Cake Baking Spans More Than Four Decades
By Alexe van Beuren
Lela Mae McMinn is a name to know. And most people in the area do know her; after all, she has baked cakes for just about everyone’s birthday, anniversary, wedding, or birth.
“There are children I’ve baked every birthday cake for,” Lela Mae says in the bakery behind her home. Her husband, Martin, built the health-inspected facility for her in 1986, and it is lined with shelves full of cake mix, sugar, and hanging molds of every cartoon character one could imagine.
She began baking cakes in the 1960s. “I was just messing,” she tells me. “But my first cake was a big sheet cake with a cornucopia on top for Thanksgiving. English peas, radishes, lettuce, carrots– after I made that and brought it into Big Yank for work, people started asking for me to make their cakes.”
After taking an eight-hour course in Memphis to learn how to use tips to create frosting effects like grass, roses, and people, Lela Mae’s cakes became even more in demand. “I’d get home from work and go straight out here,” she says. “Some nights, I’d bake almost to daylight, and then go to work.” Now, after her 1993 retirement and her husband’s passing, Lela Mae says baking “fills a void. It’s good to help others.”
She frequently donates cakes; she made a sheet cake for the Relay for Life, free of charge, and even as I’m sitting with her, a lady from Lela Mae’s Big Yank days offers a bill for baby shower sweets which she waves away. “Helping out,” she says. “That’s the fun part.”
As I sit in her kitchen, I ask her about her supplies. All the cake mixes– and yes, she uses a mix– are Duncan Hines’ Moist Deluxe, and Lela Mae won’t use any other kind. But she adds extra everything– extra butter, eggs, milk– and only whole milk, mind you. She makes the frosting herself, and refuses to use fondant. “It comes in balls like dough,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “You roll it out and wrap up the cake. It’s pretty, but it’s just not good, and if people ask, I tell them I don’t do it.”
She makes cakes ranging from a Barbie cake where the doll stands upright and the cake itself is her flowing ballgown to a bikini-girl cake. “That’s real popular,” she says. “Girls get them for lingerie showers, or they buy them for their husband’s birthday.”
Unlike the eternally popular bikini girl, baking birthday cakes for children requires attention to more fickle trends. “I do more Dora the Explorer cakes for little girls,” she says. “The little boys like SpongeBob SquarePants.”
She points out molds as we sit at the table. “You’d be surprised how many old ones are coming back,” she says. “Strawberry Shortcake, Raggedy Ann, Blues Clues.” When I ask, Lela Mae tells me she has 101 different molds, and she buys two new ones every year, one for the boys and one for the girls. Her latest acquisition is from Disney’s movie Cars, Lightening McQueen.
Her largest cake? “Once I made a really pretty eight-tier cake for a wedding at Cedar Oaks,” she says. “It cost seven hundred dollars, and when we delivered it and set it up, we had to put napkins under the tables because the floors weren’t level.”
Christmas is her busiest time. One customer from Oxford travels between courthouses for his job, and come the holiday season, will order eight coconut cakes at a time. “I make coconut more than anything else,” Lela Mae says. “My most terrifying cake was a five-tier coconut cake that we put on a baby grand piano in the University Club, and I was so scared it would fall over.”
“Have you ever had actual disasters?” I ask, and Lela Mae nods.
“We were driving to drop a cake off in Sardis,” she says, “a big wedding cake, and we had to put on the brakes real fast. We had all the tiers in boxes, but they went up under the seat and knocked the frosting off. Thankfully, we were able to camouflage the damage.”
When I ask Lela Mae if she ever plans to retire from baking cakes, she shakes her head. “I’ll do it as long as I’m able,” she says.
Lela Mae lives with her son Clay in the house she grew up in on land her father farmed, and her daughter Pam lives next door with her pheasant-raising husband James Tribble. The family will frequently meet in the bakery for meals. When her husband Martin was alive, Lela Mae tells me that he would sit in the porch swing under a large tree about ten feet away from the bakery’s front door.
As our interview draws to a close, Lela Mae gives me a coconut cake – which turns out to be the best I’ve ever had– and kisses my cheek, telling me to come on back when I have free time. Before I leave, I ask Lela Mae what kind of cake she herself likes best.
“Pineapple,” Lela Mae says. “But I don’t eat much cake.”