Birmingham Historical Society President, Wayne Hester, greets members of the Heritage Society as they gather to celebrate nearly 40 years of culinary excellence at Highlands Bar &Grill. Chef Frank Stitt opened his award winning restaurant in the historic Spanish Stores building in Five Points South in 1980 in what was then a ’fine food desert’. Since then he and Pardis have received multiple awards including James Beard’s Best Restaurant in the United States, as well as training many of the restaurant/entrepreneurs that have made Birmingham a fine food destination.
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!