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RE-CREATING MISS ETHEL'S TEA CAKES

RE-CREATING MISS ETHEL'S TEA CAKES

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A recipe resurrected from 50 years ago needs to be put to the taste test.

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Southern women, as we all know, don't use recipes to cook their breads. The recipes are in their genes, and they pass them down from generation to generation through the female offspring. So it was something of a challenge when a reader from Alabama asked me to pass on Miss Ethel's recipe for tea cakes.Miss Ethel was Pappy Rains' stepmother, which makes her my step-great-grandmother.

But our kinship runs deeper than that. She told me once that she was the first person to pin a diaper on me. I didn't know that when I was growing up. All I knew was that she and Grandpa lived across the big red-clay road from Pappy Rains' old house about the time that World War II was cranking up. She had a little wood stove on which she could work magic, turning out the best biscuits you ever dipped into a plate of pinto beans. But her specialty was tea cakes.

Her daughter, Roberta Rains Redd of Vaucluse, S.C., says she thinks Miss Ethel learned to make tea cakes while she was cooking for a school for the deaf in South Carolina. Some English folks were affiliated with the school, and they had to have something to go with their ritual tea.

Miss Ethel raised four children - Sara, Roberta, Billy and Charles - and we were all one big extended family, aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces being so close in age that we didn't bother with generational distinctions. And our blood relationship was so complicated - Bert is my half-great-aunt - that we gave up trying to explain what kin we were to each other.

Miss Ethel raised her kids in the straits of the time, when my great grandfather was blind and in the throes of what we now call Alzheimer's disease. They lived in a dilapidated little shanty of unpainted weatherboarding, without indoor plumbing or any other amenities except a place to put that magical little stove.

Miss Ethel raised those kids right, instilling in them the kind of pride and good manners you normally find in folks raised in the big house up on the hill. Her little house was rough and crude, but it stayed clean and she stayed cheerful. Her hard life never suppressed her good nature, though Lord knows she had plenty of reason to complain. After Grandpa died, she moved her family up to the mill village, where the kids grew up to appreciate the finer things in life, but never lost their appreciation for hard work and family ties.

Billy and Charles both died before old age crept up on them, and Miss Ethel passed on after living into her 90s. Only Bert and Sara are left to keep the aroma of her tea cakes alive.

So when I called Bert and asked her for the recipe, she promised to see what she could do.

Several weeks and a couple of missed phone calls went by. Then I got a letter from Bert.

``Sara and I came up with what we believe was Mother's recipe,' Bert wrote me. ``We reasoned the things that she would have had on hand. As you know, we did not have an abundance of anything. Mother could take almost nothing and turn it into a delicious meal.'

The ingredients Bert and Sara came up with were one cup of butter (from the cow, not from vegetable oil), three eggs, two cups of white sugar, 3 cups of self-rising flour, two teaspoons of vanilla flavoring and ``one extra cup of flour to knead in while wetting it into a workable dough.'

Bert's instructions:

``Have the butter and eggs at room temperature. Sift the flour into a deep bowl. Make a well in the center. Add the butter, sugar, eggs (slightly beaten) and vanilla.' (There is no milk or other liquid added.)

``With your hands, mix as you would biscuits. Add additional flour to make a soft, workable dough. Turn on a floured board and roll to a thickness of one-fourth to one-eighth of an inch. Cut with a biscuit cutter or cookie cutters. Put on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes, until they're brown around the edges. Remove and place on a wire rack until cool. Store in a cookie jar or tin.'

``These are the best I have ever eaten,' Bert wrote. ``They are good with cold milk, fruit or ice cream. I can still remember coming in from school and finding a big batch.'

Bert tested the recipe ``to make sure it turned out OK. I sent Sara some, and she took some to the nursing home for her sister-in-law. Then all the kids and grandkids enjoyed them. The recipe makes about 40 3-inch cookies.'

It has probably been 50 years since I last tasted Miss Ethel's tea cakes, but the taste buds have long memories, and if this is the real thing, I'll know as soon as I taste them. Bert says the dough gets real sticky and you have to keep washing your hands to keep them supple enough to knead.

The next challenge will be getting Miss Peggy into the kitchen - or getting her to stay out of my way while I go in there. Miss Peggy has been known to complain about my messy culinary habits. But if these cookies are as good as I remember, she'll forgive.

If they're not, Bert will have proved my point: The recipe is in the genes, and is passed on solely through the female offspring.

Gene Owens is the political editor of the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register.

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