Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cookbook, published in 1866, is celebrated as the first cookbook by an African American author, but it has another distinction as the earliest known published collection of recipes from the southern Appalachians. As such, it stands as a document to the southern mountaineers’ love of gingerbread.
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Amelia Simmons’s cookbook, American Cookery (1796), the first published in the United States, has four recipes for gingerbread/cakes. Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife (1824), which Russell identifies as a primary source of her culinary education, has three, and What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881) has one for cake and one for cookies.
But Russell’s book, which records recipes that she made and served and sold at her Chuckey Mountain, Tennessee, boarding house and later at her bakery, contains 10 different recipes for gingerbread/cake, two for snaps, one for ginger nuts, and one for a baked ginger pudding.
That love of gingerbread is still celebrated every fall in the mountains at the annual Knott County, Kentucky, Gingerbread Festival, commemorating not only the sweet and its makers but also an old-time political tradition in which competing candidates would hire the best local gingerbread makers to hand out treats at the polls, hoping to win votes.
Gingerbread Snack CakeIn Appalachia, gingerbread is a time-honored tradition.
One logical explanation for the preponderance of ginger in the sweets made by Russell and other mountain bakers is the presence of “wild ginger,” a native plant that grows at high, temperate elevations and so was rife in the region. It was foraged, dried, and ground by early settlers and used to flavor both food and drinks and would have been widely available when imported spices weren’t.
But I like to think there’s an additional reason for our love of dark, rich gingerbread: a flavor preference I call “Appalachian umami.” That meaty umami resonance is present in the signature foods of the region—country ham, sock sausage, dried apple stack cake, shuck beans—but along with it comes a tangy accent that my mama liked to say “has a whang to it.” Gingerbread’s blend of deep butteriness with browned sugariness, underscored by a spicy bite of “whang,” is the epitome.
And that intense tango of tastes is no doubt why I first fell in love with the late Karen Barker’s Not-Afraid-of-Flavor Gingerbread recipe. Karen elevated a simple gingerbread with the addition of coffee (umami), black pepper and orange juice (“whang”), and plenty of ginger. But keeping to my heritage of mountain-larder-improv, I started adding and substituting the likes of cocoa and sorghum syrup (more umami) and orange marmalade stirred into buttermilk (just a little more “whang”).
The result is this Gingerbread Snack Cake, which can be gussied up for company served on a plate with whipped cream. But if you want to do it the way grandmas and mamas have for centuries, just leave it in the pan on the kitchen counter with a knife and let anybody have some any time they get a craving.
Ronni Lundy is the author of Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes (2016), which won two James Beard Awards for Cookbook of the Year and Best American Cooking. Ronni has been writing about the food, music, and people of the southern Appalachians for more than 40 years and is the proud owner of Plott Hound Books in Burnsville, North Carolina, amid the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.