In South Alabama, Dean Jacobs bakes cakes from another time
A low building sits off a side road in Andalusia, Alabama, about as far from any major town as possible. There is little decoration on the outside, no shutters, no shrubs. It’s plain in just about every way.
But each time visitors from Atlanta or New York or London open the front door at Dean’s Cake House, it’s like opening a warm oven. They close their eyes against a billow of sweet air, and sometimes—if it’s a first visit—they’ll say, “This smells like my grandmother’s kitchen.”
It’s the highest compliment Dean Jacobs hears. Her bakery is an homage to the Southern grandmother, a testament to the value of doing things the old way. And her secret ingredient is the grandmothers themselves. Past the parlor where visitors can buy cakes, a staff of mostly octogenarian ladies works over a collection of bowls and spoons and icing spatulas.
“It’s the only thing we’ve got going for us,” Jacobs said recently. “People know a real person makes every cake. You can taste it.”
And customers agree. From her nondescript building, Jacobs ships hundreds of cakes a day to grocery stores throughout the Southeast. When the delivery truck pulls up to the back of the bakery, a soft-voiced lady named Bonnie Holley wrestles pallets of cakes out the door.
In a world of processed and packaged food, Jacobs’ inefficient, labor-intensive seven-layer cakes have touched something in people that’s more powerful than flavor and texture alone: memories.
She’s selling layers of place and time. She says she never expected any of this and still struggles to understand it. She has rarely left Covington County and admits, “I haven’t even seen all of the county yet.”
This part of Alabama isn’t a very romantic place. There are no antebellum mansions, no oak-lined shores. It’s an old railroad town where people work hard, and that suits Dean Jacobs. After the Second World War, her father came home to sharecrop on a farm outside Andalusia. The family was poor and had no automobile, so trips into town were rare, and sweet ingredients were too expensive. As a child, she hardly ever tasted cake. But once or twice a year, on holidays, both of her grandmothers would collect the eggs and flour and butter and set to work.
She’s 83 years old now and still remembers the scent of cinnamon and sugar. “They would spend all day on a cake, cooking with those old wood ovens,” she says.
Later, as a young mother, she took a job working at the local Delchamps grocery store at a time when employees were given stock in the company. For years, she worked the cash register, until a spot opened up in the deli. That’s where, in 1994, one of her coworkers came in with tales of a trip out of state. “Dean, they were selling cakes in grocery stores,” she told her. “You should sell your sock-it-to-me cake.”
She made one cake and then another. Then she sold the grocery store stock she’d been saving for decades and—at age 60—started a new business. She hired some of the ladies from the grocery, bought a little building south of town, baked more cakes, and then moved to a bigger building. People kept coming. Most were after her chocolate cake, but she expanded the range to include caramel, coconut, lemon, and more.
The cakes are all reminiscent of the bakery itself; they appear plain, with little decoration, but are packed with an unexpected sweetness and complexity.
Why seven layers, though?
“That’s how tall my cake dome was,” Jacobs says, laughing. “That’s all I could fit.”
She calls her staff of 17 ladies “the girls.” They divide up labor—one greases pans, one pours batter, one slips them into the ovens, and so forth—and they hustle. Jacobs says every now and then, she’ll hire a young person, but explains, “They just can’t work this hard. They think we’re here to bake a few cookies and go home. But cakes are hard work.”
The grandmothers—most of them are now great-grandmothers—whisk and whip, hour after hour, standing flat-footed in their aprons. When Pauline Phillips (who oversees the baking when Jacobs can’t) flips cakes from their hot pans so they can cool, her hands move with the speed of a welterweight boxer. She has worked at Dean’s Cake House for 18 years, and her glorious silver curls test the square-inch pressure rating for her industrial hairnet.
The bakery’s most glamorous job is icing the cakes. The ladies stand at small, spinning tables with a stack of thin, cooling cakes at one hand and an enormous bowl of icing at the other. Much like potters throwing porcelain, they construct twirling, towering cakes, layer after layer.
Jacobs calls the process “our commotion.” She says corporate types have come through over the years, advising how to make the commotion more efficient. But their ideas led to inferior cakes—like the suggestion that, instead of baking seven individual layers, she should bake one tall layer and then slice it into seven sections. It didn’t work, she says. The raw edges didn’t hold up to the rigors of the kitchen, and—worse—they just didn’t taste right because they absorbed the icing.
Someone else suggested that Jacobs replace the ladies with an automated assembly line. She could make a lot more cakes—and money.
“And it would taste like a machine!” she says.
She stands in the parlor, which features a black-and-white tile floor and a wall of finished cakes, and watches as her staff works. One of the ladies’ husbands recently died, and Jacobs knows the woman will depend on her income at the bakery once she comes back to work. It’s the peril of hiring a staff of women who have baked for generations of children and grandchildren.
“No, I need a lot of girls,” she finally says. “I know that one day my children will take over, and they may try the faster route, and that’s okay. But not as long as I’m alive.”
And then she, a woman well set in her ways, gets back to work.