Kitchn Love Letters

Toni Tipton-Martin’s Coconut Cake Is a Delicious Lesson in Black Culinary Traditions

published Feb 28, 2021
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Credit: Amelia Rampe

Toni Tipton-Martin’s Coconut-Lemon Layer Cake came into my life in the summer of 2020. As protests across the country — in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery — endured with an atrocious police and government response, I found myself approaching the 4th of July feeling less than patriotic. How can I celebrate a country that was never ours to begin with? How can I celebrate a nation that is completely letting my Black brothers and sisters down in this moment? How can I celebrate a country that has let the Black community down for its entire history? 

This is not the first time I have had to examine the roots of American traditions. For years, my Thanksgiving tradition has included a moment of acknowledgement of the lies we have been told about Native Americans and the first Thanksgiving. I challenge you to think deeply about the origins of your food: the place it came from and the hands that made it. It’s time to acknowledge the foods that we have been raised eating and loving our entire lives were created by enslaved people. 

Credit: Amelia Rampe

In her cookbook Jubilee, Tipton-Martin explains how the history of food in the United States is actually the history of Black food in the United States. The book is filled with culinary origin stories, from macaroni and cheese to cornbread to ginger beer. Not only did new Americans co-opt the food of enslaved Africans, but they also co-opted their traditions.

Take the cakewalk, the activity that PTAs host at school festivals across the nation. It seems innocuous enough, but did you know that it’s directly related to slavery? For more than a hundred years, Americans have participated in an activity that was originally created as a parody of the opulence and grandeur of white slave owners. In the pre-Civil War South, a cakewalk was an exaggerated dance enslaved people performed to mock pretentious ballroom parties. The enslaved would gather in the woods or near their cabins, “strutting, twirling canes and tipping top hats.” At the end of the evening, the winner would receive a prize: a coconut cake. What we know about the modern-day cakewalk makes me feel like maybe the ancestors are getting the last laugh.

Credit: Amelia Rampe

According to Jubilee, “Like so many things associated with plantation social life, coconut cake eventually became a centerpiece of African American special occasions.” I love coconut cake, and after I learned about the history of the cakewalk, I felt this was the perfect way to spend the 4th of July in quarantine. I made the butter-based yellow cake, which baked up perfectly. I split the cake layers horizontally. I made lemon curd and stirred in some extra shredded coconut for a little Creole “lagniappe,” as Tipton-Martin suggests. I stacked the four layers of cake with tangy lemon curd in between. I frosted the cake with buttercream and coated it in a layer of deeply toasted coconut flakes. In these times, we deserve cake. We need to be finding little reasons to treat ourselves, and this is the perfect cake for that — and for any celebration.

As I sat confined to my home bereft from the news of the world, this cake was the light. It reminded me that by eating this cake, I am celebrating this nation. I can celebrate this country by eating the food that comes from the hands of the people who truly built this nation, and I can acknowledge its history. That means not only eating the foods descended from enslaved people and the African Diaspora, but also celebrating the foods made and consumed by our indigenous communities and every other immigrant community that makes up this country. That is one small way we can pay homage to the real history of this nation.

Get the recipe: Coconut-Lemon Layer Cake

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.