Piece of Cake

by Kathryn Stripling Byer

(written for Poet Laureate installation, 2005, at the state capitol)

When the young woman calling from
Charlotte to interview me for her radio program
asked, “What is a Laureate, anyway?”

I heard my voice hem and haw
like a bad line of poetry. I thought I heard all of the Old
North State holding its breath while I struggled

to say something clever, but all I could think of
was “lariat.” Then in a moment
of quiet desperation, I thought of Laurette,

who lives just down the road
from my childhood home, hands busy sculpting
the icing on each of her Milky Way cakes

as she stands in the heart of her kitchen,
the sun sliding into the cornfields, another June
day disapearing, another night kindling

its Milky Way stars,
and at long last I know how to answer
that question. A Laureate

lassoes the Milky Way,
word after luminous word of it,
holding it out in her hands

like a piece
of Laurette’s chocolate cake

Try this!
Believe me,
You’ll like the way poetry tastes!


(Kay Byer.  ps: Nice tights!)

Last week, I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at a conference at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina called “Okra to Opera: The Conference on Southern Culture.”  The conference started in the early 1960’s, when Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty were featured as speakers.  I knew that I had been asked to participate on a panel discussion on the shifting landscape of Southern foodways, but what I didn’t know is that I would get to meet, and be inspired by, an abundance of gifted Southern women; professors and artists and writers and farmers and musicians.

One of the women I met was Kathryn (Kay) Stripling Byer- the first female Poet Laureate of North Carolina.  Like me, Kay is a native of Georgia but makes her home in the mountains of North Carolina.  She grew up in Camilla, Georgia, close to Cordele, where my grandmother is from.  (In fact, her maiden name is Stripling, which also happens to be the name of the family that owns the corner store in Cordele, GA that makes my family’s very favorite sausage, but I digress).  Kay was so gracious in sharing with me her experiences as a writer, and so generous in her knowledge and time.  After we met, she sent me a copy of her poem, “Piece of Cake,” about the similarities between being a poet laureate, a lariet (a lasso) and Laurette, her neighbor, who was a cake lady.  Her blogs, Mountain Woman; Here, Where I am; and My Laureate’s Lasso, are beautiful tributes and  archives of Southern poets and poetry.

I also had the pleasure of seeing Southern writer Lee Smith and her husband, writer Hal Crowther, give the keynote address for the conference.  It was delightful to hear Lee’s sunny Appalachian wonder contrasted with Hal’s cynicism and apocalyptic humor; and hanging out with the two of them afterwards was even more delightful.  Lee Smith has been an inspiration to me; her short stories for me have been blunt and beautiful depictions of the common joys and afflictions of all of our lives:  the seemingly insignificant daily roll of relationships, dreams, tasks, and sorrows that make up a life.  It was a joy to meet her, and experience her cheerful nature, and marvel about how she has managed to create the body of work she has while cultivating a good life and raising three children.  Lee spoke at the conference about Southern culture, about how we are collectively realizing that we don’t have to go to New York or Paris to find “culture,” and that our traditions and foodways constitute “culture,” too.  I really appreciated that.

(Lee Smith and me)

I got to ask all of these women: how do you make time to write?  How do you take all these ideas floating around in your head and actualize them into poems, or stories, or, even more impossibly, books?  I got great feedback and encouragement from each of them, but actually, it was Hal, Lee Smith’s husband, that gave me the treasure of wisdom that I was seeking: he said, (something to the effect of) “Writing is messy.  You live with piles of notes of ideas all around you.  If you have fifty good ideas, you are lucky if you get one good story out of it.  And every writer has to have a day job.  You teach, usually.”  (as an aspiring writer, it makes me even more grateful to have such a beneficent day job at the Cake Shop- and so many delightful people to share it with).


My part of the conference was particularly fun: I got to speak on a panel with the farmer (who also happen to be a mom, and a rock star) Laura Blackley (who played later in the Swayback Sisters, pictured above); the owner of heirloom southern grain company Anson Mills, Glenn Roberts; Elizabeth Sims, author of the new and beautiful Tupelo Honey Cookbook and past president of the Southern Foodways Alliance; and by the very sweet and funny Carol Puckett, a food writer and consultant.    I was also inspired by meeting and seeing the presentation by the historian and pop culture blogger Karen Cox, author of the blog Pop South and of the book “Dreaming of Dixie, How the South was Created in Popular Culture.”  What was discussed was the past, present and future of Southern food, American food, mass production versus home-style and small-batch cooking, and issues of class and race- very especially issues of class and race.  I was inspired and grateful to have been included in this thought-provoking conversation, and, of course, the food was delicious.   And speaking of food, I think I will leave you with this, our newest flavor at the Cake Shop:

The Ambrosia Cupcake!

This past weekend we participated in the Cupcakes vs. Cancer fundraiser at the Grove Park Inn, coming home with another “Best in Category” award for this, our newest flavor.  Our description read: “In ancient Greek mythology, Ambrosia was the food of the gods: conferring immortality upon any who consume it.  In the South, Ambrosia is a delicacy made from coconut, oranges, and sometimes maraschino cherries and marshmallows.  We hope you will enjoy our version of Ambrosia Cake: A fresh coconut cupcake, filled with fresh orange curd, topped with a simple ambrosia salad, iced with traditional cooked 7-minute icing (also called divinity icing), caramelized and garnished with cherries soaked in Luxardo (Italian Cherry Liqueur) and mandarin oranges rolled in toasted coconut.”  Thanks for continuing to be a part of this journey of learning about traditional foods and foodways, and the stories behind them.