Today’s rescued recipe comes from east Texas, from a gray metal filing box I bought on Ebay. The seller was a woman in Texas, who’d acquired this recipe box at an estate sale.
Early this morning, before going to work, I spread the recipes out (there aren’t a lot of them, maybe twenty) and, after a few minutes of reading through the cards, a picture of its creator began to emerge.
Some of the recipes are written on pieces of note paper from something called the East Texas Salt Water Disposal Company in Kilgore, Texas. What exactly a salt water disposal company does, I cannot even begin to guess. I don’t know where salt water would be coming from in east Texas, one of those piney, swampy places people tend to leave, apparently after they’ve sold things like their mom’s recipe box to a lady who runs an ebay business disposing of the “estates” of women whose children have made a run for it.
The woman who once owned this box preserved some of her mother and grandmother’s recipes in it — she rewrote them on cards of her own, noting the year they’d first been made.
These three women (the owner, her mother, and her grandmother) were clearly southerners. I know that because a few of these recipes deliver the slow, small town world of that time and place with heartbreaking clarity, heartbreaking because it’s a world that doesn’t exist for this family anymore. Once someone gets rid of their family’s history, it’s pretty clear their family isn’t intact anymore.
The recipe we’ll be making this afternoon, when I get home from picking my boys up from summer camp, is for “Tea Cakes or Sugar Cookies.” In the corner of this recipe, you can make out the words “My Mother & My GrandMother. Cir. 1887.”
When I came across this recipe card, two other tea cakes immediately came to mind. First, in Zora Neale Hurston’s remarkable book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the narrator, Janie, runs off with a man whose name is Tea Cake. And he is indeed sweet. (If you haven’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God, you should. It was written during the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1930s. It is a miracle of a book, giving voice as it does to an African-American woman, Janie, who is one of the finest literary creations I know of.)
Second, one of my favorite cookbook writers from the south (and anywhere for that matter), Edna Lewis, who, like Janie, came of age in a town founded by former slaves, has a fine recipe for tea cakes in the book she wrote with Scott Peacock shortly before her death, The Gift of Southern Cooking. They’re a bit crumbly and very rich and just what you’d be served on the porch with lemonade when you go to visit somebody on a Sunday afternoon. When my great-Aunt Simona died not long ago, I made those tea cakes in her honor. Even though she was not from the south, they reminded me of her world — a sweet one, in which you were always offered something good to eat at three in the afternoon, and coffee, and then you sat down and talked for a while, and you were never in a hurry to leave, and never wanted to leave.
The 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe is something that looks like it’s been around a long time too. The paper’s yellow and the handwriting is a little shaky. You see this cake mentioned often in cookbooks. It’s a pound cake. This recipe involves separating the eggs and mixing in the yolks first and then, at the very end, mixing in the whipped egg whites.
The tea cakes will be served this afternoon at our table under the big blue umbrella. With lemonade or tea. We’ll play Glen Campbell and Johnny Rivers. Look for pictures and a fuller report tomorrow.
And one other thing: Here’s the 1-2-3-4 recipe. Perhaps you will want to make it for yourself and share in some of that sweetness.
- 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
- 2 cups sugar
- 3 cups sifted cake flour
- 4 eggs, separated
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Let the milk, eggs and butter come to room temp for a few hours.
- Cream sugar Butter — fluffy
- Add egg yolk one at a time. Blend thoroughly
- Sift dry ingred. together 3 times.
- Add alternately with milk and vanilla
- Beat until smooth
- Beat whites stiff and fold into first mixture
Bake one hour 350. Apparently, sometimes if you use a different pan for the cake, you need only bake for 50 minutes at 325.