Anna Green Winslow was a lively 12-year-old schoolgirl in pre-Revolutionary Boston who wrote to her mother about much of what she did. That included eating the groaning cake when visiting her aunt.
When Anna was 10 years old, her parents sent her from Nova Scotia to Boston to live with her father’s older sister, Sarah Deming, to be “finished.” While in Boston she learned the skills required of a well-brought-up young lady. She went to school for sewing, dancing and handwriting.
Her diary and letters, published by historian Alice Morse Earle, provide an interesting account of the customs of the day, including the groaning cake for new mothers.
On December 24, 1771 Anna wrote to her mother. “Last Saturday was seven-night my aunt Suky was delivered of a pretty little son.” Dr. Cooper baptized him by the name of “Charles.”
“I knew nothing of it till noonday, when I went there a visiting,” she wrote.
Later on January 11, 1772, she recorded a visit to her aunt Suky (Susanna Green).
“I have attended my schools every day this week except Wednesday afternoon,” she wrote. “When I made a setting up visit to aunt Suky, & was dress’d just as I was to go to the ball. It cost me a pistoreen (Spanish currency of about 17 cents in value) to nurse Eaton for two cakes.” Anna noted she had taken care to taste the cakes before paying for them.
The editor of Anna’s diary and letters suggests the cakes were probably “groaning cake.” In a tradition brought from the British Isles, the groaning cake is a sweet, spicy cake made from various recipes. Cooks started making it when a mother-to-be went into labor.
When that happened, many of the women from the community would attend to help her through the process. And among their duties: making the groaning cake. Some traditions held that the mother could shorten her labor by breaking the eggs for the cake. Other superstitions say the father must give the cake away to ensure the baby will prosper.
This use of “groaning” originated in Scotland. It meant ‘lying-in,’ the period lasting from days to months when a new mother stayed home with the baby. In addition to the groaning cake, the Scots had groaning malt – a beer served while the mother went into labor. They also had groaning cheese and a groaning chair, where a new mother sat to nurse her child.
In America, at least, the mother did not nurse for several days because she was thought to be impure. A friend would give the new baby his or her first meal.
Anna probably bought her cakes from the nurse who attended to her aunt. People customarily brought gifts or money for midwives and nurses when visiting a new baby as payment for their services.
Groaning Cake Recipe
Ami McKay includes her (modern) recipe for a groaning cake in her novel, The Birth House.
2-½ cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ cup oil
1 tsp. baking soda
½ cup orange juice
2 tsp. cinnamon
¼ cup molasses
½ tsp. ground cloves
1-1/3 cups sugar
1-½ cups apple (grated, no skin)
1 tsp. almond extract
Sift dry ingredients together. Add apple. Beat eggs. Add oil, orange juice, molasses and sugar. Add to dry ingredients. Mix well. Add almond extract. Bake at 350 F. for 35-40 minutes. Makes two 9 X 5 loaves or about 18 muffins.
Additions: raisins, dates, dried fruits, or nuts.
This story was updated in 2023.