Ladysmith Cake Recipe Remixed: A Story about a Culinary Memorial with a Difficult Heritage

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Journal Article
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Cobley, Joanna

This article considers the connections between food and memory. It examines the food folklore behind the idea of the Ladysmith Cake recipe to demonstrate how specific national confections function as vehicles for collective commemoration and war memory. The recipe’s eponymous title refers to the Siege at Ladysmith (November 1899–February 1900), a significant event in the British Empire’s Second Boer War (October 1899–May 1902) experience – now referred to as the South African War. Therefore, this recipe commemorates New Zealand’s first major offshore military engagement, making Ladysmith Cake an edible war memorial. The recipe, which developed sometime in the early 1900s somewhere within the New Zealand community (the exact date is still unknown) results in a delightful jam-filled batter cake, with walnuts sprinkled on top. It evolved when the mythos that New Zealand households had access to affordable everyday ingredients – butter, eggs, flour, nuts, raising agents, sugar and spices – combined with the desire to express a national identity. Examination of select New Zealand-published cookbooks held in Canterbury Museum shows that by the 1930s Ladysmith Cake recipes – and a couple of other South African War confections – appeared as often as recipes for the betterknown World War One food memorial, the Anzac Biscuit. When Ladysmith Cake recipe ideas went online, food websites posted images of the cake and commented on the recipe’s connection to the South African War. Who knows why the Ladysmith Cake recipe endured in cultural memory when other South African War confections did not? However, given the Ladysmith Cake recipe’s endurance in cultural memory, food historians, cake bakers and recipe sharers everywhere need to remix in the more difficult or hidden aspects associated with this unique confection’s heritage. Therefore, this article utilises the dark heritage framework, which is often focused on sites where trauma took place at a certain time, to examine the evolution of the recipe and discuss how its transmission, and the social practices wrapped around it, can play a pivotal role in fostering deeper conversations about inclusion.

Cobley J (2022). Ladysmith Cake Recipe Remixed: A Story about a Culinary Memorial with a Difficult Heritage. Records of the Canterbury Museum. 36. 37-54.
culinary nationalism, dark heritage, food folklore, Ladysmith Cake, Second Boer War/South African War, war remembrance
Ngā upoko tukutuku/Māori subject headings
ANZSRC fields of research
Fields of Research::43 - History, heritage and archaeology::4303 - Historical studies::430320 - New Zealand history
Fields of Research::43 - History, heritage and archaeology::4302 - Heritage, archive and museum studies::430208 - Intangible heritage
Fields of Research::47 - Language, communication and culture::4702 - Cultural studies::470205 - Cultural studies of agriculture, food and wine
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