Cheryl Day's new cookbook is a treasure trove of delicious Southern treats
From the beginning, baking for Cheryl Day was about stories. As a child in Los Angeles, she and her mother, a busy social worker, would take time to make pies: chess, plum, sweet potato and lemon meringue using fruit from their backyard lemon tree. And Day’s mother, Janie Queen, would tell stories about the South.
“Even though she left the South, she wanted it to be part of my experience,” Day said. “Because this is my heritage.”
Day’s mom talked about growing up in Dothan, Alabama. She talked about Day’s grandmother, a school teacher who was at the center of a community in that small town. And she recounted how, in the middle of World War II, she joined the Women’s Army Corps without telling her parents, ending up in California, part of the Great Migration that saw more than 6 million African Americans from the South move to cities in the East, Midwest and West.
“In many ways, the food culture is a metaphor for the ways that people during the migration period, consciously or unconsciously, maintain some part of their culture,” said Georgetown University historian Marcia Chatelain, author of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.”
Day, now 60 and one of the most recognized bakers in the country, decided to move to Alabama when she was 18 years old. She and her husband, Griffith Day, have been proprietors of the business Back in the Day Bakery for 20 years. Day built the family business on the Southern recipes she learned from her mother.
“I decided that I wanted to make all Southern baked goods,” she said. “And I started thinking about all the things that I grew up with. I said biscuits would be my croissant.”
Southern baking taken seriously
In Day’s latest cookbook, “Cheryl Day's Treasury of Southern Baking” (Artisan), she gathers all those lessons she learned from mom and grandmother, from fellow Southern bakers and from the many community cookbooks she has read. And she dedicated the book to the “millions of enslaved laborers who worked in the fields, plantations, and kitchens of the United States.”
“I wanted American Southern food and baking, in particular, to be taken seriously, and to be thought of as something worth preserving,” she said.
Day’s mom wanted her daughter to know about the South. She also wanted her to know not everyone was as privileged as her family. Queen would take Day and her sister to protests. Sometimes she would bring the girls along to visit her social work clients.
“She wanted me to know that not everyone had a swimming pool,” Day said. “She would tell us stories about what it was like for her when she didn’t have a lot growing up.”
Day’s father, Lonnie, worked at the Desilu studio, founded by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. When Ball traveled, she always brought back a gift for Day. Black Hollywood stars often hung out at Day's house. She also remembers selling Girl Scout cookies on studio backlots.
When she was 8 years old, Day started spending the summers with her grandmother in Alabama. She learned what a night buzzing with cicadas sounds like. She learned how to make jams and jellies. And she learned how to speak like a Southerner instead of a Southern California girl.
“I started saying, ‘yes, ma’am.’ I remember at first thinking I never would say that,” she said.
She chose to attend Stillman College, the historically Black institution in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where her mother, grandmother and aunts attended. She eventually settled in Savannah, where her father had spent time when he worked for the Southern Railway.
Recipes reflect our lived experiences
When Day opened Back in the Day, other ambitious bakeries in the South and elsewhere in the United States were making European recipes. Most still are still doing that. Day made sweet potato biscuits and sold pie by the slice.
“She revived a lot of recipes that have fallen out of favor,” said Mashama Bailey, the celebrated chef of Savannah’s The Grey.
Like Day, Bailey grew up outside the South in a family that had roots in the region. Coming to a place that is familiar but not home changes the way you cook its food. You treasure dishes that others might have forgotten. You also bring experiences to the South from a life lived elsewhere.
“You can see that she’s traveled. And because she’s traveled, I think she’s picked up different techniques,” Bailey said.
Now Day hears other people’s stories evoked by the desserts she makes at Back in the Day. A pound cake can make her customers cry.
“It really blew my mind how excited people get about it, especially people in the Black community,” she said.
Before Day’s mother died, she wrote down the family’s recipes and an account of the family, including details about Day’s great-great-grandmother Hannah Queen Grubbs who was born enslaved in 1838. Like Day, Grubbs was a gifted baker.
Day wrote “Treasury of Southern Baking” so these recipes from her family would not be erased. Like her mother’s handwritten notes, Day’s new cookbook is another way to make sure these stories and recipes survive for another generation.
COOK THE BOOK
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