The informant (D) is a married father of two now adult children. D grew up in various parts of southern California, but spent his high school years in Chino, California, in the same house that his mother now lives. He and his wife shared the cooking responsibility about 50/50 while their children were still in the house but now that they have both gone off to college, he has taken over more of the responsibility. D’s father came from Oklahoma many decades ago, before my father was born, and claimed to be “part Cherokee,” though that was never formally proven. I asked D about the so-called “Cherokee yam cakes” that he makes every Thanksgiving. Cherokee yam cakes are best described as yam stir-n-roll (non-flaky) biscuits. He emailed me the recipe when I asked about the cakes.
The recipe is (copied from email):
“2 cups flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 T. sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup milk
1 cup mashed yams
Mix oil, milk, & yams.
Add to sifted dry ingredients.
Mix lightly until it holds together.
Knead gently (about 12 times) until smooth
Roll out 1/2″ thick.
Cut into circles.
Bake on greased sheet, 425 F, 10-12 min.
I have always used whole wheat flour, my mom used all purpose flour.
I usually make a double batch.”
I also asked him several questions about the yam cakes. The interview below is verbatim via email.
Me: Where and when did you learn the recipe?
D: When I moved out of my mom’s house, I asked to copy the recipe. I moved out in 1983, back in in ’85, and back out in 1990 when [my wife and I] got married. I may not have got the recipe until 1990 but I don’t remember.
Me: Do you know where she got the recipe?
I never asked where she got the recipe. I assumed it was from my dad, but never asked [my mom] about that. I know it was the one “add-on” to a Thanksgiving menu we had every year:
Rock Cornish game hens
Wild Rice dressing
mashed potatoes and gravy
He got the menu from Playboy magazine!
Me: For what occasions do you make the yam cakes now?
D: Thanksgiving, though I made some also around Christmas last year, for the first time ever. I think we missed Thanksgiving actually too for the first time but made some later, [my son] asked for them. I like to make a large batch so I can keep eating them for a few days.
Me: Why do you continue to make these yam cakes instead of something else for those occasions?
D: I don’t know of anything else like them- they’re so mellow and satisfying. They seem to settle your stomach if you overindulge in rich foods. Will and I used to credit them with making it possible to eat more after you thought you were full.
Me: What do the yam cakes mean to you?
D: Makes me remember my family and family holidays when I was a kid, makes me proud of my unconfirmed (1/32?) Cherokee heritage, makes me proud to have a good yummy recipe that nobody else makes and everyone always seems to like. Plus I think they’re pretty healthy and they’re easy to digest.
The fact that D calls them “Cherokee” yam cakes instead of just “yam cakes” tells me that small detail really does mean a lot. I have known D literally since I was born and do not remember him ever NOT saying “Cherokee yam cakes” when he was talking about them. As he mentions, the Cherokee ancestry has not been verified. I think this remains to be so important because being Native American (even a teeny bit) would connect him to the earth in a different way than the rest of his immigrant ancestry does (his mother is from Friesland, a Dutch province). The yam cakes really are unique and do settle an over-full stomach and are good hot or cold. It seems that though the naming is highly symbolic, the practical reasons to eat them are also important.
Additionally, the nostalgia factors into the importance of these cakes, both for D and his children.