Fr Mark & I recently did a house-blessing of a newly baptized member of our church. He is a single man in his mid-fifties who grew up in Fairfield County in SC. He made us some delicious Southern food: chili, mustard greens, home-made corn bread and an apple cake like nothing I ever expected to taste this side of heaven. Something I didn’t know, having grown up the child of mid-Westerners, is that Southern chili doesn’t have beans in it. So Southern chili more nearly resembles meat-soup than anything that I am used to.
But back to the apple cake. It was made in a bundt pan, and when it was turned over, the crust had a candied-sugar texture. It was a recipe of his mother’s. It wasn’t super-sweet, but so moist I could taste every ingredient: coconut, walnuts, apples—and lots of butter.
As we talked he told us about removing things from his boyhood home after his mother passed away. The one thing he wanted more than anything was her cookbook. He pulled it out to show us. It had a black cover and a red inscription (I can’t recall the title) but what it contained was more valued than the book.
He pulled out recipes, yellowed, spotted with gravy or sauce, and creased with age. He showed me one after the other, and told me the tale of each one. It was curious to look on the back of each recipe: one was a receipt for 300# of fertilizer (probably manure); one was on the back of a prescription for something covered up with an orange stain; other recipes were on the backs of bits of paper with phone numbers or addresses of people who are probably long gone (or maybe relocated).
Each one I mentioned to him, either by the title or name of the person associated with the recipe ('Vivalia’s Biscuits,' 'Buns from Miss Marie') he would announce how each one would have been considered a treasure by any lady in Fairfield County in his mother’s day. For instance, Miss Marie was the school cook and every child growing up in Fairfield County knew and loved her food as much as or more than their own mother's—especially her baking.
I also thought it was unusual to look at the recipes for biscuits, spaghetti sauce, buns, or gravy and see it was simpler than anything found in recipes these days. Each one assumed you knew what to do with a biscuits or buns, so it didn’t bother to tell you to cut the butter into the flour or dissolve the yeast. They were all “Two cups this. 1 ½ cup that. A tablespoon a teaspoon. 350 degrees 45 minutes.” Undoubtedly the scribe knew her craft.
He said, “Back in my mother’s day, you couldn’t swing your arms around in a circle and not hit a great cook.”
If I ever get that apple cake recipe I will post it here. It deserves to be known to all of posterity.