Seven Cakes – Though Dirt Poor, They Had Cake For Christmas

Life during the depression in rural Alabama wasn’t too different from any other time of year for my people. You see, they were sharecroppers – dirt farmers who didn’t even own their own dirt. They wouldn’t have known if the world had been prosperous, their lives had always been a struggle of hard work and all too often relying on hope for the next meal.

This time of year, there wasn’t a whole lot to be thankful for, other than the fact that there wasn’t any cotton to pick. For them, winter was as bleak as the Alabama landscape. In Alabama, we are not often afforded the sight of glistening snow resting atop hills and trees in a winter wonderland. Here, the sky just gets gray and the landscape browns – bare trees, brown grass, and muddy earth where fields lay in wait for spring as far as the eye can see.

My great grandmother had four children and they all lived in a small shack house. Wood was a precious thing and that meant only heating one room. My grandmamma says “it got so cold at night. Mama would heat rocks and wrap ‘em up in old towels and things to put in bed with us but we still got so cold. You didn’t dare get out of that bed unless you just had to”.

Families would work all year for the farmer in exchange for monthly rations of staples such as dried beans, flour, and the occasional bit of meat. At harvest’s end they’d get a percentage of profits on the cotton, but all of the staples which had been provided for them were then deducted from the final cost, leaving families in a continued state of dependence upon the farm owner for enough food to survive the winter.

But with winter came Christmas, and my great grandmother always did manage to make it special despite their hardships. Lela’s life had always been a hard one. Growing up one of nine children in Jackson County, she had spent her childhood traveling from farm to farm with her parents and siblings, picking cotton and tending to whatever crops the farm owner decided to plant. Now she had four kids to provide a Christmas for and keeping them fed and clothed took about all she had and then some.

But she never failed them. She always came through, especially at Christmastime.

Lela squirreled away ingredients all year long. A little sugar here, some dried apples there, maybe some raisins and a bit of cinnamon. After the kids went to bed on Christmas Eve, she’d set to work. Using only what she had on hand and no recipes to speak of, Lela would stay awake all night baking cakes in her little wood stove. She’d make an apple stack cake, a raisin cake, yellow cake with chocolate icing, peanut butter cake, and so on. There was never a plan beyond that of needing to make seven of them – one for each day from Christmas until the New Year.

The next morning, four sets of eyes would open wide and four sets of feet would hurry out of their cold beds into the only heated room in the house where their faces would light up at seeing the bounty of seven cakes sitting on the worn kitchen table. I know how their faces looked because my grandmother’s still lights up the same way now, some seventy years later, when she talks about those cakes. The kids took turns being the one to choose the cake they ate that day and between the six of them and any company who happened by, they made short work of it and were ready to start with a new one the next morning.

Most kids today would consider having cakes baked for you as your only Christmas gift to be a disappointment. But amid all of the wrappings and bows, gift sets and feasts, I hope your Christmas somehow manages to be as magical as it was in that little sharecroppers house in Alabama during the depression, when four kids woke up with stars in their eyes at finding seven cakes.


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Merry Christmas from Southern Plate!

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  1. What a sweet, sweet story! And thanks for sharing your cake recipes too!

    I love that you know your family history so well – so many folks these days don’t. Your story reminded me of something I used to do when I was a young girl, something that I hadn’t thought about in years! Back then we only had those tall gas wall heaters in all the rooms, which pretty much didn’t do a lot to keep a room warm and only kept you warm if you were actually standing and leaning up against them! But, in our family room there was a bookshelf that sat over the top of a fake log gas fireplace. The books in that shelf used to get pretty warm so I’d snatch up a big stack of those books and stick them in my bed to warm my bed up before bedtime. Then I’d take them out from the covers and climb in. Every winter morning you could count on finding a huge stack of encyclopedias piled up next to my bed. I’ll bet my parents thought I was one smart cookie LOL!!!

  2. My dad lived in houses with dirt floors and even a cave at one point. It is such a weird concept to us now days. I think it made that generation have more of an incentive to do better.

    My mom would tell me stories of what a treat it was when rich relatives visited and brought them soft drinks. Mom won a dollar from a contest and it bought four bags of groceries for the family.

    Now lets talk about how it also made them weary of throwing anything away! The hundreds of plastic shopping bags and empty butter tubs that have found sanctuary with my dad is overwhelming.

    1. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” That’s what my grandmother (born in 1888) always said. And I can still hear my mother (born in 1910) say, “Don’t throw that away! We can make use of it!”

      You can make mud rugs of the plastic bags and store stuff in the butter tubs, don’t you know? 🙂 You can throw it all out when he’s not with you anymore; let him have it now, why not?

      1. Tina, my mother keeps all the pieces of string from various grocery items! Like some of the white rice is sold in little ‘sacks’ which are stitched closed; she will keep that string!

        1. I have the most beautiful crocheted bedspread that my great aunt crocheted using strings from sacks of things like flour, rice, etc. She made it for my dear grandmother when she married my grandfather. It is too fragile and pretty to put on a bed but occasionally to “show it off” I will put it on my formal dining room table.

  3. My mother grew up in North Alabama many years after the Depression ended, but things were much the same for them! I heard the same sort of stories about going to bed with hot bricks and meager Christmases. In fact, that family photo looks almost just like some my parents inherited from their families!

    My family weren’t big gift givers. I guess the frugality was too ingrained in them. But food… boy, food was everywhere at Christmas, especially on my father’s side!

    Thank you for the cake recipes!

  4. What a wonderful family story. Thanks for sharing and for all your hard work keeping us all equipped with your great recipes. Have a very Merry Christmas!

  5. What a touching tale! Thanks Christy for reminding us what Christmas should be about. And thanks for helping so many of us show our love( the homemade way) for family and friends with your wonderful recipes

    1. I loved this. Brought back memories. I lived in a hollow in Middle Tennessee. A pot belly stove in the living room and the wood stove in the kitchen. No plumbing no electricity. And cold winters just as you described. The difference the land was owned by my uncle so all the vegetables raised as well as the hogs killed belonged to him. But several cakes were made and they were kept in lard cans in the coldest room. Irons were heated and wrapped in paper and put at the foot of the bed. And you were so right it had to be an emergency to get out of the bed. But I would not trade any thing for my childhood.

      1. I was raised in “town” in a huge 2 story house that only had heat in 2 rooms downstairs!! There were 6 children in that house that had to sleep upstairs in sweltering heat in summers and freezing cold in winters! But that is another story! I was talking to my oldest daughter just yesterday about the tasty sweets I enjoyed as a child from simple ingredients that were SO special then!!! I printed this story for that daughter last year but had to print it again fro the rest of my family!!! SO sweet! Brings back precious memories!! Thank you so much for sharing this again! Please make this a tradition so NO one misses it!! MUCH love to you and yours!!

      2. I’m 72 yrs young, and was raised in Maryland with out plumbing and electricity, spring water and then we dug a well, had hogs, chickens, and ducks, and geese, ginny hens. Each year we slaughtered pigs, made sausage, bacon, lard, and put meat in a shed to hang, and smoke. Those were days that families made everything from scratch, bread, cakes, and a house full of kids, those that lived there and others neighbors, we cared for each other, and holidays were spent caring for one another and sharing, no one was better than the other. Our cakes were made with a little that and a pinch of this, what ever was on hand would go into a cake, so our cakes were never boring, each time brand new, I bake my cakes like that today, never to many the same. Life back then was more love and time, today it’s fast and move on. How ever it is I’m glad to be a part of it for my children, grandchildren, and my great-grands.

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