The Lyric Theater is one of Birmingham’s Historic Landmarks and is also one of the few remaining theaters that was specifically designed for vaudeville shows. By 1918, four years after it opened, it had an active and popular schedule of events attracting stars including Mae West and The Marx Brothers, and was lauded by Milton Berle to be “as fine a theatre as any in New York.”
But in October 1918, according to booking records carefully preserved since its opening in 1914, it went dark for three weeks. (see below) It’s presumed that the Spanish Flu ravaged the city and forced cancellation of all events. Perhaps because of the very lethal nature of that epidemic, it burned out quickly, and the theater was able to reopen.
“The Alabama and Lyric Theatres depend on events for income, but the COVID-19 pandemic has jeopardized the future of our historic venues. We need donations more than ever to make sure these Birmingham Landmarks survive this crisis.
In the South, recipes are filled with history, and often shared with memories, stories, and traditions. One of the most iconic examples is the Alabama Lane Cake. Created by Emma Lane from Clayton, Alabama for a county fair in Columbus, GA, her flavorful layer cake won first prize. She subsequently included the recipe in her self-published cookbook entitled, “A Few Good Things to Eat” as the “Prize Cake”in 1898.
It immediately became popular for its light sponge cake texture combined with a raisin or dried fruit filling which was soaked in brandy. Over the years, Southern home cooks experimented with many variations and created their own special versions passed down with carefully guarded secrets among generations. It was often the cake of choice for celebrations and holidays, particularly Christmas, for its festive presentation.
By the 1960’s, Harper Lee, an Alabama native, memorialized this tradition in her book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” as Atticus Finch’s daughter Scout reports:
“Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight”
Also in To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Maudie bakes a Lane cake for Mr. Avery, who was severely injured in an attempt to put out a fire in her home.
“Mr. Avery will be in bed for a week—he’s right stove up. He’s too old to do things like that and I told him so. Soon as I can get my hands clean and when Stephanie Crawford’s not looking, I’ll make him a Lane cake. That Stephanie’s been after my recipe for thirty years, and if she thinks I’ll give it to her just because I’m staying with her she’s got another think coming.”[
– To Kill a Mockingbird. Author Nelle Harper Lee (1960), a native of Monroeville, Alabama, presented a picture of Southern culture in the mid-20th century, with numerous vestiges of life in the Deep South and Southern foods including Lane cake. [Shinny = slang for liquor, derived from moonshine]
After Harper Lee published her second book, “Go Set a Watchman”, interest was renewed in Southern culture which included the iconic Lane Cake mentioned in her book. So, in May 2016, a bill passed in the Alabama state legislature to make it Alabama’s official State dessert, signed by Governor Robert Bentley.
According to former Southern Living Food Editor, Margaret Chason Agnew, Alabama Lane Cake was one of the two most frequently requested recipes the magazine received (the other being Hummingbird Cake), and it was even more popular at Christmas. In fact, her mother’s recipe, published in Southern Living’s Annual Recipes, 1983, page 269, was used again and again in multiple Southern Living publications with several variations.
Taste, traditions, stories, memories, and Southern culture are all wrapped up in a serving of Alabama Lane Cake. Happy Holidays!
And a special shout out to Becky Sorrell of Ritch’s Pharmacy for the inspiration. She has been baking her family’s special recipe for decades and provided lots of baking tips!
Covid-19 is not Birmingham’s first epidemic. For a little historical perspective, and some information on how Birmingham coped in the past, please read our current newsletter! It includes memories of those who experienced the Spanish Flu of 1918.
Steve Williams was a wonderful friend to Birmingham Historical Society and a contributing member prior to his death this month. Most recently he lent a photograph from his archive in Eufala for publication in our recent Shades Creek book. Over a period of many years he served as a Trustee, President, and Chairman of both the Finance and Investment Committees.
As President in 1980, he led the Society’s Trustees though a series of long-range planning sessions conducted by the heads of both the American Association of State and Local History and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. These sessions, held at Protective’s Headquarters, set the agenda of our institution for subsequent decades. The former resolved that the Society would not collect records, documents, and artifacts; the later that it would direct research, publishing, and educational efforts toward the preservation of historic landmarks and districts. The Society’s Finance Committee met in his offices at Protective. Here also, working with Steve, Trustees first formulated endowment policies, crafting guidelines for investment policy. This was cutting edge planning for non-profits in the mid1980s.
Steve also supported the younger trustees when we decided to renovate a historic house and move our offices to the Sloss Furnaces. One day he took me out to lunch and shopping … at the Protective Corporation surplus furniture warehouse. He told me I could have anything I wanted. I picked the burnt-orange covered conference chairs and table that we long enjoyed, quite a step up from our army-surplus office desks and chairs. Steve always encouraged us to write more about people. I think of him fondly when we do and it is deeply rewarding to recall and write about our association with him.
This Facebook video created by Lisa Jones of Jefferson County – Alabama Extension – shares details surrounding the beginning and evolution of Grandmother’s Garden at Birmingham Historical Society’s headquarters at Sloss Quarters. Narrated in part by BHS Director, Marjorie White, the video also pays tribute to retiring longtime Urban Regional Jefferson County extension agent, Sallie Lee, as well as master gardener volunteers who have helped plant and maintain the garden since its beginnings fifteen years ago.