Biographical Non-Fiction posted February 19, 2017

This work has reached the exceptional level
Nothing says lovin' like something from the oven.


by Sis Cat

Uncle Lee possessed a sweet tooth. Every time I visited his home in San Francisco, he nibbled some confection, be it a bag of M&M’s or a box of cookies. I arched my eyebrows and stared at the man in his eighties devouring desserts with the relish of a boy of eight. Does he have any of his teeth left? He ate as if the treats would keep his bladder cancer in remission. He ate as if these candies and cookies would be the last sweet things he ate on earth.

One day after work, I decided to surprise Uncle Lee with teacakes. I had read in my mother’s memoir that their mother had baked them for Easter lunch at a church in Texas. Their mother also sent Mom out to the fields carrying Papa Sam’s dinner in a flour sack. “When Mama wanted to surprise us,” Mom wrote, “she put in teacakes and fried chicken.” I asked Uncle Lee, “Did you ever eat teacakes?”

His eyes glistened, and his lips smacked. “My grandmother used to bake those.”

I wanted to see that look on my uncle’s face again. I neither knew what teacakes were nor had the time to bake them. Before I drove across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, I stopped by a cupcake bakery in Emeryville and asked the baker behind the counter, “Do you have teacakes?”

The aproned woman gawked at me as if I had walked out of the nineteenth century. “We don’t sell teacakes here.”

My mind screamed You don’t sell teacakes? You’re a baker. You’re supposed to bake everything.

As if she heard my thoughts, she proposed, “If you put in an order, I can bake some teacakes for you, but it’ll take a day. You could pick them up tomorrow.”  

I pressed my nose to the counter display and scanned the pastries. “I don’t have time because I’m going to visit my uncle now. What’s the closest thing you have to a teacake?

The woman left the cash register and directed me to tiered pastry display. “We have Russian teacakes, but these are round and powdered with sugar. Traditional teacakes are flat and plain.”

I squinted, still not comprehending what a teacake was. I imagined broad-hatted ladies nibbling teacakes with gloved fingers during afternoon tea.

“I’ll buy a half-dozen,” I said, thinking, Uncle Lee won’t know the difference. Surely, Russian teacakes must be identical to the teacakes he ate on a sharecropper’s farm eighty years ago.

She filled my bag which I grabbed. As I walked to my car, I Googled “teacakes” on my cell phone. I read without understanding. It is a cookie, cake, or cupcake?

When I arrived at Uncle Lee’s, I handed him the bag, “I brought you some teacakes.”

He removed one and eyed it suspiciously. “These aren’t teacakes.”

My shoulders slumped. “What?”

He bit into the ball-shaped cookie. Crumbs and powdered sugar flew all over his shirt. He gummed his lips to keep the disintegrating pastry in his mouth. “It’s good, but it’s not a teacake. A teacake is a plain butter-sugar cookie. You put nothing on it.”
“How about nuts?”
“No nuts.”
“How about frosting?”
“No frosting.”
I grew up in a generation where a cookie was not a cookie unless you dumped frosting, chocolate, nuts, or sprinkles on or in it. My eyes fluttered. “You mean, it’s plain?”
“Yes, you put nothing on it.”
I fumed at the baker for selling me fake teacakes. I grimaced at myself for not taking the time to find out what teacakes were. “Next time, Uncle Lee, I’ll bake you some teacakes.”
“That would be good.”
How did my generation lose knowledge of teacakes? I looked back on my family history for the past half century. Both of my grandmothers baked from scratch. These women of the Depression era scarcity and World War II sugar rationing employed ingenuity to bake in volume for family and church gatherings. I still have my grandmother’s handwritten chocolate chip cookie recipe in which she doubled and doubled the ingredients for church bake sales. She crossed out four eggs and wrote sixteen. I gasped at the volume but savored the Christmas and Easter memories of peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, and chocolate chip cookies.
The next generation, my mother’s, knew the baking arts inherited from their mothers, but lacked time to bake. Mom did not cook in the kitchen all day but worked outside the home. When I grew up during the Post-War boom of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, packaged cookies lined store shelves, offering convenience. For those time-strapped working mothers who wanted to maintain the fiction of baking for their children, stores sold tubes of premixed slice-and-bake cookie dough. I recall time-lapsed photos in commercials as dollops of dough rose and expanded into golden brown cookies inside lit ovens. I also remember us kids pestering Mom to buy readymade cookie doughs and mixes advertised on TV. Slowly my mother stopped baking cookies. Pies and cakes held on longer, but the cookie did not seem worth the trouble.
In my generation, we seldom bake. I have attended potlucks where plastic and cardboard containers of store-bought cookies, COSTCO cakes, bakery bread, and pizzeria pizzas grace the tables. The donors apologized, “I didn’t have the time, so I picked something up.”
Before Mom died, she gave me her pie rolling pin. Carved from a single piece of wood, the cone-shaped roller featured dents on its surface. Mom had boasted over the phone as I hefted the gift, “I used to crack nuts with it when we lived in Val Verde.”
Yes, I recall Mom used it more as a nut cracker than as a pie and cookie dough roller.
I thanked her for the gift. Since I did not intend to bake, I hung the rolling pin on my kitchen wall to commemorate the dying baking arts. There it remained to gather dust.
Months passed without me fulfilling my promise to bake Uncle Lee teacakes. I lacked the time.
One day, the strings supporting the rolling pin snapped. Barely missing my partner’s head, two pounds of wood clattered onto the kitchen counter. As I grabbed the rolling pin to stow it away in a drawer, I paused. I felt something—not the smoothness of the handle or the dents on the roller, but a connection to my mother, to her mother, and to the mothers and fathers before them who baked. Maybe I can roll dough with their rolling pin instead of decorating my kitchen with it.
Since I lacked my grandmother’s teacake recipe, I searched online and found a recipe for Grandma’s Old Fashioned Tea Cakes. If I was going to serve Uncle Lee teacakes, I needed to test a recipe I hoped approximated the teacakes he ate eighty years ago. I mixed butter, sugar, eggs, flour, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and vanilla extract. My floured hands danced as I rolled my mother’s rolling pin across dough for the first time in forty years. The wood sang, “Finally, someone is using me as a rolling pin and not as a nut cracker or tchotchke!”
I pressed a two-inch cookie cutter into the rolled dough and placed the disks on a cookie sheet I shoved into the oven for eight minutes. When I removed them from the oven, I did not know if the pale yellow disks were baked, but I followed directions by letting them cool in the pan for five minutes before placing them on a wire rack.
Wearing a floured apron, I stared at my first dozen cookies, not knowing what I had baked. I bit into one. I tasted a plain cookie born from poor people who lack grocery stores, refrigeration, and expensive ingredients. My tongue savored subtle flavors of butter and vanilla amid bursts of sugar. I understood now how the teacake fell from use. It reminds people of poverty—of only having a couple of eggs from your chickens, butter you churned yourself, a cup of sugar you borrowed from a neighbor, and flour you may have ground yourself. Our cookie culture today screams decadence and plenty. The teacake is the unleavened bread of the poor. I distinctly recall avoiding these cookies because they reminded me of my poverty. Mom stopped baking them.
When I brought the teacakes to a storytelling show, the elders chewed slowly. Their eyes rolled to the back of their heads. “Mmm, my grandmother used to bake these.”
I smiled, and my chest expanded. The ultimate cookie tester—Uncle Lee—lay ahead. Months passed, and I did not bake and bring him teacakes.
One day, my cousin, Andrea, the daughter of Uncle Lee, texted, “Lee’s bladder cancer has returned. It spread through his bladder wall. The doctor’s decided not to operate because he’s so old he wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
I thought of my promise to Uncle Lee to bake him teacakes. Within days I mobilized. I got busy in the kitchen. I rolled Mama’s rolling pin and worked my oven until midnight. Teacakes cooled on wire racks crowding my kitchen counters.
After church on Sunday—the traditional time for visiting relatives—I arrived at Uncle Lee’s with family, friends, and three Tupperware containers of teacakes. When I saw the man confined to his bed and prematurely buried beneath blankets in a room three shades lighter than a tomb, I thought, Andre, you’re too late. Your uncle will never eat teacakes again.
I forced a smile to hide my regret over not baking the cookies sooner. We spent the time reviewing old family photos as people, still in church clothes, visited and said, “You get well, old man,” well knowing that Lee will never leave that bed again. Bloody urine dripped into a leg bag hung from his bedside.
When we were alone, I asked, “Uncle Lee, I baked you some teacakes. You want one?”
He stirred. “Yes.”
I put aside the family photo album and grabbed the container of teacakes. I put one into his arthritic hand which raised to his parched lips. He chewed.
Holding my breath, I awaited the verdict.
Unlike the Russian teacakes which crumbled when he bit into them, my down-home teacake held its form with only a few crumbs dropped on his bedspread. Bite after bite, my teacake disappeared into his mouth. Butter and sugar dusted his fingers.
“How is it?” I dared ask.
He licked the crumbs from his lips and moaned. “Mmm, these are very good."
My heart soared.
I had hoped my teacake would cure my uncle’s cancer, but it did not. I gave him something else—a memory from childhood. When I took the time to bake teacakes from scratch, I took the time to love him in a way he recognized. I left him with a whole quart container of teacakes for his passage home.
When Uncle Lee dies, people will gather for a repast after his funeral. Some may bring bakery-baked pies. Others may bring store-bought cookies. I will bake and bring teacakes. I’m unprepared to boast, “These were my uncle’s favorites,” because of the heritage of bakers in my family: my mother, Jessie Lee; her mother, Ora Alford; and our mothers of mothers for generations. I take solace in knowing that while priests may offer wafers during last rites, I offered my uncle teacakes. These cookies were among his earliest memories and will be among his last.
Moses has his staff. Merlin has his wand. I have Mama’s rolling pin. I work my own miracles and wizardry with butter and sugar. I only know one baking recipe so far, but the teacake is the one recipe for me to know. It ties me to my ancestors and family stories stretching back one hundred and twenty-five years to when my Great Uncle Oscar stole teacakes cooling on the windowsill of a sharecropper’s shack in East Texas and my Great Grandma Dolly whipped him bloody until he ran away from home. We haven’t heard from him since, but the story of his teacake theft remains.
When I die, please don’t bring store-bought cookies to my funeral repast, or I’ll haunt you. Bake cookies from scratch yourself.


Share Your Story contest entry


I thank my mother Jessie Lee Dawson whose memoir "Yeller Gal" contained family teacake stories stretching back to 1890. I do not know the family's exact recipe other than the Grandma's Old Fashioned Teacakes recipe I found online. Rather than post it here, try to revive the foods and flavors of your own family heritage.

Picture and teacakes with one missing by the author.

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