Kimberly Wilmot Voss, Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida
In 1958, Chicago Tribune food editor Ruth Ellen Church declared that there were no longer regional dishes in America. This view was based on a conversation with a fellow food editor who had mentioned a new cake that was sweeping the South. Church responded that the cake was also popular in the Midwest.
The cake in question was what we now know as German Chocolate Cake. It is not German in origin. Rather it gets its name from the American creator: Sam German. Its roots can be traced back to 1852 when German created a type of dark baking chocolate for the American Baker’s Chocolate Company.
Before there was the Internet, finding a new or favorite recipe could be problematic. For decades, home cooks turned to the food sections of their newspaper for inspiration or replacement of lost recipes. Most food editors ran a recipe exchange column where readers could seek and share recipes.
The popularity of the German Chocolate Cake can be traced back to a newspaper exchange column in the June 3, 1957 issue of the Dallas Morning Star. On that day, homemaker Georgia Clay’s recipe ran in the column “Recipe of the Day.”
The recipe would have been chosen by food editor Julie Benell. She had been a concert pianist who later gave performances on radio and television. She eventually left her music career and became the food editor at the Dallas Morning News where she spent 25 years. The reader called the dessert Texas German Sweet Chocolate Cake. In reality, it was German’s Chocolate Cake. General Foods, which owned Baker’s, sent the recipe with its product to newspaper food editors across the country. It soon became a national staple, with the possessive dropped from the name.
The story of recipe exchange columns and the relationship between home cooks and newspaper food editors can be found in The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community, which is out in April 2014 and available for preorder on Amazon now. In the book, I examine the important work newspaper food editors were doing in the 1950s and 1960s despite being marginalized in the newsroom and then overlooked by journalism historians. I looked at the work of more than 60 food editors and found that they were doing significant journalism and made important connections in their communities.