The History Behind Texas Funeral Cake
Funerals are a sad fact of life and when they come —and they will— you need to go to the funeral. And if you are going to a funeral in Texas, you should show up with a cake. Specifically, a Texas-sized chocolate sheet cake, which has become such a common fixture at the tables at funeral potlucks that it has earned the name Texas Funeral Cake.
Technically, funeral cake is a chocolate sheet cake with fudge icing and topped with crunchy pecans and big enough to feed a crowd. When brought to a funeral, though, its' true nature is revealed, as it transforms into a dessert that is pure Southern comfort, which is one thing that everyone needs at a funeral. Plus, this sheet cake keeps so well, that if there happen to be leftovers, the family can nibble on the cake for days.
The tradition of bringing cake to a funeral is an old one. "Funeral cakes came here from Europe," food historian William Woys Weaver told The New York Times. "They were common in northern Europe, and today the tradition is maintained primarily in rural areas of Sweden." According to The Times, cakes were "meant not only to provide refreshment for mourners, but also to be a token of remembrance." The traditional European version of a funeral cake was a "cookie-like" cakes called a seedcake, which were frequently delivered "wrapped in black crepe paper or paper printed with such symbols as skulls, and given to mourners to take home as keepsakes."
The tradition has been kept alive in the South in the form of a chocolate, pecan-topped sheet cake that bears a resemblance to German chocolate cake. And it made the list of most comforting funeral foods put together by the Houston Press. So where does the cake come from? While some credit former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson with introducing the South to this chocolate sheet cake, the reference librarians at the Library of Congress looked through her files and couldn't verify that account. However, they did find a reference for a large chocolate sheet cake published in the Galveston Daily News back in 1936 as well as a 1967 recipe for another chocolate sheet cake with pecans in the frosting that was published in the Huntsville Heritage Cookbook. Yes, Huntsville as in Alabama, not Texas.
That said, Texans may not need to give up the claim to fame quite yet. According to Relish, the pecan-topped sheet cake's roots may have been thanks to a 1957 Dallas newspaper, which printed a recipe it received from a reader called "German's Chocolate Cake." That cake blended chocolate, buttermilk, and pecans and was made with a sweet, dark baking chocolate developed in 1852 by the Baker chocolate factory. The recipe was a hit and spread across the Lone Star State and the rest of the South. Texas funeral cake is similar, but even easier to put together, which can feel like a godsend when grief stricken and in a time crunch.
As Atlas Obscura points out, the cake has become such a fixture at Southern funerals that when it's not brought to a wake, its absence is noticed. So noticed that Dallas-based pastor Mark Wingfield wrote a 2013 op-ed for The Baptist News, noting the lack of chocolate cake at a post-funeral potluck he had attended. "There was no green bean casserole, no fried chicken, no homemade rolls, no chocolate cake," he wrote, adding for emphasis: "And did I mention there wasn't even a single piece of chocolate cake brought to the house?" He went on to note that in Texas, the chocolate sheet cake has become "almost as common at church gatherings as communion elements" and asking the important, eternal question: "Is it wrong of me to think of chocolate cake as heaven-sent?" Not when it brings comfort at a funeral.