Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: Teacakes

The fascinating (and mouth-watering) discussion that Pat Robertson's unfortunate Thanksgiving comments about macaroni and cheese have set off here the past few days has me thinking about food.  About dishes I liked and didn't like in childhood.  And about how the beloved dishes of childhood often become the despised orphans of our (pseudo-) sophisticated early adulthood, only to become cherished companions as we mature.  

Take teacakes, for instance.  I hated them.  They were flabby.  They were not anywhere nearly sweet enough.  And they tasted strongly of baking soda.  At least, the teacakes my maternal grandmother made tasted that way to me.

And I felt downright guilty not relishing them, since she rarely cooked anything at all, because her oldest (and unmarried) daughter did the cooking in my grandmother's house.  And when my grandmother did make a special treat for us grandchildren, she expected us to appreciate what she'd gone out of the way to fix especially for us.

I simply couldn't disguise my disdain for those flabby, bready, soda-reeking cookies masquerading as a form of cake.  And it has taken me years to understand what they were all about, and to begin appreciating what they meant to both of my grandmothers, culturally speaking, and why they were considered such treats.

To understand teacakes, you have first  to understand that the South has no cookie culture at all to speak of, in traditional terms--though like everywhere else in the U.S., we've long since succumbed to a commercially driven culture of store-bought cookies.  Cookies came to the United States by way of the Dutch in New York originally--or so food historians seem to think.  The word itself apparently derives from a Dutch word meaning "little cakes."

And so, where Steve has fond memories of the dozens and dozens of cookies both of his grandmothers baked perpetually for their tribes of grandchildren (a tribe of 72, in the case of his maternal grandmother), and we even have their cookie recipes, neither of my grandmothers ever baked cookies.  When they did make what most people would recognize as a cookie, it was called a teacake.  They did not inherit the cultural traditions that shaped the culture of the northern half of the U.S., which Steve's grandmothers inherited in Minnesota.  Their cultural traditions looked far back in time to the British Isles, instead, to biscuits and cakes both great and small--in the case of cakes, to poundcakes, about which please expect a subsequent posting.

Hence teacakes, which are essentially a form of non-crisp sugar cookie flavored variously, depending on what flavoring one happens to have on hand or admire at any given time.  I don't think I have a recipe for the teacakes either of my grandmothers made, and I doubt seriously that either made them according to a set recipe.  I do remember very well that their basic ingredients included flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk or buttermilk, and baking soda (when buttermilk was used).  And that a flavoring like vanilla or nutmeg was used to flavor them.  

I do have a recipe from my grandmother's jumbled, disorganized recipe drawer which sounds suspiciously like her teacakes to me, except that I don't see soda among its ingredients--and I distinctly recall that whang of soda in the hot teacakes she proudly brought from her oven to the breakfast-room table when I was a child, and which we were expected to eat with a delight I found it impossible to muster, having never learned well enough to dissimulate successfully at any point in my life, and particularly not when too much baking soda is involved.  And so I suspect the following recipe is a teacake recipe she had dutifully collected from someone else, had written down and tucked away in her drawer, and had never thought to make after that:

Cream 3/4 of a stick of soft butter with 1 cup sugar, add an egg and beat well.  Beat in 1/2 tsp. vanilla and 1 cup of milk, slowly, with just enough flour to form a soft dough.  Roll the cakes thin, cut with a biscuit cutter, and bake at 425 degrees about 10 minutes.

Without soda, these can't be the teacakes I remember from my grandmother's kitchen when I was a child, unless she substituted buttermilk for the milk in the recipe and added a pinch of soda for leavening. And I suspect that with a cup of sugar, these would be sweeter and less bready than those I remember, whose only redeeming virtue was that they were often heavily laced with nutmeg, a seasoning my grandmother adored, and which she put to very good use with the wickedly potent eggnog she made every Christmas in a cut-glass punchbowl my grandfather had given her on their wedding day, which was used for that purpose alone--for custard and cream and whisky and egg yolks beaten light with egg whites beaten soft and fluffy, on Christmas day alone each year.  All flavored with and topped by lavish portions of grated nutmeg.

And yes, we did eat the teacakes with tea.  Sometimes, if we had them on a hot summer day, the tea was a tall glass of super-sweet and very stout iced tea, which we drank as mother's milk even when we were forbidden coffee, since coffee would, we were solemnly informed, stunt our growth.  At other times, the teacakes accompanied what we called "hot tea," strong black tea from a teapot and served in teacups.

And I think this custom of serving teacakes at "real" tea parties accounts for the fond memories many Southerners, especially Southern women both black and white, still have of teacakes.  Google the term, and you'll find any number of websites where black and white Southern women speak in glowing terms of teacakes and tea parties of yore.  The teacakes gave many overworked, economically deprived Southern mothers a chance in the past, rarely, to sit down on the porch or in the parlor with a group of neighbor ladies, to pour tea from a real teapot and drink tea from real teacups, and to nibble teacakes as neighborhood gossip flowed as freely as the tea poured from the spout of the teapot.

I know this not only because I've read about those tea parties, but because I actually attended more than one of them, when I was a child.  My grandmother enjoyed, as often as she could muster it, a good chat with an elderly lady who lived across the street, a Mrs. Cliburn was her name.  These chats always took place on the front porch, an extension of the living room in good weather, and they always involved pots of tea and teacakes.  And wicker chairs and hand-held fans and ferns wafting slowly in the breeze above the porch's banisters.  And exclamations about how I declare, I just don't know what the world is coming to these days, there's so much meanness out there.  And children who were expected to be seen but not heard, and who were expected to nibble gag-inducing teacakes as they listened respectfully to litanies of the world's woes.

And then there were similar tea parties under a rose arbor at the house of two maiden ladies on the other side of town, whose names I've long since forgotten, but whom my grandmother loved to visit--and tea was served on elegant little covered wicker tables there, as we swung in creaky old swings under the roses.  As I think about it, these may have been the two maiden aunts who raised her nephew George when George's mother Frances died young of tuberculosis, and when my grandmother's brother John then relinquished the raising of their son to his sisters-in-law Ruth and Mary, women of some wealth and influence, since they'd been savvy enough to buy, together, a controlling share in one of Little Rock's largest banks.  Women my grandmother admired for their business savvy, though she did not move in their social circles, and whom she loved for their kindness to her nephew . . . .

I can't say I've come to appreciate teacakes any more in my old age.  But I have come to appreciate what they meant to my grandmothers.  They represented a rare treat from their own childhoods, in which expensive store-bought luxuries like cookies were unthinkable rarities.  And in which a little cake to be eaten with tea could represent a party, an occasion to interrupt the ceaseless round of chores and sit a spell, fanning oneself and decrying the wickedness of the world as one caught up on the latest news about what young woman had disgraced what local family by swimming with the boys in the town's mill pond.  And what new rough beast was slouching down the road to give birth to what new unexpected wickedness in a world in which women had begun to bob their hair, don men's clothes, and scheme to take men's jobs in a world turned upside down.

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