Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another charming tale of rural food

This charming story in today's New York Times, dateline Hartford, Alabama, population 2,369, is currently number seven on most emailed list. The headline is "Festiveness, Stacked up Southern Style." It reports on the tradition of making many-layered cakes in small Southeast Alabama towns, calling the cakes "currency, comfort and status." An excerpt featuring colorful quotes from local residents follows:

“Three or four weren’t nothing to brag about,” said Franklin Peacock, who has been eating layer cake here since the 1930s. “Five or six is about where you’d want to start talking about your cake.”

Martha Meadows, 77, learned to bake 15-layer cakes from her mother, who cooked each layer one at a time in a cast-iron hoe-cake pan. The pan now lives in a kitchen cupboard in the small house in a cotton field between this town and Slocomb, Ala., where Mrs. Meadows has lived for 34 years. Why 15 layers?

“That’s just the way it comes out,” she said. “One time I got 17. Of course, I weren’t trying.”

I thought I was pretty southern, but I have no idea what a "cast-iron hoe-cake pan" is, though I am quite familiar with cast-iron skillets.

In any event, this part from the end of the story represented something that is familar to me--the sense of community associated with these women's acts of baking and sharing. A 77-year-old is quoted as saying she bakes about eight cakes a month for people "who are too sick to make their own or for the old folks’ home or, really, anyone in need." The woman said that "it's partly what I call my ministry."

But it’s also the best way she knows to make herself feel better.

“If you get down and out,” she said, “just get in the kitchen and bake a cake.”

The "down and out" part also reminded me of the hard times now hitting hard this region of Alabama. Read about them here, in the Daily Yonder.

P.S. By late afternoon on the day this story appeared, it was up to no. 2 on the most emailed list. Interestingly, it was running second to another food story. Interest in both may be a reflection of this festive season.


Desmond said...

As an avid cook, and aspiring baker, I really enjoyed this story. I'm ashamed to admit it, but as a born-and-bred northerner I often have a knee-jerk reaction to anything "southern." And my preconceived notions in this regard are generally not flattering. So I'm happily struck now and again by stories like this that remind me of the real people and real life in the southern states. It pulls me away from the politics and screaming matches on cable news and reminds me of the truth that, like the "northern half", there is much to love in the warmer parts of our country -- including the people and their cakes. I consider myself educated and open-minded; I'm thankful for stories like this that prompt me to "clean the lenses" I see life through. (of course, now I'm going to want a piece of 15-layer cake and don't think I can find it up here!) Cheers, a friend up north.

Term Papers said...

The headline is Festiveness, Stacked up Southern Style. It reports on the tradition of making many-layered cakes in small Southeast Alabama towns, calling the cakes currency, comfort and status.