Monday, December 23, 2013

Southern Christmas Dessert Traditions

By Jeff Burns

I’m a bit of a foodie, but aren’t we all these days?  One thing I’ve noticed lately is that southern cooking is in these days, on the cooking shows, in cookbooks, and in restaurants.  For me, it’s just always been home cooking.  My mother learned from her mother, grandmother, and aunts, and she was never happier than when she was cooking for a houseful of people.  I grew up with and absorbed some of that sense of tradition.

In the South, there are certain food traditions associated with the holidays that are still strong today.  However, there are still regional differences within the South.  I thought I’d explore some of the origins of a few things in my holiday memory.

Desserts are big in the South during the holidays, maybe the decadence was ok for the holidays.  As a child in the 1930s and 1940s, my mother was happy to get exotic fruits and nuts like oranges and brazil nuts in her stocking, so I’m sure treats like fruitcake, divinity, and red velvet cake were over the top.

Fruitcakes  Don’t just jump on the “I hate fruitcake” bandwagon until you actually try it.  What can be bad about a cake made with fruits and nuts and often soaked in spirits?  I make a great one.  Fruitcakes date back to ancient Rome and then spread throughout Europe.  The English made it into an art form, and English colonists brought it to America.  The dense cake made use of preserved fruits and nuts, filling, delicious, and has long shelf life.  Many cultures around the world have their own version.  Some are soaked in brandy, whiskey, rum or other spirits for added flavor.

Divinity   Divinity is a meringue or nougat like confectionary that consists mostly of egg whites, corn syrup, and sugar.  It originated sometime between 1900 and 1915.  At that time, corn syrup was just hitting the market, and it’s thought that some corn syrup manufacturers may have introduced the recipe.  The origin of the name is a little fuzzy, except that someone once proclaimed it to be divine.  For years, it was called “southern candy”, possibly because of the addition of pecans.

Red Velvet Cake  Red Velvet Cake is widely considered to be a southern dessert, but some stories trace its origin to New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  It probably dates back to the 1920s or 1930s during the Great Depression when the Adams Extract Company of Texas started marketing its red food coloring across the country, using advertising innovations like perforated recipe cards.  The distinctive red color is actually the result of the interaction of vinegar, buttermilk, and cocoa.  Apparently the red color was more pronounced before more alkaline “Dutch processed” cocoa was widely available.  Recipes began calling for red food coloring to compensate.  During the days of World War II shortages and rationing, beet juice was often used.

There are lots of recipes out there; find one you like and enjoy.  Enjoy your own holiday food traditions and maybe add a few more to your repertoire. 

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