Sawmill Gravy

The first sentence of the seminal work Guide to Southern Trees (Dover: 1962) declares lyrically that “Dixie—steeped in tradition, acclaimed in song, reverenced in verse—is a land of trees”, and so it is, but was much more so at the end of the Civil War, when vast areas of the South were still covered with a forest through which one observer claimed that a squirrel could travel from Virginia to Texas without ever touching the ground. When the nation began rebuilding from its bloody struggle, and on into the early 20th century, it was to the South that it turned for the timber (particularly after the Great North Woods had been cut), and logging camps and mills sprang up like mushrooms all over the hills and mountains of the South. The Southern woodlands kept its people in food and clothing during the aftermath of the calamity.

It wasn’t long after the Civil War that the Great Plains became home to those vast fields of wheat that fed the rapidly-expanding country. Up until the final quarter of the 19th century most of the South, indeed much of the country, depended on corn (maize) as its principal grain, and meal made from corn was the rule rather than the exception in rural households where wheat flour was an expensive commodity. Still, flour was obtainable, and American kitchens of every strata of society produced a wide variety of wheat-based breads and other foods. But in the South, largely because of its isolation and overwhelming poverty, wheat flour was for the most part alien to kitchens unless they were in urban enclaves or upper-income homes, and such kitchens were rarely found in the backwoods lumbering camps of the upper South, meaning those parts of the region where primeval woods still stretched over mountains and hills, for there growing wheat on any ample scale was impossible, but corn was grown abundantly as a meal grain, food for stock and a starch vegetable, most notably for hominy and of course grits, which I still hear some people call “hominy grits”.

To English-speaking peoples, gravy is a sauce made from the thickened and seasoned juices of cooked meat. Fair enough, right? The word is rooted in the Latin granum (grain), which in the Old World meant for the most part wheat, but in the South, corn was the staple grain until the late19th century. So putting two and two together (are you with me so far?), let’s assume that what the old folks called “thick’nin’ gavy” (as opposed to red-eye) in frontier lumber camps was made from corn meal, in which case it must have resembled not so much gravy as polenta and had the consistency of grits, albeit creamy grits, since milk became a steadfast ingredient in sawmill gravy as it’s known now. I have seen people put grits on a biscuit, yes I have. I’ve also seen people put ketchup on scrambled eggs, and I once saw a beautiful woman with a dreadful Midwestern accent dressed in a smart business suit douse a slice of good Kentucky ham with Worcestershire sauce (when she asked me what I was staring at, I told her I was admiring her tie). If you want to brave a venture into what Garden& Gun’s latest publication The Southerner’s Cookbook calls “True Sawmill Gravy” (p. 79), you go right ahead, but I’ll not be responsible for the consequences. It might be wise to have a back-up version made with good Martha White flour readily available in case someone spits it out, looks down their nose at you and asks for another biscuit.

In a former life, I worked in a restaurant in Tupelo, Mississippi, where they hold a furniture market every February. It’s a huge event, attracting manufacturers from all over the Mid-South. One year, our restaurant had a breakfast for the truck drivers, who had driven to town the day before delivering the tons of couches, tables, chairs and other accoutrements for display. This breakfast was sponsored by the market management, and we had about fifty or sixty drivers there to chew the fat and gulp down a buffet of scrambled eggs, ham, sausage and bacon, biscuits, grits and gravy. The cook in charge of the occasion left soon afterwards, right before I came in to prep for the night (it was a heavy week). It wasn’t ten minutes later that the owner came in with a steam table pan full of his gravy, which looked like melted vanilla milk shakes, plopped it down on the counter in front of me and said, “They hate this. Fix it. NOW!” and then walked out.” (She was, and still is from what I understand, a real pill; my paychecks bounced on more than one occasion.) So I made my version of sawmill gravy. She took it up and it got a solid round of approval from the drivers upstairs. Later she came in and said, “Well, I guess you’re my go-to guy for breakfast from now on.” I just glared at her and said, “I hate the hell out of that.”

North Mississippi Sawmill Gravy

This recipe will give you a flavorful gravy that is light-years better than that library paste you’re used to being served on breakfast buffets or in fast-food restaurants. Purists will decry my addition of a light stock to the mixture, but if they prefer a gloopy sausage-flavored white sauce, that’s because they just don’t know any better. I’m a firm believer that starch needs unfettered water in order to bloom properly. Cut the ends off a one pound roll of pork sausage (I use Tennessee Pride), about four ounces. This will give you enough meat for your gravy, and these don’t make pretty patties anyway. Brown these in a skillet with about two tablespoons oil (you can use bacon drippings if you like) and break them up very well as they cook. When they’re quite done, sprinkle in about two tablespoons plain flour and mix well into a smooth roux. Once the flour is just beginning to brown (you want it cooked, but with as little color as possible) stir in about one cup of light stock, chicken or vegetable, whichever you prefer. You can use just water, but you’re going to get a better flavor with stock. Stir rapidly to avoid lumping. To this add about two cups milk, reduce heat and let the gravy cook down to a good consistency, perhaps a little thinner than you want, since it will thicken a bit after taken from the heat, and season to taste with salt and I like plenty of black pepper in mine.