Slender and severe, the Duchess of Windsor is the last person I would have expected to come out with a cookbook. If Victoria Beckham herself were ever to get into the cookbook game (the exceptional suitability of Posh Spice as a title notwithstanding), I wouldn’t be more astonished than I was when I first came across this one—which, as it happens, is a Southern one. Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942) is full of dishes not typically associated with royalty—or with staying slim. We’re talking hoppin John, crackling-studded cornbread, and a ham hock every other page.
This, once you learn a bit more about the Duchess, isn’t so surprising. Baltimore-bred Wallis Warfield wasn’t one to hide her roots. The first meal she ever served her future husband when he was the Prince of Wales included black bean soup and fried chicken. Forget finger-lickin’, it must have been throne-abdicatin’ good: Less than a year into his reign, given the choice between a king’s existence and marrying the American divorcée he loved, Edward VIII of England chose Wallis.
Accepting the diminished titles of Duke and Duchess of Windsor—and a plum stipend from the Crown—Edward and Wallis lived out the rest of their lives as international socialites. In the foreword to her cookbook, the Duchess wrote of her pride in spreading the Southern food gospel to the many countries she visited—taking special pleasure in having “served on [her] table Southern dishes which appeal to the Duke.”
I have to wonder if the pork cake could have been among his favorites.
The Duchess’s pork cake belongs to a sturdy breed of confection known as war cakes—recipes developed for eggless, butterless, hardscrabble times. Dark and dense, the many variations follow a basically unchanging formula: raisins and spice to mask the paucity of the batter, plus an offbeat stand-in for butter. M.F.K. Fisher’s version calls for a can of tomato soup; the Duchess uses half a pound of salt pork.
Once I got over the brutish name, it really didn’t sound that bad. I imagined fruitcake stripped of its glacé fruits (I never liked those anyway), with a low hum of umami throughout: an early, unironic model of the now-ubiquitous bacon dessert.
The cake wasn't too hard to put together. The Duchess, a self-confessed cookbook hoarder, was a pretty diligent composer of recipes, too. The only real challenge was breaking down the salt pork, an unrendered hunk of salt-cured fatback that, unlike lard, doesn't simply melt away on kneading. The recipe assumes you own a meat grinder, which, 67 years after publication, is no longer a safe assumption. Luckily, a food processor will do: I used mine to blitz the coarsely-chopped chunks of fat after I’d rinsed them of salt and shaved off their rind. After a brief soak in boiling water, the piggy puree disappeared into the dough just as it was meant to.
As it turned out, the most challenging part of making the pork cake lay in eating it. What I had imagined as a murmur of umami played out as a pretty insistent oink. The cake was spiced well, its fudgy texture thickly fruited, and the molasses provided just the right level of sweetness. If not for the dirty, swinish note at the end of each bite, it would have utterly won me over.
It’s not clear if the Duchess herself was won over, either. All profits from the cookbook were to go to the war effort, and it’s possible that her version of war cake was included because the times demanded it. But I like to think that the recipe meant something to the Duchess—that is, to the scrappy Wallis Warfield of the impoverished upbringing, who, when she was all grown up, fried chicken for the heir to the throne.
So I don’t know what the Windsors thought of the pork cake. I’d like to know what you think, but there are some things to keep in mind before you try it yourself. For one thing, however economical this recipe was in 1942, it isn’t now: I spent $13 on the cake, and could have let Duncan Hines bake me some Devil’s food for the price of the pork alone. And for another, our reliance on super-refined foods has forever changed our national palate. Raised on pillowy white bread and all-butter pastry, I couldn't handle the cake’s porkiness, and the molasses—which, once upon a time, people sopped up with cornbread—tasted less sweet than vegetal when I ate it straight.
So be forewarned. Wallis Warfield won herself a king with her cooking, but you might want to have a backup dessert.
About the author: Michele Humes writes tangentially about Southern food at Georgia On My Thighs.
Adapted from Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor
- 1/2 pound fat salt pork
- 3/4 cup boiling water
- 3/4 cup molasses
- 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 2 cups raisins
- 1 cup currants, washed and dried
- 3 1/2 cups sifted flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cloves
- 1 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
Rinse the salt pork in water to remove any visible salt. Cut off and discard rind. Coarsely chop salt pork and place in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until reduced to a thick paste.
Place pureed salt pork in mixing bowl and add boiling water.
Add molasses, brown sugar, raisins and currants and let stand until cool.
Preheat oven to 325°F. Mix and sift flour, baking soda, and spices together three times. Add to molasses mixture and beat until smooth.
Turn into long narrow loaf pan (10-by-4-by-3) and bake for 2 hours or until skewer inserted into center of cake comes out clean.