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Tiffany Quay Tyson, who grew up in Mississippi, knows Southern food. Though the novelist moved to Denver almost 24 years ago, she uses her writing to revisit the people, places, and meals that shaped her most formative years. This truth shined through as she served slabs of lemon pound cake, coated in a hardened crust of sugary icing, to a crowd of hungry writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Night of Culinary Storytelling, part of the Denver-based literary nonprofit’s annual LitFest this past June.
Tyson’s pound cake recipe is the same lemon cake featured in her Southern Gothic novel, The Past is Never. Originally published in 2018, the book tells the story of three siblings from the fictional town of White Forest, Mississippi, who go to a forbidden quarry to swim. The youngest, Pansy, does not come home. The middle child, Bert, then searches for her missing sister, as well as her absent father who has also disappeared. Tyson describes the book as a physical search for family, but also an exploration of what family is, how we create our own families, and the lessons we learn along the way.
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LitFest’s Night of Culinary Storytelling showcased Tyson along with Biju Thomas, author of the athlete-oriented Feed Zone cookbooks, and mixology instructor Matt Allen, who each shared their food and drink, respectively, and its impact on the stories they write. Tyson—who was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, studied at Delta State University, then worked as a journalist in Greenwood by the Mississippi Delta (which inspired White Forest)—draws upon the Southern food she’s enjoyed all her life. “I love to eat, I also love to cook,” Tyson says. “I grew up experiencing every occasion being a reason for food, and so it doesn’t really occur to me to put an event in a book and not describe the food. To me, it’s the most evocative thing of the experience.”
References to the food of Mississippi, including its bramble-berry-studded forests, cornbread baked in cast-iron skillets, and peanut brittle, are peppered into each chapter of the novel, an aspect which Tyson describes both as a natural element of her writing and as a way to transport her readers. For the lemon pound cake, she intentionally included the treat to help portray one of the main characters: Bert’s grandmother, Granny Clem.
“In my experience, women in the South, particularly women of a certain age, often have a special recipe, a special thing that they provide at every occasion,” Tyson says, as she recalls her own grandmother’s coconut cake and other family staples like her aunt’s caramel cake. “One thing that almost everybody makes in the South is pound cake. It’s such an easy thing to make and it lasts long—it’s often better the second day than the first.”
In the book, Granny Clem provides illegal health services to local women who can’t access traditional care, particularly by delivering babies and providing birth control and abortions. When women come to Granny Clem for assistance, they can count on one thing as a constant comfort: her signature lemon pound cake, which Tyson calls a “pickin’ cake,” or one you can enjoy without a plate. “There’s a line in the book about how the women will often come back with their babies, even years later, and force her to smell the baby and say, ‘You can still smell lemon,’” Tyson says.
Tyson’s choice to pair an abortionist with such a relatable signature dish was a statement on how food serves as a backdrop for the complexities of our lives. “There’s so much that I love about the South… but there are a lot of things that I don’t love,” Tyson says. From a young age she felt out of sorts with and voiced her discomfort about many of the region’s political narratives, including the prevailing sentiment that abortion is wrong. “You know, it was the lone Mississippi clinic that was a part of the lawsuit that overturned Roe v. Wade, which infuriated me. I don’t understand it.”
While she disagrees with some cultural attitudes of the South, Tyson still values her relationships with the people she feels at odds with. “I wish we could come together and have more productive conversations about what we disagree about, but that doesn’t necessarily happen,” Tyson says. “But if it happens at all, it does happen over food. I do think it sort of softens the divide a little bit. It’s hard to hate someone if they’re serving you pecan pie.”
According to Tyson, food is a way to find pleasure in everyday moments, especially for people in working/lower-middle class neighborhoods like the ones she grew up in and that feature in The Past Is Never. “I think if you don’t spend time with a particular group of people it’s easy to hate them, but the more time you spend with them you realize that there are nuances,” Tyson says. “I think food helps bridge that divide to some extent.”
Granny Clem’s Lemon Pound Cake
When developing the pound cake recipe for Lighthouse’s culinary storytelling event, Tyson wanted it to have a pronounced lemon flavor and aroma, since the citrus’ fragrance was so significant in the book. To achieve this, she adds lots of zest to the batter, pokes holes in the cake after it bakes to drench it in lemon glaze, then coats the whole thing with lemon icing.
Serves 12 to 16
For the cake:
2 cups granulated sugar
Zest of 3 to 4 lemons
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for preparing the pan)
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
For the glaze:
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup granulated sugar
For the icing:
1 cup powdered sugar
A few tablespoons of lemon juice
Salt, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350°. Coat a bundt pan with cooking spray and a light dusting of flour so the cake doesn’t stick.
- Make the cake: In a stand mixer, beat the lemon zest and sugar with the softened butter until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until each one is incorporated, scraping the bowl as necessary. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Combine the milk and vanilla in another container. Alternate adding the flour and milk mixtures to the creamed butter, lightly mixing in between each addition until the batter is combined and there are no pockets of flour remaining. Avoid overbeating.
- Pour the batter in the prepared bundt pan. Bake for about 45 to 55 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Make the glaze: While the cake cools, heat the sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan (or the microwave) just until the sugar is dissolved. With a skewer, fork, or chopstick, poke a few holes in the cake while it’s still in the pan, and brush about half of the glaze onto the cake until absorbed. Loosen the cake from the pan by running a knife along the pan’s edges, then turn the cake onto a plate or a cooling rack and brush the remaining glaze over the top of the cake. Let it cool completely.
- Make the icing: Whisk together powdered sugar, a pinch of salt, and enough lemon juice to make a thick but pourable icing. Pour it over the top of the cake and let it drip down the sides. It will harden as it sets.