As Jocelyn Delk Adams decorates picture-perfect cakes in a pastel dress, armed with her giant, infectious smile, it feels as though she was destined to be in front of the camera. The cookbook author, food blogger, television personality, and creator of Grandbaby Cakes has taken the baking world by storm in the last decade. Since starting her dessert-filled blog in 2013, Adams has written an award-winning cookbook, judged contestants on Food Network's Beat Bobby Flay, and become a TODAY Show Tastemaker.
But when Jocelyn Delk Adams was just a girl growing up in Chicago, baking represented one thing to her: family.
The Baking Gene
Growing up, Jocelyn Delk Adams and her family would often make the ten-hour drive from Chicago to Winona, Mississippi to visit her grandmother, Maggie Mae Small, a fierce and kind woman who everyone called Big Mama. Upon arrival, they were always greeted in the same fashion: Big Mama in her tidy country kitchen, surrounded by cake flour, baking soda, and vanilla extract--working on the baked goods that heralded their arrival.
Greeted with this familiar sight, the women would immediately head to the kitchen to start the intricate and labored process of making a bundt or pound cake, or something similarly delicious. Delk Adams' family is full of bakers, and by the time she was seven years old, her aunts would allow her to roll up her sleeves and help.
"Back then the kitchen was our place of refuge. It transformed from a Sunday church service beauty parlor (for pressing hair) into a family therapy session hub," Adams wrote in Bon Appetit.
Big Mama understood the dynamics of baking as well as any seasoned pastry chef. She invented all of her cake recipes herself, and she never set a timer when one was in the oven. Big Mama was able to assess if a cake was done purely by its smell alone. Even before Delk Adams considered herself a professional baker, she understood the power of Big Mama's creations: "Her cakes [were] the love notes of my family, the fabric of our heritage, adorned with billowing buttercream."
From Mississippi to the World Wide Web
Although Delk Adams loved to bake with her grandmother, and always understood the process as a way to preserve their familial traditions and create "soulful memories," she did not realize she had inherited "the baking gene" until her twenties.
In 2012, while working at Ebony Magazine and feeling burnt out by the grind of a traditional nine-to-five job, friends suggested Delk Adams start a blog as an outlet to showcase her love of baking. She launched Grandbaby Cakes soon after, the title a nod to her grandmother's teachings and their shared family recipes.
"It was really just a hobby. It was really a way for me to just find something that I really truly loved," Delk Adams told Cherry Bombe. But her joy and the stories her recipes told immediately resonated with readers, and Grandbaby Cakes was immediately successful. She launched a cookbook bearing the same name in September 2015, garnering an NAACP Image Award nomination and a Gourmand World Award.
A New Generation of Black Bakers
Delk Adams' immediate success is something she has never taken for granted. Rather, she understood her accomplishments as directly attributable to the encouragement she received from her mother, aunts, and, of course, Big Mama. It's important to her to leverage her success to provide similar encouragement to the next generation of Black women.
"When I started, there weren't a lot of African American women succeeding in this business. That pushed me to be in the front, to do well so others could come behind me. That's always helped me to want to do better and be an inspiration for others," Delk Adams told TODAY.
Although Big Mama passed away in 2018, Jocelyn Delk Adams continues to carry on her familial legacy in a variety of ways.
At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, Delk Adams heard the frustrations of parents struggling to keep their children entertained indoors. Realizing she already had a roadmap for intergenerational connection, she produced a downloadable ebook called 25 Recipes to Cook and Bake with Kids. (Twenty percent of the proceeds go to charities including Feeding America.)
Today, Grandbaby Cakes is a place for more than cupcakes and cocoa powder. Delk Adams also includes recipes for comfort food, including seafood gumbo and candied sweet potatoes, alongside vegetarian recipes and, of course, cakes of all kinds.
Grandbaby Cakes: Modern Recipes, Vintage Charm, Soulful Memories
But, of course, she's still baking: Her recipes run the gamut from intricate layer cakes to recipes better suited for beginners, like sheet cakes. Although her focus is on southern recipes, just like the kind Big Mama always made, often incorporates ingredients such as peanut butter, sour cream, and cream cheese.
No matter her successes, Delk Adams continues to focus on gratitude, as well as on those who have come both before and after her. "Whether it's just the fact that we do have food in the refrigerator right now, the fact that we can get in the kitchen with a family member or a child and cook or bake and create a moment and an experience, and a memory that you can take with you for a lifetime."
Products featured on Wide Open Eats are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.
Katie King is a writer, researcher, and producer committed to exploring the overlapping intricacies of American history, culture, and foodways. A Georgia native, she currently resides in San Francisco with her husband and four bouncing rescue animals.