Rescued Recipes: East Texas Tea Cakes

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.

1-2-3-4 Cake

  • 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

Directions:

  1. Let the milk, eggs and butter come to room temp for a few hours.
  2. Cream sugar Butter — fluffy
  3. Add egg yolk one at a time. Blend thoroughly
  4. Sift dry ingred. together 3 times.
  5. Add alternately with milk and vanilla
  6. Beat until smooth
  7. 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.

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24 thoughts on “Rescued Recipes: East Texas Tea Cakes

  1. I love Their Eyes Were Watching God, what an amazing book, it was great to be reminded of it here. I also notice in an earlier post you mention Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, a book which I love, love, love.

    I like your blog, especially the way you find old recipes. This one reminds me of my Great Gran’s recipe for rice cake..

  2. Hey, I’m trying to watch my weight… (two sticks of butter?)
    I’m a silly man, not big on recipes, but you make even a post on recipes interesting and touching… Hat’s off…

  3. Wonderful story and good recipes.
    however, I reviewed other tea cake recipes and notice this one did not include any milk or buttermilk as the other ones do.. most state 1/2 cup . Did you make the tea cakes just as written? Were they good?
    and by the way, I didn’t read the book thier eyes were watching GOD, but I see see the TV movie. Halle Berry was GREAT and the Movie was very good.

    Thank you

    • I can tell you that having grown up and lived all my adult life in the area the tea cake recipe came from, this is a traditional recipe for East Texas. Money was scarce and dairy products expensive. Most families had a milk cow in the early days. Depending on production of said cow, it would be a waste of precious resources to use in such a frivolous as a treat. Many deserts and treats were made without milk and often when liquid was required plain water or sugar water would be used.
      I grew up my grandmother being born in 1901, making wonderful fried cornbread, sweet flapjacks, and other things as beloved treats using water in the mix.
      I can’t say that this recipe is a result of this, but it would be my best guess.
      Thank you, If anyone else knows another reason, I’d be glad to hear.

  4. 1-2-3-4 Cakes are usually layer cakes and would be baked for 25 or 30 minutes. Clearly, an instruction to bake this cake for 50 minutes indicates everything is being put into one pan.

  5. East Texas is on the Texas Gulf Coast (Gulf of Mexico). All of Texas was once in the ocean which is why you can collect seashells in the mountains of West Texas.

  6. Hi Gmarita — Sorry to be so long in getting to your question. The lack of liquid means the dough is a bit crumbly at first, but if you roll it out thinly, it’s just fine. But it’s not terribly sweet — just very rich. I think one of the charms of this recipe is that it’s very much a taste from the past.

    Lana — Thank you so much for this clarification.  The recipe’s vague about the pan, because the baker made it so often and knew just what she wanted to do with it.

    Lynda — How wonderful to think of seashells being found in the mountains of East Texas.

    Edwin and Helen and Fencer — There’s another post about how things turned out, and I’ve added a link in this post to it. Best to all of you, BL

  7. I have been employed by East Texas Salt Water Disposal Company (ETSWD) in Kilgore, Texas, for 20 years. Kilgore is in the heart of the East Texas Oil Field (not the Gulf Coast). ETSWD was formed in 1942 when the the oil boom began. The by-product of oil produced in the East Texas Field is salt water. As oil wells produce oil from the Woodbine Formation of soil, they also produce large amounts of salt water. In processing, the producers must heat the oil and water in large vessels, resulting in oil rising to the top and the salt water going to the bottom of the vessel. ETSWD collects the salt water by gravity lines into large pits and pumps it back into the Woodbine Formation thus helping to produce more oil. We collect close to a million barrels of salt water per day.

    We found this article very interesting and are searching our files to see if we can determine who the recipe originally belonged to. Thanks for sharing the story!

  8. Hello Janice — How wonderful to hear from you! Thank you for that incredibly thorough explanation. Your post, in addition to being very informative, has really taught me something important — which is that real people live in these real places and that my comment about east Texas being a place people want to leave wasn’t very artfully put. What I meant was that there are interesting stories here about why people might sell things as precious as this: because they’re in a hurry to move on, because it’s painful to look at the past, because they didn’t know this was being disposed of.

    All I know, though, is that I loved making these tea cakes, and I’m thrilled that other people have been able to make them too.

  9. Hi Lily
    After some research and consulting with a retiree of East Texas Salt Water Disposal Company, it is determined that the East Texas Tea Cakes recipe was shared by a very sweet lady, Nora Schlieper Turner. She grew up in Cleburne, Texas (south of Ft. Worth). Her father owned a bakery that was built in the back yard of their home. She said her mother worked as a “hand” in the bakery, and could handle just about anything any of the men could do. Nora now lives in Kilgore, Texas, where she retired from ETSWD in 1989.

  10. thank you for sharing your recipies and your stories. I was born in 1957 I grew up nacogdoches county, deep in the country woods around the cushing tex area. As a small child I remember my aunt and grandmother cooking several items that date back to their African heritage and slave heritage as well. I;m so glad that I hung out in the old cold kitchen while my Big Mama cooked and baked some of the best food known to man. I can’t imagiene how she did all this on a wooden stove but she did. I have most of the recipes in my head just like they did. most of the old cooking ladies have since gone on to be with the FATHER BUT i STILL COOK A LOT OF THEIR HEAVENLY FOODS. Some day I will write these recipes down on paper and share them with the world so that they wont be forgotten. One of my favorites was my BIG MAMAS THREE LAYER BANANA CAKE.

  11. Just found out about this site from my son. Nora is my mother and his grandmother. Was interesting to see the old recipies. Of course we have a large number of them left over from the bakery days. The bakery was hand built by my grandfather and uncle. Was nice growing up with the many treats that my mom baked. She also has a killer recipe for tutti-fruity homemade ice cream that they used to have at parties at Salt Water and at thankgiving she made the best cream puffs. She was always passing out the recipes to whomever wanted them.

  12. I just read your story and believe that the handwriting is my mother’s! She was born in East Texas in 1932 and her maiden name is Gore. Her mother’s name was Edna Stanberry and was born in 1900. My grandmother Stanberry made the best tea cakes ever!!! Her receipe disappeared (maybe sold on ebay) and I have been searching for this one and others for years! Is it possible for you to send me more information regarding the receipe box and it’s contents? This might verify if these are our family receipies. My mother is now 73 years old and lost her mother (my grandmother Stanberry) in 1968 and it would mean the world to us all if we knew that these are in fact our family receipes. Thank you and God bless you!

  13. I’m putting together a cookbook for a school group and one of our members mentioned that she used to get some delicious oatmeal raisin spice cookies from a bakery in Cleburn, TX. Would you happen to have this recipe in the box? Or perhaps her family wouldn’t mind sending it my way. It would be a fun surprise for this mom.

  14. I’m 55 years old from Houston, Texas of German decent and Big Mama always had tea cakes (24/7)for the 55 grand kids. I have my grandmothers hand written recipe. As I reseached the history behind the recipe I thought it interesting that the recipe is considered African-American. I bake these at Christmas. This year I will include photo copies of Big Mama’s recipe and the history when I give them as gifts. Peace. Love.

  15. The mention of Schlieper’s Bakery is interesting since I have a picture of a Schlieper’s Bakery delivery truck on my computer. My father drove this truck for the bakery in the middle of the Great Depression. He died at an early age in 1938. Passing through Cleburne many years ago I located the bakery where their sign could still be faintly read on the side of the building. It was, indeed, behind the house in a residential neighborhood. It’s amazing what can be found on the internet.

    • Mr Campbell,
      I would really like to see the picture you have of the truck from Schlieper’s Bakery. My Mom passed away on Thankgiving and of course we are now in control of all the receipes from the old bakery. We are attempting to get copies made and passed to nieces & nephews and a picture from the old days would really be nice. You may e-mail me at
      jwt603@cablelynx.com

  16. Thank you so much for sharing these recipes. My mother had just mentioned the day before a recipe that her grandmother had for 1234 cake. My mother grew up in east Texas as did a lot of her cousins. We have also been looking for a tea cake recipe that my grandmother used to make and I’m hoping that this was the basis for it.

  17. Amazing what a connection one simple recipe can bring out of the lives of many. Love the story and all the connections. I have inherited my husband’s grandmother’s recipe for Tea Cakes. She lived in Van, Texas. She made the best pound cake ever and it is still a special treat when served in our home. Thanks to all of you for sharing.

  18. Thank you! This recipe was exactly what I was looking for.
    I live about 30 minutes from Kilgore and the salt water is used in oil well drilling. The famed “Million Dollar Acre” is in Kilgore and the community has a long history of record breaking producing oil wells. Once all the oil is pumped from a well, stopping production, salt water is forced down in an attempt to force whatever bits of the natural resource still cling to their ancient bed.
    Oil production is such a vital part of our area’s history and economy, even today, there is a wonderful museum at Kilgore College, a Jr. College. I would encourage anyone visiting our beautiful and unique area to pay a visit there or look at them through the internet.

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