Every town has a cake lady, says Jodi Rhoden. "These are the women who bake the cakes for their community's special occasions: weddings, birthdays, church barbecues and even funerals," she writes in her new book Cake Ladies: Celebrating a Southern Tradition. "And — as you'll discover when you try the recipes in this book — cake ladies are special."
Rhoden, owner of Short Street Cakes in Asheville and author of the lauded blog, “My Life in Cake,” is herself a cake lady. In the summer of 2010, she hit the highway in pursuit of other Southern women of her ilk. The result is a vibrant, full-color catalogue, published by Asheville-based Lark Books, full of stories, recipes and best of all, tales.
All of the cake ladies came into Rhoden's life through a particular sweet serendipity. In her own backyard, she met a Mexican-born Asheville woman who bakes pastel de tres leches, a confection popular in her native Hidalgo. In New Orleans, she visited two former teachers remaking their careers as bakers while the Big Easy slowly remade itself as a city. And in the picturesque landscape of Jackson County, she found a Cherokee woman while lost on her way to find the others.
The encounters were all fortuitous, but none more so than the meeting of a Cherokee woman living on the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina. Rhoden ended up there after taking a wrong turn on the way to, well, Louisiana.
Rhoden had taken an unfamiliar route to circumvent her hometown of Atlanta (afraid that the draw of a cozy bed in a familiar place could delay her quest). "I got completely lost just an hour outside of Asheville — and I’ve lived here for 10 years," she says with a laugh. "Once I realized where I was — and I'd never been to Cherokee before — I thought, 'I'm going to find a cake lady here.'" Her very first stop was the Soco diner, a tiny meat-and-three joint famous for its fry-bread and — wouldn't you know it — cakes.
"I walked in and there were these cakes spread out on the counter," says Rhoden. "I went up to the lady behind the counter and said, 'You're the cake lady, aren't you?'" The woman, Matilda Reed, replied in the affirmative. "I was supposed to talk to you today," Rhoden said, as if it were fated.
As with many of the women she interviewed, Rhoden would learn as much about their home lives as their recipes, as the two are frequently interwoven. The Cherokee sisters, for example, lived without electricity until adulthood. "So they grew up learning how to bake on wood fire from their grandmother. I was so moved by it," Rhoden says.
Reed recalled a recipe for strawberry shortcake her mother had taught her, and recounted it in the Cherokee language. Two of Reed's grandchildren go to a school on the tribal grounds where classes are conducted solely in the native tongue. "She's relearning Cherokee from her grandchildren," says Rhoden. That, in turn, is helping Reed reconnect with her own roots. "It makes me remember some of the words mom said to me in Cherokee," says Reed in the pages of Cake Ladies. The Cherokee words for common cake ingredients are included next to her shortcake recipe.
Life beyond cake
All the women she interviewed for the book gave much more than recipes, says Rhoden. "I was just amazed by how much I learned from them, all about life beyond cake.” Cake, she points out, is often used to mark important moments in time. We slice them, hand in hand, after wedding the love of our life; we use them to celebrate a cherished one's birthday; we console ourselves with them at wakes — and the recipes often serve to keep a family tradition alive. “So much about this book, and about cake in general, is about how people love their families," Rhoden says. “The stories have to be part of those recipes, and that's what's so cool about preserving those traditions — you're preserving the stories that go along with them as well."
Preservation of history through culinary tradition is also a common theme throughout the book, which profiles women from a range of cultures. And some of the history that food often evokes can actually be tough to swallow, says the author. “It's necessary when you talk about Southern food to acknowledge racism, acknowledge slavery, the African food traditions,” Rhoden says. “Creole is a perfect example — African, French, Native American — if that's not a purely American foodway, food tradition, I don't know what is."
One of the most uplifting stories in the book focuses on another pair of sisters, Michele Burton Oatis and Melissa Woods, also known as The Cupcake Fairies, both former New Orleans teachers whose careers dissolved in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“We lost everything,” Oatis tells Rhoden. “God, everything. Everything we worked hard for and invested in was just thrown out on the street or waiting for us to open the door and throw it out. After you’ve been through that kind of trauma, there’s nothing but your family.”
Oatis and Woods, however, are resilient women. They began to rebuild their lives by baking cupcakes to raise money for their nonprofit, VideoVoices, an organization dedicated to helping New Orleans community members document the recovery experience. Soon, people were placing orders for cupcakes, and the media was taking notice of the story.
The Cupcake Fairies recently bought a house in the Gentilly neighborhood of the city, an area badly damaged by the hurricane, now only sparsely populated. There, they are building a new bakery.
"Their story was moving to me,” says Rhoden. “They had lost their homes in Katrina. [I loved] the symbolism of them coming back to New Orleans, opening a bakery because they had lost their jobs as teachers and trying to make it work. When I was with them in their kitchen, we were crying the whole time. I was grateful to be able to tell their story."
The story follows an unexpected narrative that runs through the book: baking as an empowering experience for women. That’s not quite part of the original assertions of feminism, says Rhoden, who identifies herself as a feminist. More and more, though, women are finding the power and value of traditions.
“I think there are some things that feminism has done to sort of throw the baby out with the bathwater, and not value a few things that women do and women love that are part of their lives,” she says.
Being empowered has nothing to do with the actual process of cooking and baking, she says, but it has everything to do with making sure those acts uplift, even if just from the “redemptive power of creating something with your own hands.”
“A lot of the women in this book have created a livelihood around cakes, doing what they know they're good at,” says Rhoden. “I guess the biggest piece for me is the empowerment piece — seeing that these women, and women in general, are strong and smart and capable and powerful. And this is just one of the ways that a lot of these women have chosen to lift themselves and their families and their communities up. It's really important to me to tell that story."
Cake Ladies publishes Wednesday, Oct. 4, and will be available locally at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café (55 Haywood St., downtown) and at Short Street Cakes (225 Haywood Road, West Asheville). On Sunday, Oct. 16, Rhoden will host a book-release party and signing at Forsythia Hall at 28 Forsythe St., just north of downtown Asheville. $5 at the door enters you in a raffle to win prizes. For more information, visit http://www.facebook.com/cakeladiesbyjodirhoden.