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cake

Jeanette Wells Berry (right) and her sister Louise McGowan with a 16-layer chocolate cake at John Clark Park in Esto.

GROWING UP IN ESTO, we always had plenty of good food. Some of the best was served up when the neighbors got together for a fish fry, or after church for an old-fashioned dinner on the grounds — lately in the air-conditioned fellowship hall.

The ladies in Esto were always especially good at baking cakes. I remember Lane cakes and fruitcakes at Christmas, coconut cakes stacked high, red velvet cakes white on the outside and bright red on the inside, lemon cheese cakes — none of them better than a simple pound cake with a raw streak. Best of all for really special occasions was a towering chocolate cake made of many thin layers, with fudgy crystalized chocolate frosting between every layer and all over the outside. It had more frosting than cake.

So it was a happy surprise to turn to the food section of The New York Times, no less, and find a feature on Southern cakes — dateline Hartford, Alabama, just seven miles north of Esto — celebrating what they called the “Chocolate Little Layer Cake” as a specialty of our corner of the country. That it is.

MORE: “Stacked Up Southern Style

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blueberries

Dear Mary,

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE BOY growing up in Esto, there was a blueberry patch down the hill and across the highway that ran in front of our house. It was on land owned by U.T. Kirkland. Those initials were all the name he had, but he was a kind-hearted, hard-working farmer whose wife Delma — I called her Big Mama — kept me in the years before I started school. (She also taught me some of my most important early lessons. When I turned 5 and got one of those sit-down blackboards, I sat right down and wrote my first word: S-H-I-T. She wouldn’t say it, but she frequently spelled it, and apparently I had been paying attention.)

T and Big Mama were all-important to me. My mother left early every morning to drive across the Alabama line to work in the Van Heusen shirt factory in Hartford, and my father died young just as I turned 4. I loved T and Big Mama. And blueberries always bring them back to me.

Thank you for that perfect blueberry flip you shared last night — and for the memories that came with it.

E. W. Carswell: He writes about home — his home and mine.

E. W. Carswell: He writes about home — his home and mine.

THE ADVERTISER arrived in today’s mail.

Twenty-five years out of Esto and 3,000 miles away in California, I’m still always happy to get the weekly newspaper from home.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Aging breeds nostalgia. And now I better understand the complaints from people who had moved away that I used to hear when I worked at the Holmes County Advertiser as a teenager. “I never know anybody you write about anymore.” “I have to figure out who their mamas are to place them – or their grandmamas.” “The only names I know are in the obituaries.”

Then on the editorial page of this week’s issue I get to E. W. Carswell’s column. This week it’s titled “The Smells of Summer.”

It takes me immediately back home. And it reminds me it’s the little things I miss the most.

He writes: “The smell of summer is a reminder of the good things summer has made possible ­– mellowing pears, magnolia blossoms, fresh turpentine, overripe muscadines, fresh-sliced tomatoes, new-crop Southern peas or speckled butterbeans being cooked with slices of ham.”

“Summer is the smell of the old chinaberry tree after its waxy fruit had started dropping to the ground. It is the smell of fresh-sliced watermelon or cantaloupe.

“Unforgettable is the smell of peanut hay, curing in the sunshine. And freshly dug peanuts being boiled outdoors in a wood-fueled pot.”

I had read this column before. In fact, Judge and I included it in Commotion in the Magnolia Tree, the first collection of his columns we published in 1981. Maybe I even read it when it was first published in his regular column on the editorial page of The Pensacola Journal back in the ’70s. I might have read it again since the Advertiser started reprinting some of his columns a few years ago.

But it didn’t matter.

Like the smells of summer he was describing, Judge Carswell’s writing has a timeless quality about it. It has the feeling of home – his home, and my home too.

This week I recognize something familiar in the Advertiser. I recognize the smells of home.