The Icing on the Cake

I have always been fascinated by the ways in which people experience and use guilt. Maybe it’s because I raised in a culture that specializes in both emotional self-flagellation as well as the transmission of life lessons through guilt. For example, abstinence from excess is rarely presented as something that is inherently good. Rather, it is something that should be avoided because “you were raised better.”

The guilt with which I am most familiar comes, I think, from a devout attachment to History and Family (not necessarily in that order), and whichever forms of ultra-conservative Protestantism one knows. My non-Protestant friends have also attested to a particular Southern form a guilt; however, my few Southern Jewish friends tell me that Jewish guilt trumps Southern guilt. So be it. Secular Southerners, who were raised better, struggle with the  sisyphean task of freeing themselves and their children from the ties that keep them bound to Family and History.

Some of my favorite Southern authors who have written about this topic are: William Faulkner, Walker Percy, William Alexander Percy, Willie Morris, Eudora Welty, Cormac McCarthy, Ellen Gilchrist, and Rebecca Wells. This list is not even close to complete. I just think of these men and women as some of the heavy hitters in Southern prose. Even here I am fighting the urge to go in and rank them. No! Just read some of them. You really should have done so already by now anyway. By the way, most well-read Southerners not only adore reading, they know instinctively, that willingly accept the responsibility of trying to “know.” I feel guilty when I am not reading!

Before I get wrapped up in a literary discussion, let’s get back to guilt… and cake. Just be patient. You’ll get your dessert after you eat your vegetables which no longer taste good because they aren’t cooked with bacon.

When I went off to college in Nashville, TN, self-proclaimed sophisticates- people from places like New York City, Philadelphia, La Jolla, CA, and even New Mexico (all pretty cool places in their own rights) actually asked me things like,”Do people really go barefooted?” and “Do you have indoor plumbing?” It never occurred to me to call these people idiots or attack the vices that existed in their backyards. I was so amazed that they didn’t know as much (or as little) about me as I did about them. I still felt guilty because, in more cases than anyone wants to admit, the answer to both of these questions was/is, “Yes.” I was raised better than to ask such questions of people whom I barely knew. One evening, Corretta Scott King came to speak at our college. A friend suggested that I go because of my Southern origins, not because it might be intellectually stimulating. I must point out here that guilt doesn’t always work with me. I didn’t go hear Ms. King for the sole reason that someone thought that I should (without really understanding why I should). And I still feel guilty.

Did you like the way I slipped in a few more points before getting down to the sweet stuff? Well, that’s how it goes. By now, if you haven’t just skipped down to the bottom of this post or moved on to Facebook, you may be too frustrated to wonder what I want you to be wondering now, to wit: why are you writing about Southern guilt and cake? Well, now that I’ve planted the question, here is one answer. The two are inextricably linked in my life and, I suspect, in the lives of many of my cultural compatriots also. So, without further ado, I give you Katy Boone’s Caramel Cake. Oh- Katy never used a written recipe. My grandmother wrote this down, and my mother shared it with me in a phone conversation.

1 stick of butter                      1 T milk                           1 t vanilla

1 3/4 c flour                          1/2 c Crisco

2 c flour                                  6 eggs

pinch of salt                             1/2 t baking powder

Cream the butter, Crisco, and eggs. Add the sugar, then eggs and milk. Mix and add dry ingredients then vanilla. Bake in two greased, 8 inch cake pans at 350 for 30 minutes or until set.

Who is Katy Boone, you ask? Katy Boone was my grandmother’s cook. Katy Boone saved cookie dough for me and my sister so that we could have a taste. Katy Boone was one of the type of black women the women that insipid movies like The Help tried and failed to portray adequately (I did not read the book. For better and worse, I lived my own version of it which had a lot more shades of grey that I remember in the movie. I hope the book was better.) Katy spent much of her life with us, all of us, but we only knew her when she was with us, not with her own family. Katy Boone was the kind of woman who would go to the trouble to make cookies because a little girl asked for them, or make a cake with the following icing for special occasions like my uncle’s birthday.


2 1/2 c sugar, divided

1 egg

1 stick of butter

3/4 c milk or half and half

1 t vanilla

Mix 2 c. sugar, egg, butter, and milk in a deep, heavy (that means cast-iron!) skillet. Bring to a boil.

In another heavy skillet, brown the sugar (i.e. cook it slowly over a low fire. STIR, or it will burn.)

When milk mixture boils, add browned sugar. Cook on high until “a bit dropped in cold water makes a soft ball.” (I’m told that a such wonder called a candy thermometer will actually tell you when you have something that qualifies as a “soft ball”)

Add vanilla and let the mixture stand until cool.

Beat until it is of spreadable consistency. “Do not stop to soon or stir too long.” (If you stop too soon, you will get syrup. If you stir it for too long, it will turn to a lump of sugar.)

Guilt free? Not by a long shot. The eggs and butter alone is probably making some of you shudder. I would feel guilty if I shared the recipe without telling you about Katy Boone.