When Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Alabama, self-published her cookbook in 1898, appropriately called Some Good Things to Eat, she probably never dreamed that her Prize Cake would become one of the most famous and beloved Southern cakes. Despite it becoming her namesake, it’s unlikely that Miss Lane invented Lane Cake, but she appears to be the first to publish the recipe, and that secured her lifelong association with this beloved confection.
Southern Living first published a recipe for Lane Cake in 1966 in our second issue, but perhaps the most famous mention of a Lane cake is in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout describes eating one “so full of shinny it made me tight.” “Shinny,” in this case, refers to bourbon. It’s true. Bourbon is an essential ingredient in a real Lane Cake, which means that the cake improves in flavor as it ages and mellows. Covered and uncut, this cake can be made up to one week ahead. The recipe for Lane Cake comes from Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, two of the most respected experts on the art of Southern cooking. Mr. Peacock shares that Lane Cake was his favorite birthday cake when he was growing up in Alabama. Ms. Lewis, the granddaughter of a former slave, was instrumental in bringing Southern cuisine to the world stage. Her cooking and writing revived the art of refined Southern cooking while offering a glimpse of African-American farm life in rural Virginia in the early 20th century. Her venerable cookbooks, especially The Taste of Country Cooking, are required reading for anyone seeking to learn more about Southern cookery. As Ms. Lewis said, “One of the greatest pleasures of my life has been that I have never stopped learning about good cooking and good food.”
In her later years, Ms. Lewis teamed up with Mr. Peacock to write The Gift of Southern Cooking, a cookbook that aimed to keep Southern foodways honest. True Southern food, they both believed, is the enjoyment of the land. Their recipes showcase fresh, homegrown ingredients with only the barest of embellishments to enhance the food’s natural flavors. In the words of Ms. Lewis: “When I grew up, everyone had a garden, and we ate bountiful foods—vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, and more fish than meat. People didn’t know any better than to be good cooks, and good food bonded us together.”