Why Yellow Cake Is So Important to Black Celebrations

From a box or from scratch, it's an essential element of my community.

December 15, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

Early in my relationship with my current partner, he threw a small birthday party for me. We went to a local bakery a few days before the party to order a cake. When the baker asked what kind I wanted, I said yellow cake with chocolate frosting. The baker had no idea what a yellow cake was, and my boyfriend said that yellow wasn’t a flavor.

I strongly believed, and still do, that not only is yellow a flavor, it is the only flavor when it comes to cake. Growing up, yellow cake was the only cake served at birthday parties. It was always present in the fellowship hall after church services and was the first cake to sell out at bake sales. I started to wonder if yellow cake was a cultural touchstone in the Black community, or if I was alone in my affection.

The origins of yellow cake date back to the 19th century. It is widely thought to be a close relative of pound cake. “Yellow” refers to the color of the butter and whole eggs that are included in the recipe, and it is a popular cake mix found in most grocery stores today. The arrival of cake mixes in the 1930s was due to a surplus of molasses, but sales really began to rise after World War II, when flour companies broke in to the cake mix market. With the advent of frosting in a tub in the 1950s, yellow cake mixes became a staple in many American homes.

So where does this connection to yellow cake for so many Black people come from? I created an informal Twitter poll, and more than 300 people responded with their special memories and photographs of their family members. The common thread that ran throughout almost everyone’s response was that it reminded them of their grandmothers, mothers, and aunts, and even years later, the thought of yellow cake meant so much to them. The cakes were almost always two layers, and were also used as the base recipe for other confections, such as pineapple upside-down cake, coconut cake, and rum cake. There were also variations on ingredients—sour cream, extra butter and/or eggs, and vanilla pudding were popular additions to make sure the cake was as moist as possible. One person mentioned her mother baking a yellow cake every Saturday and remembering everyone waiting to lick the mixer beaters, and another woman commented that she still uses the same hand mixer her mother used. Another person tweeted that she asked her grandmother to write the recipe down for her before she passed, and it is now a priceless family heirloom, of sorts. It was heartwarming to read that the recipes are now being passed down from generation to generation.

These are the small, everyday moments that seem to reside in our collective memories, and if there were a flavor profile for ‘home,’ it would be yellow cake.

It doesn't matter if it's from a box or from scratch; yellow cake evokes memories of comfort, joy, and family, and it is a powerful way to feel connected to people we care about, whether they are with us or not. Perhaps most importantly, yellow cake also represents perseverance and the determination of the human spirit. Black people have encountered so much pain just because of the color of our skin in this country, and yet by the simple act of baking a cake, we were able to instill a feeling of normalcy in our loved ones, if only for a moment. These are the small, everyday moments that seem to reside in our collective memories, and if there were a flavor profile for “home,” it would be yellow cake.

Therese Nelson, author and food historian, believes there’s something about the simplicity of yellow cake that has allowed it to endure throughout the years. “That smell of good vanilla, the delicate yellow indicating good eggs, and the tender, fluffy crumb is the perfect Black canvas. And no matter how you dress it up or strip it down, yellow cake is the center of the sensed memory approval matrix of Black desserts,” Nelson said.

My great-grandmother passed away when I was a little girl, but there are two things I clearly remember some 40 years later: Her hands, weathered and calloused from years of washing clothes and cleaning for white households, and the smell of yellow cake baking in the kitchen. She made the cake from scratch and preferred to eat it still warm, without frosting. Now whenever I smell yellow cake, I’m immediately transported back to her home, and for a split second, I feel like a child again.

When my daughter comes home from college for winter break, I’ll make sure to have a yellow cake waiting for her. And I’ll have a warm slice, without frosting, in remembrance of all the women in my family who came before.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Agspivey
  • Newcook
  • Ann Del Tredici
    Ann Del Tredici
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  • Tara Dolan Wright
    Tara Dolan Wright
Deb Freeman

Written by: Deb Freeman

Food writer and historian. Always hungry.


Agspivey April 25, 2023
Love this article and all the sweet memories it brings up. My grandma was famous for her yellow cake with chocolate icing.
Newcook April 24, 2023
Thank you for sharing your memories, especially something as basic as yellow cake, and how it is part of the African American cultural history. I absolutely loved reading about this.

My mother’s Norwegian, rural, Wisconsin farm family also had a very strong tradition of yellow cake with good chocolate frosting. And I could not estimate how many slices of it I consumed while growing up, loving every comforting bite.

Our shared experiences are priceless.
Ann D. April 24, 2023
Where's the recipe?? (I watched Amanda's video--great one from her.) Not sure why to write an article about a traditional great family cake...and then not share the recipe to a focused, targeted audience of people who love cake and make cakes.
LauraAnn59 December 28, 2022
I’m descended from poor rural whites from South Carolina and Alabama. I never realized that everyone didn’t love yellow cake! Especially with hot fudge or caramel icing cooked in a big cast iron skillet. One of my best memories of my mother making these delicious treats. Fortunately, yellow cake is alive and well here in Alabama. Thank you for calling attention to this wonderful tradition.
Imbatnan December 28, 2022
Thank you for saying this. My husband’s family were poor whites in New England, and yellow cake with chocolate frosting is still the go-to for every celebration. The affinity for yellow cake isn’t limited to any race - or even any culture.
Tara D. December 28, 2022
Lovely article except that it excludes a great recipe for yellow cake. Yellow cakes are yellow because they contain the yolk of the egg and not just the white. BUT, I really, really need a great recipe for one. PLEASE!
joywood May 26, 2022
Reading this article, I feel like I missed out as a child and as an adult. We never had cake except on birthdays. And I don't think I've ever had yellow cake with chocolate frosting. What a shame. I plan to rectify this. Thank you so much!
ct-ROG May 19, 2022
Great story! My mother brought a stranger into our home one time after meeting her outside the grocery store. The woman made yellow cake for us from scratch. It was an act of kindness I will never forget.
Leslie B. February 7, 2022
Who wouldn't love this cake? Crosses any divides. One of my first explorations into baking circa 1970-I would bake a yellow cake from a mix, and a scrumptious chocolate frosting from scratch. Shared with friends (I was 12). Often while playing Monopoly after school. Best memories! But seriously, one can never go wrong with Yellow Cake and Black Beauty Frosting!!!
Joanne February 6, 2022
My 52 year old neighbor (he is white) insists on yellow cake with chocolate icing for his birthday. He had a black nanny as a child and that is what she baked for him. I love to bake and always make this cake for him on his birthday.
PeachSangria December 19, 2021
I loved this article. I couldn’t agree more that yellow cake is indeed a flavor. My grandmother made many a sophisticated and decadent cake and pastry- however, it was her simple homemade yellow cake both dense and moist with a cooked thick, fudgey frosting that everyone begged for on birthdays. To this day, I’ve never had better cake. I feel lucky to have her recipe and to have experienced my grandmother’s baking and cooking at all.
She grew-up during the depression and lost her mother and father early on. Living rurally, making do with what was available (good fresh eggs and butter) and of course the local church community pushed the delicious yellow cake front and center in our own rural Northern California and southern Oregon community as well. It wasn’t until I was a city-dweller that I suddenly found yellow cake unavailable to me. It just didn’t exist. I could buy a yellow boxed-mix, but it was always too airy and fluffy for my taste. Plus, it has a distinctly commercial, chemical taste that is a major culinary bummer that I also taste predominantly in canned frostings.
Though, happily so for all is us, now yellow cake seems to have made a sudden “debut” in boutique bakeries in cities across the country.
I still think of yellow-cake as a slice of Americana and it saddens and surprises me when people still aren’t aware of yellow cake or seem disdainful of it’s simplicity without even trying it. Like the author, my experience with yellow cake was that it melded seamlessly into molded rum cakes, pineapple upside-down cakes and also tall and elegant lemon cakes. White cake is delicious as well - but is distinctly different than a yellow cake and IMHO marries best with delicate almond-scented and raspberry cakes and the like. Yellow cake - as the author noted in regard to her beloved grandmother’s preference, is absolutely delicious free of frosting. A bit of heaven right there. Thank you for sharing your memories.
VB December 19, 2021
I enjoyed this article; it was very interesting to learn that yellow cake has such a rich history in American black culture. My family is Swiss and French by heritage and yellow cake with chocolate frosting seemed to always be on the menu for birthdays and summer gatherings. I have many fond childhood memories of yellow cake cupcakes with chocolate frosting and my mother letting us apply sprinkles to them ourselves. Thank you for such a heartwarming refresher on a sentimental classic.
MyGoodPie December 16, 2021
Yellow cake is basically a butter cake, close to pound cake but lighter. Yellow, or butter the rich flavors are joy.
[email protected] December 16, 2021
Excellent article Deb!!! Yellow cake with chocolate frosting is my #1 favorite cake, and it has fond memories from my own childhood. I never knew it had deep roots in black culture. Thank you for sharing that. I love cultural foods and I love thinking about those cultures as I eat those foods (my first career was cooking, and as a chef, you quickly learn that you have to understand and embrace the culture to truly understand the foods of that culture). I now have an added layer of richness every time I bake and enjoy a yellow cake (which I’ll be making for my son’s 8th birthday in 2 days). I often make yellow cake with my son, (usually as cupcakes) and we always eat a few, unfrosted, warm and fresh, right out of the oven. Yellow cake rocks!!! (And now it rocks a little bit more).
Sauertea December 15, 2021
This is a wonderful article. I did not know that this cake played such a significant role in the black community. I love yellow cake with chocolate frosting. I am glad to know it’s place in history as well.
Frenchvanilla29 December 15, 2021
I love this article Ms. Deb did excellent job. I remember my grandmothers making yellow cake from scratch and was actually for my 4th birthday. And even as an adult the memories I have as a child with my neighbor childhood friends sitting on the steps eating the yellow cake my grandmother made. It was the best cake I ever had. And I kept that tradition going by making from scratch yellow cake for my children’s birthdays and my old granddaughter who turned one this January.
emily December 15, 2021
I love this! I'm not Black myself, although I grew up in Louisiana having yellow cake for birthdays and family celebrations. It definitely evokes that homey feeling for me too. For my birthday in 2020 my mom (who lives across the country) found a bakery near me who made a mini yellow cake with chocolate frosting. I was so thrilled and it was delicious, but I still think boxed mix is the way to go for maximum nostalgia. Thanks for sharing your story and research - I had no idea about yellow cake's connection to the Black community. Food really is such a strong community builder and shared dishes can be such a comfort especially for those who are hurting.