Esther Serena Chesnut Haile, born in Camden, South Carolina in 1827, migrated to the Florida frontier with her husband Thomas Haile in 1854. As was the case with many women in those days, Serena bore many children over her reproductive years, 15 to be exact. I suspected that perhaps Serena might have carried a copy of Sarah Rutledge’s book, The Carolina Housewife (1847), with her to Florida, but so far have found very little evidence to substantiate that assumption. Just so you know, Mary Boykin Chesnut – made famous by Ken Burns’s documentary about the Civil War – was Serena’s aunt by marriage.
She also owned a number of enslaved laborers who came along with her and her family to Florida. They initially planned to grow Sea Island cotton on the plantation they called “Kanapaha” (derived from two Timucua words for palmetto leaves and house). But Mother Nature interfered and the Hailes ended up diversifying their agricultural production. including citrus.
One thing Serena and her family did, and very unusual, was this: they wrote on the walls of the house, which still stands and where visitors can see the writing on the walls. Recipes mingle with graffiti and marketing lists.
Like many women of the day, Serena subscribed to various women’s magazines: Ladies World, Woman’s Home Journal, and The House Circle (as she wrote them, but the correct titles for the latter two could be Ladies’ Home Journal and The Home Circle). (I’m investigating the titles of the many women’s magazines in circulation in the nineteenth century.)
Serena’s journal, studied in depth by Karen Kirkman, also included recipes for a large number of dishes and remedies. Those magazines could well have influenced her in her instructions to her cooks over the years.
One recipe that intrigued me turned out to be “Railroad Cake.” Serena’s recipe is exactly the same as the one that appeared in issue LXXVIII (February 1869) of Godey’s Lady’s Book, on page 184:
Railroad Cake. One cup of white sugar, one cup of flour, two tablespoonfuls of melted butter, three eggs, one teaspoonful of essence of lemon. All ingredients stirred in together, and baked in a long, narrow tin.
I decided to try my hand at this cake, fully aware that it wouldn’t rise much without artificial leavening such as saleratus, cream of tartar, or even baking powder. The pan I used – a round 9-inch cake pan – allowed for a quicker bake. Lemon juice – 1 tablespoon – took the place of the lemon essence, fittingly enough since Serena’s citrus trees no doubt provided some lemons. After all, she included 6 lemon pie recipes in her journal. Few of the recipes, and it’s hard to tell if they came from her son Evans Haile or not, contain baking powder or cream of tartar or baking soda.
The final recipe, as it went into the oven at 350°F, is as follows:
1 cup white flour
1 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter)
3 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons melted unsalted butter ( I chose a larger amount, guessing that tablespoon could be flexible, erring on the larger side over our standard tablespoon of today)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Mix the dry ingredients; add the eggs, butter, and lemon juice. Scrape into greased 9-inch baking pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean from the center of the cake.
I decided to make a glaze with lemon juice, lemon zest, and confectioner’s sugar:
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Lemon juice to make a thin glaze
Mix ingredients together, adding lemon juice slowly until the glaze is the thickness you like.
Recipes for “Railroad Cake” reflect the trend toward rail travel and the opening up of the frontier, especially in Florida, where travel usually meant long journeys on rivers and through marshes or along coasts via sea craft. The Hailes settled where they did because of access to a railroad nearby.
This cake may have been served to passengers on rail journeys, who knows, but nevertheless, it is a simple cake, devoid of fancifulness. At least to us, perhaps, these days, used as we are to ultra-light desserts. Truth be told, I suspect that such a cake would have been a treat for a child growing up on the Florida frontier just after the Civil War. Future versions of this cake will include a trial with baking powder, or cream of tartar and baking soda, or separating the egg whites from the yolks and folding in airy beaten egg whites. Actually, it’s a very delectable cake as is!
Note that featured image, the Haile Homestead house as it is today, is used via Wiki Commons.