In 1979, a gothic fiction renaissance was kicked off by the publication of Flowers in the Attic, a tale of imprisonment, child abuse and incest. Three sequels and a prequel followed. Even the death of author V.C. Andrews in 1986 wouldn’t stop the books from coming. In 2019, to mark the 40th anniversary of the launch of what became known as the “Dollanganger series,” the V.C. Andrews copyright holders published Beneath the Attic, an unconventional type of book and something I, at least, had never heard of before: a prequel to prequel.
Beneath the Attic tells the story of Corrine, a precocious teen who finds herself on the cusp of marrying into the cursed Foxworth family in 1890. If my math is right, that makes her the great-grandmother of Cathy Dollanganger, the protagonist of Flowers in the Attic.
The plot is pretty much a rewrite of the first few chapters of Gone with the Wind, with Corrine filling in for Scarlett O’Hara, Garland Foxworth doing double-duty as a split personality mashup of Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, and no Civil War to provide gravitas to the thin storyline.
A summary of the action: 16-year-old Southern belle Corrine/Scarlett is blessed with the kind of beauty that drives men wild. Her old-fashioned mother disapproves of her immodest inclinations, but her father dotes on her. Girls her own age are jealous, of course. When Corrine/Scarlett encounters Garland/Rhett at a high-society shindig, it seems she might have finally met her match. She is both provoked by and attracted to him.
Corrine/Scarlett pines for Garland/Ashley and is determined to make him fall in love with her. Through an unfortunate series of events, she finds herself socially obligated to marry and marry fast for appearances’ sake. Lucky for her, Garland/Rhett is amenable. She journeys to Charlottesville/Atlanta to take up residence in his family home. Then, kaboom! Before the wedding can take place, the book is suddenly over.
But the copycat plot and abrupt ending aren’t the problem with Beneath the Attic.
Many of the familiar motifs from the original Dollanganger series have been inserted into Beneath the Attic, like gothic Foxworth Hall and its paintings of disapproving ancestors, the ostentatious and forbidden swan bed, and the spooky, sprawling attic. To all this, something called “golden rod cake” has been added. This cake represents everything ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman did wrong when he wrote the book.
Golden rod cake, a baked good I’d never heard of before reading Beneath the Attic, appears no less than seven times throughout the book. And at no point is it ever explained, characterized or described. Not once. Not at all. Observe:
In Chapter 4, servant Hazel (the Mammy character of this tale) enumerates what she’ll be serving for dinner, then adds that dessert will be a cake that she only makes for special occasions: golden rod cake. When the promised cake is produced, all that Neiderman writes about it is it’s “delicious.”
You know what else is delicious? A Denver omelet. Does golden rod cake taste like a Denver omelet?
When ultra-rich playboy and suitor-to-teenagers Garland Foxworth calls on Corrine a bit later in the evening than a gentleman ought to, Hazel suggests the unchaperoned girl entertain him with tea and golden rod cake. Again, the cake is not described.
Several chapters later, when Corrine returns home from her visit to Charlottesville — a visit marked by a side trip to Foxworth Hall, gallons of high-alcohol limoncello and date rape — what does she have to say about her eventful trip? Just that Hazel baked a golden rod cake. That’s one hell of a cake if it can make a 16-year-old forget to mention a creepy gothic mansion, vomit-inducing Italian booze and sexual assault. But again, we are given no details about its amazing properties.
And finally, what does rapist Garland Foxworth have on hand when he coerces Corrine and her parents to visit Foxworth Hall, his Draculian domain? That same damned cake! Given what happened to Corrine when she last partook of refreshments at Foxworth Hall, one would think she would cast the probably-roofied cake upon the ground and hustle her parents out.
But no: Corrine has learned nothing. They all eat the cake then betake themselves into the ballroom, her parents at least half as drunk by then as she had been during her fateful night of (spoiler, but not really because come on, we all saw this tired plot device plodding our way eight miles down the road) unplanned impregnation by Garland. The reader is told nothing about how the untrustworthy cake looks, smells or tastes.
And that’s the last we see of golden rod cake in Beneath the Attic.
Clearly this mysterious cake is important. Like the swan bed of maternal sin, It Represents Something™. Perhaps it’s a call-back to the original book that started it all, which opens, “It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw.”
But how can we know that? Is the cake actually yellow?
What is it made of?
What does it taste like?
How big is it?
Does it have frosting?
Is golden rod cake even a real thing outside the book?
We shall never know.
Or shall we?
Since Neiderman seems to have rushed through the writing of this book (there are two more novels in the series due to be published in 2020, after all), I took it upon myself to find out everything he should have told us about golden rod cake.
1. What is golden rod cake?
A quick Google search or trip to Allrecipes won’t help you. Golden rod cake is obscure, and it has all but disappeared from history. But, fortunately for us, it’s a real thing rather than a literary invention, and it can be researched.
The earliest references to the cake that I could find were in What to Cook and How to Cook It by W.A. Johnson and Perfection in Baking by Emil Braun, both published in 1899. That’s nearly a decade after the action of Beneath the Attic. Because of this, it’s possible that golden rod cake represents an anachronism in the book. Or, like other fad foods such as cronuts, it could have originated in a single location, with the recipe being made available to home cooks much later.
2. What does golden rod cake look like?
There are a handful of advertisements for golden rod cake pans available in early 20th-century publications like American Cookery Magazine and Boston Cooking School Magazine, which gave away the pans to new subscribers. These give us our first clue about the appearance of the cake. And the appearance is everything.
Golden rod cake has a very unusual shape. Unlike the round or rectangular pans in which most cakes are baked, golden rod cakes were baked in triangular pans. And the triangles were stranger that you’re probably picturing right now. Rather than flat triangles, these were inverted, like upside-down Christmas trees or Toblerone chocolate.
As you can see in this 1921 image from American Cookery magazine, golden rod cake has a rare, perhaps unique, look. It’s also well-named, with a sunny yellow color that mimics that of the goldenrod plant that gave it its moniker. All in all, it’s a striking cake. There’s no reason its unexpected appearance should have escaped comment in Beneath the Attic.
Even if jaded Corrine had eaten it dozens of times and wasn’t as surprised by the appearance of the cake as I was, there’s still a lot the author could have done with it. Maybe the protagonist could have made some remarks about the cake served by Hazel being a perfect golden triangle thanks to the faithful old servant’s thoughtful care, compared with the cake served at chilly Foxworth Hall, which might have been misshapen, with sinister burned tips. It’s a motif for some reason: why not put it to work metaphorically?
3. What is golden rod cake made of?
I managed to find five different recipes for golden rod cake, all from between 1899 and 1914. Though each was slightly different, they contained the same seven ingredients:
Baking powder (or a homemade combination of baking soda and cream of tartar)
Juice and zest from an orange
No salt (this puzzled me until I learned, via yet more research, that the butter used in the U.S. at the time was salted)
The key thing to note here is this cake was made with oranges. It’s an orange-flavored cake, something of a novelty even today. One would think that would bear mentioning in the novel.
4. What does golden rod cake taste like?
Well, I think we all know where this is going. There was only one way to find out.
I copied four of the five recipes, rejecting the high-altitude version, and created a spreadsheet showing the called-for quantities of each ingredient. I then converted some truly heinous weights and measures into standard U.S. measurements; one that seemed designed for commercial bakers listed its ingredients in pounds and pennyweights. That was a dark moment for a mathematically-challenged creature like myself.
Once I could see the ratios of each ingredient, I converted each recipe to have the same amount of flour (two cups), and the rest of the ingredients proportionately. And then I came up with a single, unified recipe that represented the average of all four versions.
And you already guessed what I did next. I tested the recipe.
I tried to fashion a triangular cake pan in the same shape as the vintage versions, following the advice of this much craftier baker. After wasting reams of aluminum foil and swearing many swears, I gave up and baked the batter in mini bread pans, then cut them in half.
None of the recipes included anything resembling modern baking instructions, so I had to take a wild guess at the temperature and cooking time. And I was forced to grand jeté to a conclusion about the icing, based on the lists of ingredients and vague references to “orange water icing.”
I baked it, iced it, eyed it awhile.
Then I ate a piece.
What does this 100-year-old cake taste like? It’s dense like a pound cake, a bit dry and crumbly as a good coffee or tea cake should be, with a strong but not overpowering citrus flavor. It takes a moment of consideration to decide whether it’s lemon or orange you’re tasting. The icing is cloyingly sweet and very, very sticky. It’s the kind of cake that no 19th-century lady would deign to touch with her fingers, even if the chunky little triangle begs to be picked up and eaten (though sensuous Corrine would definitely eat it with her hands, licking each finger languorously and scandalizing her Victorian relatives). It’s a gloves-on, eat it with a fork, “may I have just one more little piece?” kind of cake. It’s damned tasty.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the recipe I created from the contemporary sources:
Golden Rod Cake
1½ cups flour
1½ cups powdered sugar
½ cup unsalted butter
½ cup whole milk
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
Finely grated rind and juice of 1 orange (reserve 3 TBS juice for icing)
Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the milk and eggs. Add orange juice and grated orange rind. Sift together dry ingredients and fold into wet mixture. Bake in small triangular pans at 350 degrees for 25–30 minutes.
1 cup powdered sugar
3 TBS orange juice
Whisk together until smooth. Don’t ice until the cake has cooled.
This is how a writer does research, if they care about what they’re writing. It’s a bit discouraging when a book reviewer takes more time to discover and share crucial details about a major motif of a novel than the writer did.
If you care about what you’re writing, or just want to learn how some of the most famous authors of all time like Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, H.P. Lovecraft, and many more approached their work, visit howtowritelike.com. You’re guaranteed to learn something!