Sometimes people pick a profession, and sometimes it picks them. For a few lucky Southern women, cake baking has become their life’s work, their passion, even their identity. In Cake Ladies: Celebrating a Southern Tradition, author Jodi Rhoden tells the stories and shares the recipes of 17 bakers from New Orleans to Hilton Head, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, and usually completely unexpected.
For Matilda Reed, a Cherokee in Cherokee, N.C., the path to cake was perhaps longer than most. Though she learned to bake in her mother’s wood-fired oven, she worked in a tribal casino for seven years before buying a diner with her sister. The two serve Indian fry bread and meat-and-three meals, and plenty of cake. The proceeds from two to three cakes a day, sold one slice at a time, go toward funding an annual employee vacation at Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Strawberry shortcake is her special recipe, recounted as her childhood favorite. Matilda’s version piles on layers and layers of cake and berries in the Appalachian tradition of stack cakes.
Cake lady Peggy Hambright had her first brush with fame in the 1980s as keyboardist and fiddle player for a Knoxville, Tenn., band The Judybats. After a “crazy whirlwind two years of touring and recording,” Hambright left for quieter, more orderly life, opening Magpies baking. Despite the name “Magpies,” with its promises of golden apple pies and fresh blueberry pies, that part of the journey also had twists and turns, and she stopped baking pies altogether to concentrate on cakes, wedding cakes and cupcakes. Her slogan? Cupcakes Makes People Happy.
Sisters Michele Burton Oatis and Melissa Woods of New Orleans didn’t set out to be bakers at all. But when the Katrina waters receded, the two returned to their Gentilly neighborhood and found that everything they had worked for was lost. To begin rebuilding their neighborhood, they initiated a video project, supplying the residents with videos to let them tell their own stories. At night, they rebuilt their homes, and began baking because it felt good and comforting. It also raised a little money for the video project. There was enough demand that they turned their little fundraiser into a business, The Cupcake Fairies. Their vegan Red Velvet Cupcakes transform a Southern favorite with puréed beets for color and less fat.
There’s no denying that life can be very messy, and go places you don’t expect. Fortunately, there’s cake.
–By Nicki Pendleton Wood