The Rich History of Southern Soda Cakes

Soft drinks have long been the key to some of the South's most beloved cake recipes.

7-UP Bundt Cake
Photo: Antonis Achilleos; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall; Prop Styling: Kathleen Varner

With the exception of 7UP and RC Cola cakes, few recipes for baking with soft drinks were part of my childhood in Southern California. I wondered why, and after examining more than 375 black-authored cookbooks for my book, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, I now know that cakes made with bubbly soft drinks are totems of Southern cooking. They rely, for the most part, on beverages invented and manufactured in this region: Coca-Cola (Georgia), Dr Pepper (Texas), 7UP (Missouri), Nehi (Georgia), and Cheerwine (North Carolina). Most African-American cookbooks that came into print during the soft drink industry's heyday did so in the North and West.

Baking from scratch wasn't always the "piece of cake" it is today. Before the advent of baking powder, it was a nuanced and temperamental art. Victorian cooks leavened cakes with a variety of agents—pearl ash, made of hardwood ashes; saleratus, which predated baking soda; large quantities of beaten eggs; or a chemist's formula for baking powder (mixing baking soda and cream of tartar). All of that required knowledge, thoughtful measuring and combining, and astute observation skills—not to mention strong muscles. Room temperature butter had to be "rubbed to a cream" in an "earthen" bowl and the remaining batter ingredients beaten until soft and creamy using a wooden cake spoon with slits, a silver spoon, or a wooden paddle.

Baking with carbonated beverages offered several handy shortcuts. Whether invented by home cooks in response to wartime sugar rationing, fierce marketing by manufacturers, or abstinence from alcohol, adding soft drinks to desserts intensifies sweetness and creates airiness without chemical leavening—a labor-saving measure.

Mid-20th-century food manufacturers capitalized upon this history, selling effort-saving ingredients, such as cake mix, condensed milk, marshmallows, wafer cookies, and soft drinks to housewives. Companies distributed "back of the box" recipes, booklets, and brochures and pushed stories in women's magazines that replaced cooking liquids in familiar dishes with effervescent beverages. Sometimes the substitution—as in cola barbecue sauce—was obvious. In other cases, like baked goods, it was less so.

WATCH: Ivy Odam Shares Her Favorite Coca-Cola Recipes

When I was food editor at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, I purchased a divine slice of pound cake at a church bake sale and saved a small piece to share with my husband, Bruce. When I got home, the napkin cradling the cake was saturated with sweet butter. He begged me to find the woman who had baked that incredibly moist treat. I couldn't, so instead, I spent the next several years trying to duplicate its pudding-like center and crisp crust. To ease my frustration, a cousin offered up her instructions for classic 7UP cake, which came very close. Eventually, I remembered a pound cake recipe my grandmother had scribbled years earlier on one of those little sample cards that department store clerks spray with perfume. I combined the two recipes, and today, that 7UP cake keeps my husband whooping and hollering like a spirit-filled preacher.

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