Real cheesecake is regional

May 23, 2019


My voice activated music system sometimes acts as if it doesn’t understand me unless I tone down my drawl, which gives me wrinkles around my mouth, because you have to pinch your mouth up in order to squelch a Southern accent. Try saying, “Hey Siri, play Guy Penrod” without a small twang in your tongue. It just can’t be done. 

My northern born husband and I have learned to translate for each other. He explained The Godfather to me (yikes), and I interpreted Steel Magnolias for him. 

Everything between us is smooth now except for the friction regarding cheesecake. Bob like-near suffered a spell when my grandmother served a “cheesecake” years ago. Her cheesecake was my favorite 7 layered lemon-curd cake. We’d always called it “cheesecake,” not knowing why, because there wasn’t the first bit of cheese anywhere in it. Of course, Bob thinks no one in the world knows how to make proper cheesecake except for his Mother from New Jersey who uses ricotta cheese — not cream cheese, in a little graham cracker crust. It looks more like a pie, but for some reason, it’s okay for him to stretch definitions, just not me and my people. 

He basically told my grandmother she was off her rocker, which at that moment, she really wasn’t rocking at all, so he was technically correct, but not very charming.  Grandmother reasoned, “That’s just what we’ve always called it.” To prove her point, she pulled out the recipe card, written in her mother’s handwriting, where she had clearly written, “Cheesecake” as if that’s all the proof she needed.  

Dedicated to truth and justice in all things Southern, I researched the issue and found that my grandmother’s “cheesecake” was in fact a specialty made popular amongst my people in South Alabama and North Florida. Family from Samson, Florala, Kinston, Hartford, Monroeville, Geneva, Lowery, Bonifay, DeFuniak Springs and Chipley named the lemony layers “cheesecake” because the big yellow shiny curd-topped cake looked like a wheel of . . . cheese. Oh, how I love the practical folks of the long-ago rural South. 

“Mama, this cake looks like a big cheese.”

“Okay, fine. It’s cheesecake. Now, go tell your brothers to get out of the creek and milk the cows.” 

My family’s cheesecake looks much “cheesier” and “cakier” than my husband’s pie shell/tart full of white cream. Put the two side by side and it’s easy to see which one is a “cream-tart” and which one is a “cheese-cake.” (and yes, I learned how to make the ricotta cream tart because I’m a good wife). 

At grandmother’s funeral luncheon, the ladies of First Baptist Church in DeFuniak Springs outdid themselves and the dessert table alone had over 20 different kinds of cakes and pies. But my eye immediately went to a tall, shiny cheesecake. Just like granny made. It’s the only time a cake has ever made me cry. 

Not long ago, in my farmer’s market, I discovered Dean’s Cake House old fashioned cakes, operated by a team of grandmothers in their baking facility in Andalusia. And to my delight, In addition to Caramel, Red Velvet and Coconut, they also make an authentic South Alabama Cheesecake. Just like my grandmother made. And unlike Siri, they understand me just fine. 

This story first appeared on and in the Sunday edition of the Mobile Press-Register, Birmingham News and the Huntsville Times.

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