It was one of those evenings in the hours after twilight- a cloud covered waning full moon when crickets sang and lightning bugs fly closer to the ground…the perfect night to scan through a few cookbooks I had found in a claustrophobic flea market stall. Two cookbooks, instinctively I knew I would know and love- another was a mystery to me. Why I would even be drawn to put one dime down for it- yellowed but not worn- the front cover had faded just enough to make the stuffed apples look seriously unappetizing…but that old familiar streak of electricity zinged up my left ankle and my right eyebrow twitched as I held the cookbook. A Church Cookbook Mystery! Here’s the confession- I read old local cookbooks like novels– I read the names of people, places and foods; before I know it- I have made up a story about a Cook or two within the pages… This time was a little different; it is a Birmingham area United Methodist Church Cookbook, published over 40 years ago in 1975. The cookbook shall remain mysterious and as nameless as Mrs. Fleck’s Nameless Cake on page 108. I knew no one from the cookbook- but let’s just say I developed a fond affection for the Cooks, the Church but not all of the recipes. I mean really, do I want to cook Slumgullion? I don’t think so! But yes, oh my yes- I would love those ‘Cracklin’ Corn Pones’… I found myself wondering why they compiled this cookbook, it gave off a desperate vibration to me. Was it to raise funds for a playground, new pews or to finish the church basement into a soup kitchen/homeless shelter/secure meeting rooms- an all purpose expansion? What? and why? and more important Who were these ladies? There was an appreciation page, a cover page with information on Circle Meeting times and General Assembly times, but no Mission Statement page. It was almost too sparse in titles and ingredients for a regular cookbook. It seemed like a Church in a Struggle.
The recipes are mostly forthright with plain names like – Pound Cake, Meatloaf, Pecan Pie, Squash Casserole, Coleslaw- with a rare flowered up exuberant name here and there. I had the feeling that these ladies spent so much time working, cooking and washing dishes there wasn’t much time for frills. I found recipes for
- Corn Dogs for 200 servings
- At least five Armed Forces Service Recipes for 100,
- Spaghetti Italian Style that fed 150
- Chili Con Carne from Lodge 808 for 75 servings
What puzzled me was that there was a mixture of fine food, old time basics, budget or quick recipes and surprisingly recipes for Bath Salts, Modelling Clay, Bubble Bath and Finger Paints, no doubt for the children’s activities . The names of the ladies were either Mrs. or Mae- I began to feel like the Mrs’s were the Church Mothers- the girlish names were still a puzzle to me. And there was a definite sense of Church Humor goin’ on… I imagined the meeting for the gathering of the recipes- a Church Mother presided- wore sensible block heel shoes, a dark fitted serge suit with short pressed sleeves and a modest skirt just below the knees, a bit of a ruffle blouse at the neck and peeking out of the sleeves to disguise the landslide of flesh on her aging neck, knees and elbows. As she took the podium she thanked the ladies for their submissions, reminded them of the need to include Recipes to promote Faith and Bible Study, in fact she would bring her own Version for their Edification! She meant business too, but then I’m getting ahead of myself. So, recipes were added-
- Angel Food Cake,
- Heavenly Hash,
- Trinity Biscuits,
- Christening Day Seafood Casserole (always some sort of seafood – what with the water and all),
- Lemon Divinity Pie,
- Baptist Pound Cake,
- Presbyterian Punch,
- 300 Degree Church Casserole (*Put in before Sunday School, ready after church, not the temperature of the Devil’s Doorknob!),
- Divinity Candy,
- Grand and Glorious Punch
- In fear and trembling- a few submitted Devil’s Food Cake or My Mother’s Devil Food Cake (whose gonna disqualify yo’ momma’s cake?)
Now, whoever submitted Witch Stix might have held her hand up as if to testify on a stack of Bibles, her recipe was for the children! She must have been persuasive! The Church Mother truly did mean business- she included a Scripture Cake. Now, I’ve seen these recipes before in Church cookbooks but always the church ladies are kind enough to translate- Not this tough bird!
- 1 1/2 c. Judges 5:25
- 2 cups Jeremiah 6:20
- 1 1/2 c. 1 Kings 4:22
- 2 cups I Samuel 30:12
- 2 cups Nahum 3:12
- Season to taste with II Chronicles 9:9
- 1 cup Numbers 17:9
- 1/2 tsp. I Samuel 14:25
- 2 tsp. Amos 4:5
- 6 Whole Jeremiah 17:11
- Pinch of Leviticus 2:12
*Beat Judges 5:25 until creamy; gradually add Jeremiah 6:20 beating well. Add Jeremiah 17:11, one at a time. Mix together I Kings 4:22, Amos 4:5, Leviticus 2:13 and II Chronicles 9:9 ; reserve small amount; gradually add balance to Judges 5:25 mixture. Add Judges 4:19 and I Samuel 14:25. Mix I Samuel 30:12, Nahum 3:12 and Numbers 17:8 and coat with reserved portion of I Kings 4:22 mixture; then add to batter, mixing well. Bake 45 minutes at 325 degrees. Leave cake in the pan until it cools. To store, wrap tightly in foil.
And no, I haven’t baked it! I think I’ve figured it out though…as we say- ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’ I did a little research on the church- it is over 100 years old! A member of the congregation died in 2016 at age 94. She never married or had children but there were scores of family members, one of which contributed to the church cookbook. Her name was Mary Elizabeth. She attended Birmingham Southern- a Methodist University in Birmingham, not very far from her neighborhood church. She may not have attended at an early age. After a career working for the U.S. Army, she retired from Alabama Department of Revenue. Mary Elizabeth would have been in her early 40’s during the Civil Rights Movement, yet may not have even lived in Alabama at the time. It seems her forbears pulled themselves up by hard work and Mary Elizabeth’s surviving relatives became well educated and successful. I have a strong suspicion that this UMC Church was a mixture of folks who were:
- Service workers,
- Domestic Help or Cooks-
- Some may have been Educators,
- Small Business owners or
- Laborers in the Iron Works or Steel Mills in Birmingham.
Some of the recipes indicate a level of poverty for their membership. Maybe Mary Elizabeth attended college on the GI bill. Her age tells us that she lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War and the Viet Nam era, the Space Program, certainly the tragedy of 911 and maybe, just maybe those Armed Forces Services Recipes were sent in by this amazing lady, Mary Elizabeth. Her dying request: ‘in lieu of flowers make a donation to my church…’
All Cookbooks have a story to tell… this church faltered shortly after the cookbook was written, perhaps the congregation was struggling to keep it going… however, in a few years they re-opened their doors and continues to thrive! I’m not sure this whole cookbook will remain in my collection but there are several recipes that I wouldn’t give up for the world! And to:
- Mae, Erline, Lois, Jessie,
- Vivian, Rosalie, Dora, Estelle,
- Gaynelle, Ruth, Winifred, Cassie,
- Anne, Ottalie, LaFaree, Ora, Willie Mae,
- Beulah, Bennie, Maybelle, Thelma,
- Vista, Cadie and all the Church Mothers… Bless your hearts, I thank you, your hard work lives on…
The Church Cookbook Mystery was just the right thing to do on a summer evening in the hours after twilight…with a waning full moon covered with clouds as crickets sang and the lightening bugs flew closer to the ground…Now, you know I made up the story about the Church Mother, but it could have happened just that way!
Love y’all, Camellia
p.s. The Mystery of the Scripture Cake is solved …what else? A Fruitcake!