The line at Denise’s Delicacies is still out of pocket. That’s what a friend texted me when I asked if he had been by. It’s been three weeks of this. Denise Gause has been waiting for things to quiet down at her North Philadelphia bakery. They haven’t yet. The city had to go too long without her cakes.
The only reason I could get through the line, in fact, was to tell everyone I’m a reporter. One woman did more than give me one of those stares. After I repeated myself to her, she said, “Oh, because we was ’bout to fight.” She eased up. “I had to look you up and down.”
I meet Denise in her office, behind the shop, behind the kitchen at 22nd and Cambria. An Uber driver asked me if Denise is the light-skinned older lady who works there. No, Denise is brown. On holidays, she makes a point to walk outside and greet customers, but she admittedly keeps a low profile most of the time. When I mention that a cousin remarked in amazement that he saw her for the first time in a news story on the fire that burned down her bakery 14 months ago, she replied that she often tells customers that she’s the new girl.
It’s funny that one of the most famous names in Philadelphia bakeries could get away with that. Five months after the fire— still unexplained— a Facebook update detailing that they were still rebuilding got shared 1,535 times. The bakery has throngs of fans who can testify to the danishes, the rolls, the birthday cakes, the sweet potato pies, the carrot cakes, the red velvet, the cookies, the strawberry shortcakes, etc. etc. etc.
But Denise’s pound cake is her most popular offering, easy. It basically is what you want out of a pound cake that the store-bought ones hardly ever deliver: Moist, dense, full flavor. Her cakes have a reputation, not just in the neighborhood but in the region. Fran Dutton lives toward Cheltenham. She came to Denise’s straight from work; she was out there the day it re-opened. “This is nothing compared to that Tuesday— that Tuesday was a mess.” Dutton says from the line. “When they first opened that [day,] I was here for an hour and a half.”
The appeal, Denise explains, is that the taste they aim for is “homestyle,” or to use the highest of compliments, “like the cakes Grandmom made.” She is right. Denise has long stopped making the cakes herself. She leaves that to a staff of bakers, who whips up her tried-and-true recipes. “I don’t even own a mixer at home anymore. I usually just take it from here,” she says. “Just pick it up, put it in a bag and take it home.”
She couldn’t do that for the 14 months they were closed, so her family went without dessert during that period. And each holiday they missed was a prime season lost. Losing Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduation season, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years isn’t small for a bakery like Denise’s. Neither is losing Easter. “We missed [this] Mother’s Day which was the ultimate day that we wanted to be back,” says Denise, who co-owns the bakery with her husband Rudy Gause. They were two weeks late for that.
Pre-heat: How a hobby became a business
Denise has never gone to culinary school. She learned baking, with her sister, on box cakes as a girl.
“Back then, Duncan Hines out of the box was pretty good. We would improvise— we would use butter instead of shortening, milk instead of water,” she remembers. They learned little tricks, as Denise has told reporters, like throwing instant pudding in the cake. “Started doing more scratch as time went on because the mixes started changing. They started putting more preservatives so it didn’t taste as homemade as it used to.”
As an adult, while Denise was working as assistant director of benefits planning at Cigna, baking went from a pastime to an outlet. “I wound up reporting to someone who didn’t like me,” she says of the job. “So I used it as a way of maintaining self esteem and self confidence because that individual was trying to destroy all of that.”
She recalls that there were two bookstores by her office. On lunch breaks, she’d head to one, make way to the baking section and read up.
“I remember sending maybe 20 letters to a couple people, like ‘The next time you have a special occasion and you want a cake, call me and I’ll do it for you,’” she says of her first steps. This was around 1990. She baked first at home, then at a commercial kitchen in Chestnut Hill, then a storefront opened up on 22nd, close to where she was raised.
“I’d stop here in the morning, then I’d go to work and come back after work. Did that for about a year. And things started snowballing and getting really, really busy,” she explains. “Actually, I asked to be laid off. They were doing downsizing, so I volunteered for that. This building that we’re sitting in now, it was vacant. It was an old chop shop garage. So we had outgrown the 22nd street space in like a year or two years, so we secured this building with my severance pay.”
It took time, plus trial and error, to get the pound cake right. Denise had gone into business with recipes that worked in a home kitchen, but not a commercial one where bakers prepare in 25-pound and 50-pound batches, or even the 100-pound batches that Denise’s Delicacies mixes these days.
“And the pound cake is expensive to make,” notes Denise. “I remember when we first started, we must’ve thrown hundreds and hundreds of pounds of pound cake away.”
They had a “seasoned baker” who worked on it until he could get it to taste like Denise’s home cake, tinkering with the recipe. The pound cake kept coming out with what Denise called “a tunnel”— a hole running around the middle. It was maybe two weeks of failed batches until the tunnels closed.
“I don’t want no Acme cake”
The other long tedious process that’s key to bakery’s story are the recent renovations.
Owning an older establishment, “everything that we had in place had been grandfathered. So now everything that we had had to be brought up to code,” says Denise. “When the plans were done, there were certain things that we didn’t pick up on because, [for example, a] wall was there. So we automatically assumed that the wall was the right length and at the right distance from someplace else.”
Setbacks would come from minute differences. “We’d measure a hundred times and never get it right,” she says.
When I ask how it feels to be completely back, she says, “I haven’t had the chance to do all that because I’m constantly…” she rephrases: “We’re trying to work out a way to service people better.” She’s talking about the long lines. Outside there’s a mix of people who seem annoyed that they just can’t pick up their order, and who seem to understand it’s par for the course these days. One man dropped by to order and take home his own birthday cake. “You want a good cake, you got to get it yourself,” he says. “I don’t want no Acme cake.”
Denise has said repeatedly that she didn’t know just how cherished they were until the fire. This still seems hard to believe. Right now, the fanfare for Denise’s is intense, a feverish response after being closed all that time. But even before then, she was arguably the most trusted baker in black Philadelphia. How was their power in the community unknown to them?
“We probably were here about 15 years or so before I really realized [we had something]— because like I said, you go about it, you do it a certain way, you maintain a certain mentality about it, you don’t think about all the other things that go along with it,” she says. “I guess I just never knew the impact, because all we wanted to do, my main objective, was to give the heart of North Philadelphia, particularly because I grew up in this neighborhood, something they could be proud of.”
Essentially, Denise is all about the standards: If it doesn’t taste good, why sell it? Prices can fluctuate because they use the same ingredients regardless of market costs. She pays attention to “the variables”: like if the weather calls changing the recipe here and there, but she’s faithful to her formulas.
She says beyond herself, only two people total know the final recipe for her pound cake. As she says, “pound cake here is what pays the bills.” Understanding its popularity, not to mention her keenness never to flinch on serving a good one, is a matter of how African Americans enjoy their desserts.
The thing about pound cake
In Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, food writer and historian Adrian Miller traces today’s pound cakes back to British plum cakes. Bakers took the yeast out and replaced it with eggs, putting “rich cakes” on the table, and serving up fruitless rich cakes basically led to the pound cake we know. The “ubiquity” Miller continues, citing legendary Southern chef and writer Edna Lewis, comes from how accessible the ingredients are. Anyone with eggs, flour, extracts, sugar and the cream of choice can make one. And so, pound cake became a thing seen throughout the South, across church banquets and prayer meetings. Why pound cakes became so fondly loved to Miller remains a “head-scratcher.”
He offers this theory by phone: “Pound cake is one of those things you attach to a person. It reminds you the person who made it,” says Miller. “Only a few people in my life make consistently great pound cake, who are like an artist at it. It creates a stronger emotional response and a deeper sense of nostalgia.”
Pound cake lovers can and do quibble over the right density, the crumb to the edge, if the preference is more towards a lemon flavored one versus a vanilla, but with these debates is a prevailing notion that only certain people really know what they’re doing.
“When you get ahold of really good one, by someone who can make it consistently?” he says. “Even at church functions people ask who made that.”
Denise also thinks pound cake reminds customers of someone. She again speaks about grandmom. Not her grandmom. Her grandmother wasn’t a pound cake baker. It’s more like the mass experiences from older black kitchens.
During the summers as a child, Denise would stay with her grandmother in Norlina, North Carolina. She didn’t learn to bake from her, but there was a yellow cake her grandmother used to serve that makes Denise laugh at the memory of it.
“She would make this interesting chocolate icing, with Hershey’s cocoa, butter and confectioner’s sugar. And layers would be oh so lopsided; it would be not neat and she would, like, pour the icing on top, but it was the best cake,” she says. “It looked like it had been through the war. It was just so, so good. You couldn’t cut it because it’d fall apart.”
When Denise wants her grandmother’s cake, she takes the yellow cake she sells and puts in the microwave. That makes the icing run she like remembers.
“It’d be so soft and buttery; it would just be so good.”
Denise, when she talks about cakes that aren’t that one, is stunningly nonchalant. She makes a cream cheese pound cake. This does not come easy to everyone. That seems like news to Denise. Cream cheese cakes were the moistest out of the pound cakes she used to make, so that was that. “I’m not a baker by trade,” she says, not joking.
She doesn’t even consider herself a cake person.
She really prefers ice cream.