The Perfect Southern Recipe? Pork Cake and Regional Cuisine




While researching in an archive in Mississippi I stumbled across a recipe that stopped me in my tracks.  The faded clipping–no evidence of where or when it was printed–contained a recipe for “Pork Cake.”  At first glance I assumed the recipe was for some sort of croquette or patty, a variation of a staple southern fried food, the sort of stick-to-your-ribs country cooking that appears across the South.  A closer read revealed an honest-to-God dessert, complete with sugar, raisins, flour, and spices.  It was essentially a fruit or rum style cake with salted pork as a main ingredient. 

            What could be more southern than that?  Much as a sardonic David Allan Coe marveled in the final verse of “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” that he had crafted the perfect country song–complete with trains, prison, rain, a pickup truck, getting drunk, and a loving mama–I felt as if I had stumbled onto the perfect southern recipe, complete with salted swine and molasses.  However, the recipe was far afield from my purpose in the archives, and I passed it by without even making a note of its location.[1]           

            Months later, while working on southern foodways, my thoughts turned again to pork cake, and I decided to dig a little deeper into the origins of what I imagined was a singular southern morsel.  With the current craze for all things pig, from bacon peanut brittle to hog grease and bourbon cocktails, pork cake seemed a recipe whose time had come again.  Much to my surprise I discovered that pork cake was a common late-nineteenth century dessert, and was popular across rural America.  A quick search through period magazines and journals uncovered two dozen variations on the cake, submitted by bakers from New England to the mid-South.

            One of the earliest recipes is typical, representing perhaps the quintessential pork cake of the nineteenth century.  Writing in an 1857 issue of Ohio Farmer, “Anna” furnished readers with the following:

            Pork Cake.-Take three quarters of a pound of raw, salt, fat pork; chop it very fine; pour on a pint of boiling water; add one cup of sugar, two of molasses, two tea-spoonfuls of cloves, one of cinnamon, one nutmeg, two tea-spoonfuls of saleratus [baking soda], and half a pound of raisins; also citron and currants, if liked, and flour stiff as can be stirred; bake very slowly an hour, or longer, if necessary, as it will burn without great care.  This will make three loaves, and will keep well.[2]

            Almost every pork cake recipe included finely chopped, fatty, salt pork (essentially fatback with the skin removed), flour, sugar and molasses, hot or boiling liquid, and baking soda.  Raisins were universal, usually in equal proportion to pork, and cinnamon–and usually other spices–was always present as well.  Additional ingredients could include currants, citron, eggs, milk, coffee, ginger, cream of tarter, or dried apples.  It was, to define it another way, a rich fruit cake with minced fatback as the shortening rather than lard, oil, or butter.

            Pork cake reveals the commonalities of eating across rural America in the mid to late eighteenth century.  Pork, so associated with the South, was also a staple meat in places as removed as Ohio, Maryland, and Maine.  Molasses was a near universal sweetener, and dried fruit which kept well in the years before freezers, especially raisins and apples, graced desserts across the country.  Although there existed regional variations, especially noticeable in the South,  pork cake was part of a basic nineteenth century “national cuisine.”

            Pork cake also demonstrates the widespread transference and popularization of cooking repertoires.  Magazines, journals, and newspapers transmitted and reprinted popular recipes such as pork cake across regions and decades.  The clipping residing in the Mississippi archive might have come from the 1870s or the 1910s, from Michigan or Arkansas.  These print sources disseminated knowledge and built a cooking canon over the years, as editors and correspondents selected and submitted recipes made popular by public acclaim, and one magazine stole and reprinted content from another, often without giving credit.

            At its heart, pork cake was the epitome of proud poverty food.  Every rural pantry would have held the essential ingredients: flour, salt pork, sugar or molasses, some spices and dried fruit.  As another Ohio farmwife explained in 1872, “salt pork is almost always come atable in the farmer’s house, and an article which in many cases of emergency helps to make out a complete ‘bill of fare’…”[3] Pork cake took these basics and transformed them into a respectable dessert that a housewife could put before an unexpected guest.  Most versions required no eggs, milk, or butter, so the dessert could be prepared even when the cows were dry and the hens off the nest.  The cake had the additional quality of keeping well.  One cook declared the cake good for “several months,”[4] while another went so far as to write that the dessert “Will keep good for one year.”[5]  A pork cake could sit in the cupboard for weeks, waiting for a traveling pastor or a surprise visit from family, and emerge to do its creator proud.

            I suspect the humble pork cake may live on, perhaps somewhere in the rural South, still waiting to feed an uninvited guest.  In fact my mother owns two twentieth-century cookbooks that preserve pork cake’s legacy.  Recipes from Old Virginia, first printed in 1946, holds two modern variations of the old dessert.  The first, submitted by a Prince Edward County housewife, calls for ground pork and milk, but includes the classic raisins and citron.  Another from Augusta County, though described as “Sausage Cake,” is almost identical to the 1850s pork cake recipes with the exception of substituting sausage for salt pork and lacking molasses.  A community cookbook from Pittsylvania County, Virginia, printed for the 1976 Bicentennial, includes a recipe for “Kentucky Pork Cake” that could have been lifted directly from a nineteenth century farm journal.[6]

            I always feel a little uncomfortable writing about a recipe that I have not prepared.  With that in mind, I enlisted (willing or not) my family as guinea pigs and set about making an old-fashioned pork cake.  I chose the above 1850s recipe for its classic ingredients and simplicity, and assembled authentic ingredients as best I could: dark molasses, brown sugar, fatty salt pork, and unbleached flour were easy enough to come by.  The batter was not unpleasant.  It smelled vaguely of pumpkin muffins or applesauce bread; and if you squinted just enough it obscured the bits of translucent pork fat flecking the mix.  And the cake baked up prettily enough, looking for all the world like a light fruit cake. 

            I let the cake sit overnight, as most of the recipes advised pork cake grew better with age.  When it came time to slice the experiment my wife decided to opt out, seeing the batter proved experience enough.  I faced my slice of cake with some trepidation.  The cinnamon and cloves smelled inviting, and the texture looked good, dense without being doughy.  But I could not help but notice the glistening flecks of fat studding the slice.  I crossed my fingers and dug in, and . . . it wasn’t bad at all.  Appearances held true, pork cake really did taste like a Christmas fruit cake, rich, spicy, and full of raisins.  That being said, fruit cake has never been high on my list of desserts.  My nineteen-month-old son loved it though.  He demanded seconds and thirds with flapping hands; then again, he likes to dip fishsticks in blueberry yogurt, so I tend to take his culinary opinions with a grain of salt.  The final verdict: pork cake is perfectly edible if a bit disconcerting and it keeps like a champ.  So, if you get the chance to drop by in the next year or so . . . I’ll have a slice of cake waiting for you.

[1] I came across the recipe in Mississippi State University’s Mitchell Special Collections, where I found it in a book of recipe clippings.  In a subsequent search I was unable to find the clipping again.

[2] “Domestic Economy: Four Recipes,” Ohio Farmer 6, 22 (May 30, 1857): 88.

[3] “Various Methods of Cooking Salt Pork,” Ohio Farmer 21, 37 (Sep 14, 1872): 586.

[4] “Selected Receipts,” The Youth’s Companion 87, 46 (Nov. 13, 1913): 631.

[5] “Some Well Tested Recipes for Christmas,” Michigan Farmer 48, 25 (Dec. 16, 1905): 519.

[6] The Virginia Federation of Home Demonstration Clubs, Recipes from Old Virginia (Richmond, VA: Dietz Press, 1946), 208-209; and Idle Hens Don’t Lay: Recipes & Other Heritages from Pittsylvania County, Virginia, 1776-1976 (n.p., 1976), 35.

2 thoughts on “The Perfect Southern Recipe? Pork Cake and Regional Cuisine

  1. We have been making pork cake in my family for at least 88 years! My dad is 88 and his mom made it before he was born. We don’t know how far back it goes. LOVE IT. We grind the pork fat and there are no visible chunks of fat. Its usually made in Oct/Nov and served at xmas dessert and everyone gets some to take home. Yes, it keeps for many months, don’t know why. Gets better with age. Was wondering bout history and found this and felt compelled to share out family’s experience. Lots of people have turned up their noses at the thought but when served warm with a vanilla sauce we also make people just swoooooon!

    • Would you mind posting your recipe? My brother-n-law was remembering his mother’s cake with ground pork fat. Sounds like your family heritage too. I’d love to surprise him for Christmas.

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