by Gennie Truelock
Have you ever wondered why certain recipes come and go? While some baked treats seem to stand the test of time (I’m looking at you, chocolate chip cookies), others are wildly popular for a brief moment and then rarely seen, let alone baked, again. I was reminded of this recently when reading an article online from NPR called How Suffragists Used Cookbooks As A Recipe For Subversion. In the story, writer Nina Martyris stated that between 1886 and 1920 at least six suffragist cookbooks had been published and that these “…came garnished with propaganda for the Great Cause: the fight for getting women the right to vote. Recipes ranged from basic guidelines on brewing tea and boiling rice, to epicurean ones for Almond Parfait and the ever-popular Lady Baltimore Cake, a layered Southern confection draped in boiled meringue frosting.”
The “ever-popular Lady Baltimore cake”? When I read this statement, I realized that while I had heard of Lady Baltimore cake, I had never actually seen or tasted one. I decided to look in our collection to see if a recipe for this dessert was available for me to recreate, but in the end, I also discovered the surprising history of the cake and its connection to another cause to support women.
The recipe I used to bake the cake came from the 1911 Los Angeles Times Cook Book that is in the Museum’s collection. For more information on the early Los Angeles Times cookbooks and to view a different recipe from the 1905 edition, take a look at this previous post.
I want to draw your attention to the end of this recipe, particularly to the sentence within the parentheses, “This is the celebrated cake of Owen Wister’s story.” That sentence brought up a lot of questions for me. Who was Owen Wister? What story is the recipe submitter referring to? And why is this a celebrated cake? I have to say that I love it when you come across a nugget of information in research that takes you into entirely unexpected places.
Owen Wister was an early 20th century author and college friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Born in 1860 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a wealthy family, Wister wanted to become a musician, his father, however, thought banking a more appropriate vocation. A comprise was struck and Wister went to Harvard to attain a law degree and while there befriended Roosevelt. Both lovers of the outdoors and the stories of the West, the two remained lifelong friends and Wister even published a book about their relationship in 1930 titled Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship 1880-1919. But it was another book that brought Wister popularity and fame. In 1902, his Western novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, was published. The book was so popular that it went through 14 reprintings within its first year of publication. This story was later adapted into a stage play in 1904; films in 1914, 1923, 1929, and 1946 followed; along with a TV show that ran from 1962-1971. But these things never launched the popularity of a type of cake. That recognition was reserved for another one of Wister’s novels, Lady Baltimore.
Published in 1906, Lady Baltimore is the story of New York socialite Hortense Rieppe who falls in love with a Southerner, John Mayrant. The two are to be married, but when he returns home to South Carolina, he meets another woman, Miss Eliza La Heu, at the Women’s Exchange where he has come to order his wedding cake, which of course is the titular Lady Baltimore. While this book never received the same level of notoriety that The Virginian did, its description of the Lady Baltimore cake definitely made an impact. In the story, the narrator known as Augustus overhears Mayrant ordering this Southern dessert staple and asks for a slice as well, he describes the cake as follows:
“…I had my first felicitous meeting with Lady Baltimore. Oh, my goodness! Did you ever taste it? It’s all soft, and it’s in layers, and it has nuts—but I can’t write any more about it; my mouth waters too much. Delighted surprise caused me once more to speak aloud and with my mouth full. “But, dear me, this is delicious!”
With a recommendation like that, who wouldn’t want to try this cake? But which came first? The cake or the story?
The Women’s Exchange Movement and the Lady Baltimore Tea Room
In 1832, the Philadelphia Ladies’ Depository opened. It was a charitable enterprise mimicked throughout the United States and led to what is known as the Woman’s Exchange Movement. Modeled much like modern consignment shops, this non-profit endeavor was begun by women, for women, to assist those with little means or opportunities with a financial resource by selling their homemade goods in a storefront.
By the turn of the 20th century, many exchanges added tearooms and lunchrooms, which provided more revenue and became popular meeting places for upper-class women and men. This was the case with the Lady Baltimore Tea Room in Charleston, South Carolina, which Wister may have visited and used as the setting for the pivotal scene in his story. It also seems to be the place where he sampled the Southern staple for the very first time. The Lady Baltimore Tea Room was managed by two sisters, Florence and Nina Ottolengui, who made sure that the namesake cake was always on the menu. It is even said that the sisters sent Wister a cake every year as a thank you for making it so popular outside of the South. While recipes can still be found all over the internet to make this cake, it is something that isn’t popularly eaten today. The reason for that might be in the making of the cake itself. While it doesn’t require a lot of ingredients, it does require a lot of steps and patience to make. Unlike most fast cake recipes where you can quickly throw everything into a bowl, this one requires a lot of egg whites, whipping, and time. The cake is a white chiffon which is meant to be light and airy, similar in texture to angel food cake. This means that you have to make a meringue and fold it into a very stiff batter. Meringue can be very finicky and over or under whipping your egg whites, or folding them into the batter too roughly, can produce a flattened, densely textured cake. The icing is marshmallow-like, and requires boiling sugar and water and pouring it slowly into another meringue, if this is done too quickly, you could end up with sugary scrambled egg whites instead of a fluffy cloud-like topping. While overall the entire cake is very tasty, I can see why it may only be made for special occasions like a wedding or a holiday party.
So what do I think of the Lady Baltimore cake now that I have gotten a chance to taste one? Wow, is that boiled frosting sweet. I made the mistake of frosting the entire cake and it was a sugar bomb. I did make some tweaks to the recipe. I am not a fan of raisins and omitted them, along with figs since I didn’t have them on hand. I replaced the dried fruits with dried pineapple and used a bag of mixed nuts since the recipe didn’t specify what type to use. Since this cake is three layers tall and meant to serve a lot of people, which I don’t have in my house right now, I halved the recipe amounts and baked the cakes in mini springform pans. Here’s how mine turned out:
If you decide to give this recipe a try, let us know what you think by tagging us @homesteadmuseum.