Many well-loved, classic recipes have one thing in common: their origins, while rooted in history, are sketchy and hard to trace. Such is the case for the Cola Cake. Most will agree that this indulgent creation is of Southern origins; Coca-Cola was, of course, created in Atlanta, Georgia. Plus, Southern bakers are well known for creating rich desserts using whatever food items are on hand. One theory as to the cake’s beginning goes back to the days of World War II, when sugar, as well as other food items, was rationed and hard to come by. At that time, The Coca-Cola Company was the market leader in their industry and held the contract to supply the US military with soft drinks. The company was exempt from the sugar rationing imposed by the government, which allowed all the Coke sold in the United States to be made with sugar, while many of their competitors were forced to use less tasty sweeteners. Therefore, Coke was promoted as an alternative to sugar, and the soft drink found its way into ham glazes, barbecue sauces, and baked items.
Another theory is that The Coca-Cola Company wanted to expand into other markets in order to improve sales, so they began creating recipes using their products, in their own test kitchens. That theory may be true, but it seems more realistic that home cooks across the country simply created new recipes based on what products were available, whether it was sugar or an alternative.
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Regardless of the history, a study of vintage, dog-eared, community cookbooks from around the South will usually produce some variation of this cake recipe. In 1970 Southern Living published Our Best Recipes, the first of many cookbooks, and included a recipe for Cola Cake calling for 2 cups of sugar as well as 1 cup of cola. It may be the added sweetness from the soft drink, or the extra tenderness and leavening afforded by the carbonation, but the cola cake has remained as popular and become as classic as the beverage that inspired it.