The South is in the Cake and it is Inside Me

“Excuse me,” I stopped the waitress just as she turned to put our order in, “do you know what makes it ‘Old Fashioned’?”

~The “Old Fashioned” Coconut Cake~

“I don’t actually. I’ll go ask.” I, trying to temper the typical wave of disdain that washes over me when I spot ‘old’ or ‘old fashioned’ next to menu items, was sitting in a gourmet pastry shop with my friend and her boyfriend whom I had just met. The pastry shop, on Federal Hill in Providence, was the same one in which I met the first long-term boyfriend I’d had since high school. Being my first return since our break up, I was already jittery due to the number of awkward interactions with his former coworkers I would inevitably have. The cake bit fueled my agitation.

The waitress returned with our pastries and I, squirmy and expectant, sat with my eye-brows lifted and chin up with a half-smile ready for her answer. “So, it turns out it just means it’s from the South. I don’t know why we even have it. I mean, no one from the South lives here.” My friend, aware of my slight neurosis on the subject, pointed at me and smiled. I found the word Yankee, one I thought I’d won the battle over, floating up from the ghostly crypts of my mind. Though it was sort of a double-offense (the attempt to take the South out of a cake and the South out of me,) I was embarrassed by my knee-jerk defense and turned to the possibility of sugar-rush for consolation.

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You see, the coconut cake is a southern classic. When I say that, I don’t mean “By the way, southerners make that kind of cake and you should know that.” As they put it in the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, “To many southerners, the thought of favorite cakes brings to mind certain occasions. Weddings, holidays, “dinner on the grounds” church picnics, and funerals. Memories of fellowship hall tables laden with traditional southern sweets such as pineapple upside-down cake, Lane cake, coconut cake, and red velvet cake not only conjure tastes but also stories of the ladies who bake them.” The coconut cake is an icon of the South both because of the memories it conjures for southerners and because of the southern memory embedded in its layers.

I could go into all of the ingredients and their legacies here. Sugarcane and sugar plantations, the flour trade in the Gulf, and the Mexican origins of vanilla certainly set the stage for a discussion of coconut cake’s global roots. Since the primary descriptor of this cake is the coconut, however, I’ll give a little background there. The conditions that came together to make the Southern Coconut Cake possible are not listed exhaustively above.

1840s: the demand for cheap soap ingredients spawned the development of coconut plantations, built and run off of slave labor, in tropical regions around the world, especially in the Caribbean.

1500s: Portuguese trading conquests spurred an uptick in the appearance of the coconut in European written records, but accounts of Europeans enjoying coconut “milk”* date back to the 1200s.

A long time ago: It is speculated that coconuts’ first use was for clean drinking water in tropical and coastal areas. It is also speculated that coconuts evolved on the coastal regions of Gondawanaland.

1880s: Dried coconut was first manufactured in the 1880s, right around the time southern bakers* began dressing up otherwise boring cakes with coconut shavings.

1840s-1880s: Evidently, trading the fruits of enslaved labor between the Caribbean and the U.S. South was so efficient that coconuts could be available for sale in a port city like Charleston within four days of harvest in the Caribbean.*

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Like I said, a southern classic. So, why don’t they just say that on the menu? Is it a fear of losing credit over their baked goods? A tactic to avoid questions? A way to impart an exotic hint while not spoiling the surprise? Does “Old Fashioned” just sound better? Does it roll off the tongue better?

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Recently, while in the Rhode Island Historical Society archives, I decided to do a little genealogical digging on a rumor I’d heard about being related to the Lizzie Borden, the famous (infamous?) axe-murderer from Fall River, Massachusetts. (My southern relatives would have been proud; they LOVE searching for new genealogical material.) It seems we’re pretty distant cousins which is both a drag and somewhat reassuring (for my parents at least.) Our common relative, it turns out, is a guy named Richard Borden who actually came over from England to Plymouth, Rhode Island in 1638 as one of the first British colonizers of what would become the United States. He was a member of the Friends Society and served as general treasurer and commissioner of the Plymouth Colony.  In 1661, he bought sixty acres near “Newtokonkonut Hill”* (now spelled Neutaconkanut,) which is about a half mile from where I live currently and provides an excellent view of the port city of Providence’s skyline. A few years later, he “purchased” land in New Jersey from “certain Indians.” In Borden’s willed goods, there is a record for an enslaved black man and woman valued at £50 and three enslaved black children valued at £25. They are listed among an inventory of his animals.

Richard Borden

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I turned my attention toward the cake, Neutaconkanut Hill somewhere in the background. The icing was bright white and glittered with fine coconut shavings. The cake itself was soft-yellow and, from sight alone, seemed to own the word moist like no other cake could. Dense, but not too dense. Form and flavor in seamless union. It was absolutely perfect; the raspberry sauce design of a flower on the plate was overkill. Sinking my fork into it felt pornographic even before I put the cake in my mouth. I’ll stop there.

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*Its “milk” is actually called coconut water.

*“Southern women,” with a flavor of southern white belle, usually get the credit here, but I am choosing “baker” to return to who actually baked the cake.

*Emancipation occurred in different places the Caribbean (in some places due in large part to slave uprisings and resistance) in the early to mid 1800s.  Here, I am thinking about how the trade itself was established based on enslaved labor.

*“Coconut” and the last three syllables of “Newtokonkonut” just felt worth mentioning.

For more on coconut cakes outside of the South, the Southern Foodways Alliance has an incredible piece on Edna Stuart, her restaurant (http://www.southernfoodways.org/interview/ednas-restaurant/) and the coconut cakes she makes (https://www.southernfoodways.org/going-nuts-for-coconut-layer-cake/).

Accentless

It’s like the false posturing of the Chicken & Waffles shop downtown has seeped into my bones and built the goddamn hippest wall between me and my actual experience of anything. And as I take a bite of my gourmet food truck pimento cheese and fried green tomato biscuit, I am Eve biting into the apple: with this new self-awareness and over-analyzation of all things southern, there goes all the innocence I have left. There is no belongingness. It’s hard to say you are a thing and really believe it.

I am accentless.

My parents are both transplants to the area. All my friends and their parents are transplants to the area. I grew up in private schools full of doctor moms and dads from Massachusetts. The triangle itself is an island of education, wealth, and liberalism in an otherwise more traditional southern state. I had never been to a small town until I went away to the midwest for college. I didn’t grow up shooting guns, making fried chicken, wearing pearls, listening to country, being down-home, whatever, etc.

Even before hipsterism hoisted that sturdy and lovely and wild southern spirit up on the pedestal it now sits, I had already developed a sad striving to be some kind of picturesque little belle or farm girl or whatever real southern girls are. I’ve watched a lot of friends double down on their country-ness, digging pretty deep into their pockets for a history that isn’t really theirs. Our parents and grandparents didn’t give a fuck about obscure country music geniuses or pickling their own vegetables. They just did their thing.

Not to knock it. I get it.  I’m a living, breathing, contributing member of the millennial generation, too. We are all starved for something that is really private and personal, yet deep-rooted and historical, and it only gets worse as our self-awareness grows. We have the burden of contextualizing everything we see, do, and love into the vast web of cultural references we (or our friends ;)) are buzzfeeding and pinteresting every day.

We get so delighted by our regional differences because it reminds us that we are organic people, people of our environment, born and raised in a real world and not a confusing ethereal stew of ideas. We pray (with every single purchase and instagram pic) that we are not a transient, cultureless generation. And so, whenever I celebrate my grits or my ‘y’alls’ too much, reaching for some badge-of-honor real southerness, I know I’m really exposing my insecurities. What do I get to claim? What is real versus what is put upon? And when does my awareness start to erode what is real and make it a parody instead?

There are too many ideas.

When I think about what I am, I try to remember what is backed up by facts.

These things indisputable: every summer is unbearably hot and humid, the crickets outside sing you to sleep. People are kind (as they are in other places, too). I grew up with fruit trees and horses. It is of utmost importance to my mom that I am a good hostess. I ordered polynesian sauce at a McDonalds once (shout out Chik-fil-a!). We picked persimmons off the ground in kindergarten and ate them during recess. I spent high school playing six cup beer pong (not 10. Shit, those games are toooo long). We camped at bluegrass festivals in the woods.

I have a little collection of experiences. They can be pieces of data but they are not reference points for anything in particular. I remind myself that I can feel good or bad about it, but everything that has happened so far is real. I don’t want to have to hold on to things too tightly or enjoy them too much. The food parodies and the twine DIY projects from the internet are real. Line dancing to Copperhead Road with a drunk redneck is real. Going to bonfires and watching Honey Boo Boo is real. And so are the times where I’m just myself, uncaring about dichotomies and social context, immersed in what is in front of me, creating little happenings that are for me or for nothing.

 


 

This Other Southerner:

ka bio pic

Krista Anne Nordgren lives in Durham, NC and owns a little shop selling handmade goods in the heart of downtown. She also works for a startup. She loves making new things, whether they are businesses, blog posts, or silly dances.

Jane Crow

Prologue

The more I think about my Southern identity, the more I realize how invisible it is. I think of all the things I claim:Black, queer, woman—and then there’s Southern, always at the bottom of the list, always the smallest, the quietest; tugging, like a child, at my leg so I don’t forget it is there. In thinking about my Southerness, I can’t help but reflect on what it must mean to be white, or male, or both —to occupy a body whose story is so loud that it’s silent. In thinking about occupying a body, I am aware that my Southern identity is the quietest because it is the only one humble enough not to destroy me if I make it quiet. And that’s what it’s all about these days, isn’t it? Trying not to let things destroy you.

“Jane is woman who survives.”

And so here comes Jane Crow—Black as the night sky, and just as full of stars. Jane is woman who survives. When I say survives, I mean: persists in the face of everything that tries to kill her and fails, but also: continues to live without end, lives beyond this moment—outside, within, and beyond it.

“The South is full of stories.
The South is a story itself…”

Jane is one of them, so she knows: The South is full of stories. The South is a story itself, but it will try not to tell you that one. As Jane remembers, so do I: you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. So Jane looks back, and back and back and back until the way back is so black she sees herself everywhere. And that’s how she likes it.

So that’s where she starts.


One.

Black. The word rolled across her tongue like a marble. The sky was so black it seemed endless. She wanted to be that way—endless—wanted the sky in the hopeless way you want impossible things, imagined herself pinned up against it, her arms and legs spread wide like a wheel. She let her mouth drop open at the thought of those stars, hoped that some might float down to where she stood and choose her to be among them.

Jane was wild and looked it. A mess of hair stood on top of her head, each strand erect like a monument. Her mouth reminded you of the sky before a storm: poised, heavy, waiting to be cracked open. The whites of her eyes were freckled with spots; sleepy islands that floated around an iris so dark you would it think it were black if you weren’t close enough to kiss her.

People were always studying her in the way you study what you think you know but cannot name—always asking where she was from, wanting to know, really, what she was. She would answer, here, but she wanted to tell them the truth: she was from everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“…she wanted to tell them the truth:
she was from everywhere
and nowhere all at once
.”

Leaving the South had felt less like a decision than a natural progression of events. It is the only place in the world that you can be ashamed of and proud of in the same breath. Jane was ashamed of its legacy—every inch of soil was ripe for strange fruit—but she was proud for having gotten out, for having survived it. Yes, it was home, but only in the sense of it being a place to which she wanted to be able to return, not a place she wanted to stay.

“It is the only place in the world
that you can be 
ashamed of
and proud of in the same breath.”

She had never met a city girl, but had heard about them, and knew she wanted to be one. She pictured this woman: sitting in front of a vanity with her legs spread, pausing the application of make-up only to slap her thigh to the rhythm of whatever sound was dancing from the record player. A city girl, of course, had a record player. She drank clear liquor—chilled—and coffee, sweetened with white sugar and stirred with cream. She slept in her stockings, sometimes, after staying up late, exhausted by hours of moving her body at the same time as another body.

To be a city girl meant to be able to move with freedom. A city girl did not have to ask permission to come or go—she could get on a train and ride anywhere. Jane did not know that to be a city girl meant, also, that no one asked your permission—that you belonged to yourself and the city and everyone in it.

__

Home was a moving blur on the way out. Everything appeared in colors, or feelings, like being on a train and seeing another passing in the opposite direction. Jane felt, as she left, the same way she might have on a train like that—full of a dizzy, almost sleepy, exhilaration. She wondered if this was passed on to her from body to body of travelers—if one always chooses the window seat for this very feeling: to watch the transition unfold like one season unto the next.   It would explain why she sometimes cried on planes—why the jolt of the wheels lifting from the ground made her heart pulse like an engine.

Staring out the window of this bus, as the city shifted from a tangle of green to grey, she considered Western soil, overpopulated with bones. She imagined the scene of a rain so thick it flooded these homes in the dirt, and off they went, like an almost-dance, floating through the streets. She’d like to witness this parade from this very seat on the bus, she thought, so she could cheer them on and bang her fists against the window without fear that one of them might latch on to her leg as she stood, waist deep in the water, and take her along with them.

She contemplated decay—the sleepy science of it—how it devours its meal a breath or savors every bit in its mouth like some kind of connoisseur.


 Jane Crow is an in-progress multi-disciplinary project that explores Black womanhood, migration, and the intersections of myth and memory. 

This Other Southerner:

Jamila Reddy

Jamila Reddy is a writer, director, and facilitator of dreams based currently in Brooklyn (but always in pursuit of magic wherever it may be). She spends her days exploring, reflecting, and trying to get free.  As a queer/Black/Southern woman, Jamila is thankful for language and the light it shines on the dark corners of transformation. She received BAs in Sociology and Dramatic Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She recently completed and self-published her collection of poems, the consequence of silence. 

http://jamilareddy.com/

 

© Copyright Jamila Reddy 2015