In the 1980’s, when I was still living on a mostly-Gerber diet, a food revolution of sorts was taking place in the US. Before this time, most of the top chefs in America were cooking regional foods from other countries—French bistros and Italian trattorias, tappas and Mediterranean cuisine were all popular—no one serious was talking about America’s food identity. This changed with chefs like Paul Prudhomme, Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman, and Jeremiah Tower, who championed local American food and the regional delicacies of our states and cities. Suddenly, people were talking about American regional cuisine, and working to represent America’s cultural diversity through cooking.
This post has been a long time coming. I’ve baked and photographed and eaten this coconut cake three times with the intention of sharing the recipe here, but up until now, you have not seen it. The problem wasn’t that the cake or the photographs weren’t good enough, the problem was that I couldn’t decide which story to connect this cake to. There is coconut cake in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, it even recently got a small mention in Ruth Reichl’s new novel, Delicious! I’ve been avoiding what I know is the best option—Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Things that never can come back, are several”– which she wrote in scratchy but elegant handwriting on the back of a recipe for coconut cake. It is one of my favorite poems, but gut-wrenching enough that a giant, flamboyant coconut cake has never felt appropriate. This is hard when a giant, flamboyant coconut cake is what your heart craves, and nothing else—not even homeliest but most delicious coconut quickbread—will do.