Text and images by Evan Hatch
I just left Tommy and Adell Coley’s house in Baptist Grove, near Fuquay Varina, North Carolina. I interviewed Mrs. Coley for a folklife field study that NC Folk is conducting for the Harnett County Arts Council. Adell is the first of almost 30 area artists and tradition bearers to be interviewed. Before I was invited into her home at 8 am that morning, all I knew about her was her phone number and address, and about the magic performed in her kitchen.
Coley is a magnificent baker. I first heard her name on a previous trip to Harnett County in 2016. I made a presentation to a senior citizens’ group about the importance of recognizing and preserving folklife in one’s community. I gave a thirty-minute talk and gathered some local contacts for my fieldwork. Win. As I packed up my belongings for the drive back to Durham, Vergie Anderson, an ebullient and fearless community pillar, emerged from the back room holding a white cake box. Ms. Anderson called it a speaker gift. Win win.
The box contained one beautifully, smoothly-iced chocolate cake on a glass plate. Scrawled in pen on the box’s exterior was Adell Coley’s name, address, and phone number. This cake practically screamed ‘dictionary definition’ of the word cake. However, the cake’s greatest gifts were yet to be revealed.
In my interview with Coley, I learned that this particular cake recipe was her father’s favorite cake, and she perfected the recipe early in her baking career. When sliced, the cake revealed 16 individually-baked layers of boiled chocolate frosting. Light and airy, the cake is a dream, floating on an angel’s wings. Its texture and taste called to mind the whipped, fluffy chocolate center of a 3 Muskateers Bar. This was a cake that would not be improved with ice cream. It stands on its own merit.
Upon returning home, I shared Mrs. Coley’s cake with my mother, father, sister and niece, partner Tasha, and a neighbor or two. This gift from the good folks of Harnett County made the day of every person who shared in it. My mother has told stories of that cake to her friends. My sister told me how to cut it. My father told me to hurry up. Everyone treated this cake as the wonderful gift it was. Everyone had an opinion, as well. I can think of few things that have the ability to touch as many people as this cake did. It made me want to share the beauty. It showed me that something as simple as a cake can strengthen—and build—family and community ties.