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Like pretty much everything else in the South, a cake also has a backstory. In this part of the country (from Central Florida up to Appalachia and as far west as New Orleans), certain cakes rule the roost, as they say: hummingbird, red velvet, caramel and coconut.
Smith, a sixth-generation Floridian, traces his family's heritage from England and Germany down through the Okefenokee Swamp in north Florida. His great-grandmother Margaret Geiger Smith, wife of a moonshiner, baked a 12-layer chocolate cake native to Alabama, Georgia and Florida that was her great claim to fame. The butter cake was made in a cast-iron skillet and sandwiched together with a cooked-fudge icing. Soon, Smith's hometown of Jasper (population 4,221 in 2013), near the Florida-Georgia state line, will be home to the Chef Art Smith Old Florida Bakery and Kitchen, where the historic lost arts of Deep South baking will be reintroduced and distributed to Smith's restaurants and, he hopes, throughout the South.
John Rivers, owner of the 4 Rivers Smokehouse chain of restaurants that also hosts the Sweet Shop at 4 Rivers, has a personal connection to the coconut cake that's almost always on the shelf at his bake shops. "The cake was included in honor of my wonderful mother, Teresa, to whom I attribute my love of coconut. It was only fitting to include her very favorite dessert in the Sweet Shop," he says.
However, according to Rivers, the far-and-away favorite at the Sweet Shop is their red velvet cake, a more recent addition to the Southern layer-cake lexicon, born of necessity when a baker didn't have any chocolate for a devil's food cake and used red food coloring instead.
Aimee Shea Vitek, former Orlando Weekly staffer and author of the food blog Order Envy, grew up in New Orleans. Her maternal great-grandmother was one of those intuitive cooks who rarely used recipes, but dished out a home run just about every time: "During the holidays, she would spend hours cooking a feast for our big family, which always included a spectacular dessert."
Vitek fondly remembers her hummingbird cake and apple cake sitting atop the Lazy Susan in the center of the table. She now re-creates those traditional cakes for her family during the holidays and sees it not just as a pleasure, but as a duty.
Vitek's husband, Kenny, also grew up with Southern layer cakes at his family table. The caramel cakes that his grandmother used to make for their Charlotte, North Carolina, gatherings were epic. "It was a cake meant for celebrations," says Aimee. "On our first Christmas in our first home, I asked his aunt for the recipe and attempted my first layer cake. The pure, super-sweet joy that emanated from my husband the minute he tasted that slice is a memory I won't soon forget."
The caramel cake is McPherson's favorite, too: "It requires patience to get the caramel just right, but it always says 'special occasion' to me."