History of Southern Sweet Baking

My latest research project has been finishing up a book for Little Debbie. In the summer of 2017 the McKee family – owners of Little Debbie – asked me to write a history of sweet cake baking in the southeastern United States.  The McKee family are Seventh-day Adventist and the first McKee to go into baking, O.D. McKee, attended the local Chattanooga area Adventist college with several other young men who went into sweet cake baking.  From 2017 to 2020 I interviewed bakers and their families across the southeast and writing their history. And I ate far too many cookies!

It has been a rewarding project and a lot of questions have come out of the project, particularly relating to the politics and economics of food. In the bigger picture one wonders if – and if so, why – so many sweet baked goods came out of the south, and in the 1920s through 1930s.  I suspect there are two completely unrelated answers to this.  The first, regarding when, is probably taking place in the large context of the consumer market, growth of discretionary income, etc., that is taking place in the decade prior to the depression.  Of course, why then do we not see these sweet baked goods shutting down during the depression?  These are questions for future books or articles.

The other part of this question is related to geographic location.  Why the south?  My hunch is that, again, the growth of sweet baked goods in the south is in the larger context of southerners eating sweeter foods more generally.  Pralines, Krispy Kreme, sweet tea, all of the colas – all of these come out of the south.  Did the South actually did produce more sweet baked goods companies in the first half of the twentieth century?  More questions for future books or articles.

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