God bless African-American cooks. Since the eighteenth century, American cuisine has been deeply enriched by the culinary traditions of West Africa. Considering the bland tastes that dominate northern European food, the ability of enslaved black cooks to improve the flavor of American food continues to be present today. A host of dishes—ranging from gumbo to jambalaya, and from sweet potato pecan pie to smothered okra—demonstrate the culinary adaptability of African-American cooks. The end of slavery did not mark the end of such flexibility, either: instead, the availability of more ingredients that had been difficult for slaves to obtain increased the number of dishes that could now become part of the “soul food” diet.
One such post-slavery addition was the tea cake. Synonymous today with African-American “good times” food, during the slavery era the tea cake had been almost purely the culinary domain of white families. Originally an English and Scottish afternoon treat, the tea cake became an increasingly popular American dessert during the early and mid-nineteenth century. Given the use of refined sugar and bleached flour—two ingredients that were very expensive, and therefore rare, for slaves to use—tea cakes did not become common in African-American homes until after emancipation.
But once they took hold, tea cakes underwent the same type of transition that so many other dishes did. In African-American homes, a practically limitless number of variations were introduced. Almonds, poppy seeds, lemon, cinnamon, walnuts, and pecans all became African-American ways of spicing up the tea cake. As so many slave cooks had, using whatever ingredients were available produced newfound variations to the tea cake that became family recipes. Culinary adaptability did not end with slavery, to be sure.
The heyday of the tea cake was the early and mid-twentieth century. During that time, tea cakes might be served on any given afternoon or evening, but they were the special preserve of Sundays. After church, and after the elaborate, delectable Sunday meals that attracted throngs of kin, tea cakes became the final course. Often served with coffee rather than tea, tea cakes signified two crucial aspects of African-American society: first, the melding of Old World and New World culinary traditions, and second, the importance of “good times” food at gatherings of extended family.
Whether served after work, after a weekday supper, or during a televised sporting event, tea cakes were a subtle but powerful aspect of African-American society prior to the 1960s. To be sure, the same memories of screened porches, afternoon naps, family joke-telling, and huge Sunday dinners contain the sweet, creatively-flavored remembrance of a tea cake. Though other foods may be more purely African, the tea cake, in every sense of the word, is truly “African American.”