In this installment of our series on foods of the African diaspora, Jessica B. Harris offers her version of a classic Creole nut cake from New Orleans.
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Mildred Oliver's Nut Cake
Credit: Joy Howard

My first lengthy trip to New Orleans was in the early 1990s. I was invited to speak at a conference given by the Hermann-Grima historical house. The house was then helmed by Jan Bradford, a tiny, dynamic woman who was backed by a group of volunteers who brought the house to life. Located on a side block in the French Quarter, the house dated back to 1831. It was particularly interesting because the outbuildings had been restored, and it was possible to visit not only the stables but also a working kitchen where well-trained docents offered demonstrations in hearth cooking and educated visitors about the stew-hole stove, or potager, that is one of its highlights.

The Hermann-Grima house, a French Quarter landmark, had originally been run by the Christian Women's Exchange, which was founded in 1881 and had published Creole Cookery, one of the first New Orleans Creole cookbooks, in 1885. The conference I attended was about food history and was especially memorable for insights into the food and foodways of New Orleans.

In the time following the conference, Jan Bradford and I became friends. One day, she gifted me a copy of a recipe connected to the house. Historical recipes are fascinating but are occasionally in need of updating and revising for contemporary tastes. This nut cake recipe, however, needed no such updating. It came with Bradford's advice that, since it was a dry cake, it might need something to balance the dryness. I suggested a whipped cream flavored with molasses to remind of southern Louisiana's connection to the sugar industry. I was astounded many years later, while thumbing through a New Orleans cookbook, to discover a recipe for a similar topping entitled Creole Fluff.

When served with its accompanying Creole Fluff, a slice of this nut cake is perfect as an addition to a formal afternoon tea or on its own as a dessert. The cake not only brings a hint of sweetness but also gives diners a taste of the past.

Cake batter being poured into a bunt cake pan
Credit: Joy Howard

New Orleans Nut Cake

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This essay is part of the series "Diaspora Dining: Foods of the African Diaspora." In this monthly column with essays and recipes by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., we explore the rich culinary traditions of the African diaspora. Harris is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA), on which the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog is based. She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America and her Juneteenth Celebration Menu. Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.