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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  1. Wonderful! There was an article about Deen’ House of Cakes in the Southern Living last year I think. They still make them the old fashioned way. I have tried to carry on all those wonderful cakes and desserts made by family before me. I bet that table at the funeral was amazing. Those older ladies will be missed when they are all gone because there only a few of us still trying to learn and carry those traditions on. I think I will take your cheesecake over Bob’s though. Maybe it tastes better than it sounds. Yikes!

    1. His ricotta cheesecake is actually very good and my next door neighbor actually makes the best version I’ve ever tasted. But . . . my grandmother’s cheesecake was awesome in a completely different way. I actually found the Southern Living story you mentioned and if it’s the same one, it was written by Matthew Teague, who lives here in Fairhope. Small world.

      1. That is the one. I don’t know if the online version is the complete write up as found in the magazine. It talked about how she won’t do it an assembly line fashion even though she could put them out more quickly. I thought the pictures of the ladies who work there was interesting. All getting on up there in age. I have really tried to keep those cake recipes going. I have about five that I make and each and every time I make them everyone raves and says oh these are like my mom made, but no one seems to have the time to do it. I do like to bake though and count it as a hobby almost:)

        1. It really is a hobby. Although I like to bake cakes, I love to bake cookies. I actually had a cookie business at one point. I think it’s so much fun, but it takes days to complete one batch – cut-outs and hand decorated! You are right about it being a hobby!

  2. I love this story about your sweet granny. Only our grandmothers, mothers and a few of us learned to make these cakes. I can’t make all of the old ones but I can make a seven layer chocolate with hard candy frosting that’s really good. Now I’ve found a little bakery that makes one that taste just like it and a caramel too. I only make it for special occasions now since it’s just the two of us. Your cake looks delicious…….

    1. Funny you mention “just the two of us.” We can’t finish a cake around here anymore, even when the boys are home. No one eats sweets around here. A bunch of health nuts and cake going bad. I should keep baking and just have friends over. “Emily, could you come over today at 3:00 for tea and cake?” How fun!

  3. Neither of my grandmothers were big cake bakers; probably because they were both so busy sewing, embroidering and crocheting! Skills I tried to learn but failed! However, my Aunt Bebe’s carrot cake, sour cream pound cake and chocolate sheet cake are legendary in our family and home church. I’ve mastered the chocolate cake but am still working on the other two.

    My favorite cheese cake also is Aunt Bebe’s recipe; cream cheese, eggs and sugar, topped with a sour cream, sugar and vanilla mix. No crust just cheesy goodness. And it gets raves every time I make it.

    Your story about your grandmother’s cheese cake and the table full of cakes at her funeral kind of reminds me of the Orange Marmalade cake that seems to make an appearance in all of Jan Karon’s Mitford books.

    1. Oh, the orange marmalade cake! It was legendary! You’ve given me a great idea, if I ever get around to writing my fiction story, I’ll have to include this cheesecake! Your cheesecake with sour cream sounds delicious. I little bit of tangy with sweet. And how wonderful to be able to sew. That is is a lost art for sure!

  4. I love seeing “oleo” on old recipe cards! This looks like an amazing cake, cheese or lemon sounding.

  5. I read the article about your Grandmother’s lemon cheesecake in the Birmingham News May 19th addition. It looks delicious and I would love to make it, but I can’t read the entire recipe card. I was delighted to see that the same card was here on you post, but I still can’t make out all the ingredients. Would you please send the entire recipe to me. My mouth is watering as I dream of making that cake. Thank you so much.

    1. hi Sara, thanks for your note. I’m tracking down the full authentic recipe from my cousin now. She baked this cake and has the original version. Sign up for email alerts for new posts to stay in the lemony-loop!

    1. I only have the frosting/icing/curd part. My cousin read this when I first wrote it and said she had the cake recipe and would gladly share it, but . . . time flies and no recipe yet. I hope to see her or talk with her soon and if I get it all together in one place, I’ll do a new post on it, because you aren’t the first to ask. You may want to google the recipe on Southern Living’s site. I think they had a version there about a year ago.

  6. My husband Rick’s favorite cake. Made one for his birthday and it was a disaster. Will buy one from the ladies in Andalusia next birthday. McKenzie’s has them.

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