Emergency Dessert: Mother’s One Egg Cake

I don’t remember exactly when this photo of my parents was taken, sitting in the swing in the front yard of our house on the farm.  Daddy always wore khaki work clothes to his job at Fort Campbell and also to work around the farm.  Mother thought overalls were low-class, so he never wore them.

Daddy worked hard on the farm, and his job at Fort Campbell in his later years was demanding, too.  I can’t imagine a man in his 50’s unloading frozen sides of beef  and carrying them into the commissary meat locker, but that’s what he did.  Mother felt he needed meat and vegetables every night for dinner, and Daddy felt he needed a dessert as well.

Money was always tight, but we had our own beef and pork, generally one of the yearling calves and one pig that were slaughtered and frozen.  Mother canned and froze vegetables from our garden and apples and pears from various relatives’ trees, and made jams and jellies.  So we always ate well, thanks to her labor (and mine, an unwilling helper!).

The following recipe is the one egg cake she would make when she didn’t have a lot of eggs to spare and not a lot of time.  She generally served it with fruit or ice cream, or made a quick buttercream frosting.  I’ve used  it instead of shortcake with strawberries and whipped cream, or just dusted some powdered sugar on top and called it a day.  It makes a 8″ x 8″ or 9″ x 9″ one-layer cake, just right for four people.

One Egg Cake

2 cups flour

3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

2-4 tablespoons shortening

Cream together shortening, sugar, egg, vanilla, and milk, then add dry ingredients and mix.  Bake in greased 8″ x 8″ or 9″ x 9″ pan in 350 degree oven (325 degrees if using glass baking dish) for 25 – 30 minutes.  It’s done when lightly browned and center bounces back if you touch it lightly.


A Trip to Guatemala

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

I actually took this photo, and I’m not a great photographer.  But that is how beautiful Lake Atitlan is.  In 1993 I was working for Western Union’s international division, and I made a trip to Guatemala to visit our agents there.  I don’t remember their names now, but they were very professional and kind to me (and all men, as was customary at the time).

We had our meetings in Guatemala City, which was like almost every other modern city except for the altitude (4550 feet, almost a mile-high city) and the tendency for the power to go out occasionally.  The agents were very hospitable and took me out to an excellent Italian restaurant known for its seafood for dinner.  They had urged me to plan on staying for the weekend, saying they would “show me around,” so I did.

The next morning I puffed up the stairs to the breakfast room at the hotel, feeling the altitude.  My hosts picked me up and off we went, climbing higher and higher into the mountains.  Then we wound around and down a mountain, passing villages named after saints, and arrived at Panajachel.  Lake Atitlan is surrounded by volcanos, some active and some not.  The lake is extremely deep and very still, except for before sunset, when a wind moves across the water.  It is said to be the spirit of an indigenous girl who was killed by her lover.  This photo was taken on the way down Panajachel.

The village itself was an old hippie hangout and spotted with Europeans in ragged clothes.  I bought a red wool jacket trimmed with black braid and contemplated jewelry.  We had lunch at a cafe and ate salsa the Guatemalan way, scooped up with small, soft flour tortillas.

Then my hosts took me to Antigua Guatemala, an old and well-preserved city with Spanish Baroque architecture and ruined churches from the 1700’s.  I was a happy tourist.  The shadows drifted toward evening.  Suddenly my hosts snapped to attention.  “We have to go,” they said.  “Now.”

I hopped in the car and watched as the old Mercedes picked up speed.  When we hit the highway the car practically took flight.  As darkness fell we sped toward Guatemala City.  I saw groups of people standing by the side of the road with bonfires, more and more of them as we got closer to the city.  “What is that?” I asked, but no one answered me.

We arrived at my hotel and my hosts escorted me in.  “Now I will tell you,” the lead agent said.  “Tonight one of the Mayan exiles is coming back to Guatemala.  There are two school bus loads of Mayans coming with her, and we expect trouble with the police.  So we needed to get off the highway before dark and get you safely to the hotel.”

I’m not sure if the exile was Rigoberta Menchu, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize the year before for her advocacy for the indigenous Mayan people in Guatemala.  But I’ll never forget that clear, limpid lake, or the sight of bonfires along the highway as night fell.

Almost Perfect Fried Chicken

Photo by Niall Kennedy

This recipe comes from my mother’s Sunday School class cookbook, produced about 25 years ago.  It used to make absolutely foolproof, perfect fried chicken.  However, times have changed–and the timing of this recipe needs to change unless you are using a small chicken, what used to be called a “fryer.”  I have discovered that today’s super-sized chickens (I’m talking to you, Frank Perdue, and your son, too) take longer to cook, especially the egregiously oversized breasts.

What follows is the ORIGINAL RECIPE.  If using a larger chicken or pieces, which tend to be thicker, add 2 minutes to each side, and leave the split breasts in for another 5 minutes or more.  Cut into the meat and see if the juices run clear.

So the recipe is not as easy as it used to be.  But it still works, if you use a small freerange-type chicken or adjust the timing.

Sunday School Class Fried Chicken

Clean and cut a whole chicken ready to fry (or buy pieces).  Place in cold water and let set about 3 – 5 minutes.  Pat the pieces dry.  Salt the chicken and roll in flour.  Add a little black pepper if you like.

Meanwhile, heat shortening in a deepish skillet (Crisco is good, or oil, or lard if you’re a purist).  When it’s hot (a drop of water will make the oil sizzle), put the chicken in.  Cook on medium heat 5 minutes with a lid ON the skillet.  Then remove the lid and cook for 4 minutes with the lid OFF.

Turn the chicken pieces and place the top on; cook for 5 minutes.  Then remove top and cook for 4 minutes.  Should be done, crispy but moist inside and not pink.  As noted above, modern breasts and thighs MAY TAKE LONGER!

How Latin Saved My Life

A Vestal Virgin
People sometimes wonder why I was a Latin major in high school and college.  I know it seems a bit wacky, in that I didn’t go to graduate school to become a classics professor, and I didn’t become a Latin teacher (although I was certified to teach).

The initial reason goes way back in my family.  My parents were convinced that all educated persons studied Latin.  This belief was pervasive in the old South.  Indeed, Latin was the foundation of a gentleman’s education in the early days of our country and was the basis of the curriculum in English public schools (what we would call private schools).  So all of my siblings studied Latin in high school, and so did I.

Where I went wrong was that I actually liked it.  I liked the logic, the structure, studying a culture that died long ago but continued to be present in our arts, law, architecture and government.  I also liked that we just translated, so I didn’t have to try to speak it or carry on a conversation.  Embarassment avoided!  And I could stake out my own territory without a lot of competition in the high school–nobody else wanted to be president of the Latin club.

Studying Latin gave me skills and a window on the world that helped me get out of my small town, despite being terrified and far from wealthy.  The Latin club took part in Junior Classical League competitions on the state and national level.  Our teacher, Grady Warren, liked to win, and he taught us techniques for taking standardized tests which helped me ace the ACT, SAT, LSAT, GRE and GMAT.  I edited the Tennessee Junior Classical League magazine–my first writing and editing job.

The best part was getting to go on trips with a busload of my friends to the state and national conventions.  I saw a streaker in Norman, Oklahoma (University of Oklahoma).  I was mistaken for a nun in my vestal virgin costume in Athens, Ohio (Miami University).  I forget where we went in Virginia–maybe Virginia Tech?  My friend Sallie entered the costume contest one year dressed as a fly; she was Bryzie, the fly that stung poor Io after she was turned into a cow by Hera and was swimming across the Bosporus to escape Zeus.

My senior year I scored enough points on the tests to be the fifth ranking state in the country.  Due to my grades and PSAT scores I got a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Tennessee and my junior year I received a scholarship from the American Classical League (the grown-up organization).  After student teaching, I knew teaching was not for me!  But I had a respectable undergraduate degree and was able eventually to go on to graduate school.

So Latin helped me get a college education which my parents could not afford to give me.  It taught me I could be away from home and actually have fun.  And at UT I finally learned to read it out loud and hear the beauty of the poetry.  Not bad for a dead language!


Fish Recipe: It’s Not All Southern-Fried

Farmed Catfish, photo by USDA
The fish dinners I grew up with were all fried, sometimes deep-fried filets of bass and sunfish (yum!) and sometimes pan-fried, cornmeal-crusted chunks of catfish, both caught in the Cumberland River by an uncle or a cousin.  Mother always had to hide her chagrin when my cousin showed up with a huge river catfish.  Yes, it was free meat, but catfish are bottom feeders, so a Cumberland River catfish tasted strongly of diesel fuel.

Nowadays I only get fried catfish when I go back to Tennessee to visit.  It’s farm-raised, so the taste is light and fresh.  I learned to love fish over the years prepared a lot of different ways.  Recently I experimented with some fish filets.  The end result was very easy and very good, two of my criteria for cooking.  Here’s the result.

Salsa Verde Fish Filets

1 1/2 lbs. halibut, cod, catfish or other white fish filets

1/4 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup salsa verde or tomatillo sauce (i.e., green salsa)

1/2 cup sliced black olives

3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Fresh ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray 13″ x 9″ baking dish with vegetable oil or grease with 2 tablespoons olive oil.  Place fish filets in a single layer in the dish.  Sprinkle with salt and top with salsa verde.

Bake uncovered 20 -30 minutes or more until fish is done (flakes easily with a fork).  Garnish with olives and cilantro.

Makes 4 servings.

This is good with rice to soak up the sauce!

Why I Like Cats

Nemo, my current cat

I grew up with pets, mostly dogs but a few cats.  However, none of my animals were allowed to stay in the house, except for brief periods when it was snowing or during a thunderstorm if the dog was frightened.  Mother felt strongly that animals in the house were dirty and unsanitary.

I don’t know if this came from her childhood or her mother, Mama, who had a reputation as a strict taskmaster.  I do know that Papa, Mother’s father, had well-loved coonhounds–but of course hunting dogs never came in the house.  So none of my pets were house pets.  When I was in high school, my dog, Dusty, and my cat, Tom, waged a concerted campaign to come in, but to no avail.  So Dusty dug a hole under my bedroom window to sleep in, and Tom slept on the windowsill.  No doubt they wanted to sleep on my bed.

I never had an indoor cat until I moved to Atlanta.  I walked through an ASPCA adoption event at Cumberland Mall to look at the puppies, knowing I wouldn’t take one to live in my apartment.  A group of kids were clustered around one cage, holding their hands to the wire mesh.  I went over to look.  A thin brindled calico cat was rubbing her face against their hands.  She went home with me and was my closest friend for 16 years.  She slept curled up in the curve of my stomach every night and moved to New York with me, sleeping on the front seat of the car through the whole long drive.

I’ve had other cats since then, calicos, tabbies, black cats.  Each one had a different personality, playful, grumpy, affectionate, noisy, bossy.  But every one had a distinct point of view and was sure its opinion was as important as mine.  That’s why I like cats.  They are not eager to please, and they preserve their independence.  When a cat loves you, it means something.

The Bowers Girls

Marvel, Mother, me, Sherrie, Juanita, Glenda, niece Judy, baby Weston

All children have a fantasy that they don’t belong to their family of birth.  I actually was a Cherokee princess, kidnapped from my tribe, or sometimes the sad orphan of a rich, privileged family that was tragically wiped out by war or disease.  Maybe it’s a function of reading The Secret Garden or A Little Princess, or any of myriad children’s books that glamorize the feeling of strangeness or not-belonging so many of us have.  Eight Cousins was another, in which the little orphan girl is taken in by a bachelor uncle and discovers she has eight boy cousins, all of whom come to adore her, of course.

My fantasy was compounded by not actually looking much like my sisters and brother.  My eyes are a weird light hazel, and my hair had auburn tinges in it.  However, if you took my parents’ faces and gave me the top of Mother’s, and Daddy’s from the cheekbones down, you got my face.  Apparently my coloring came from my grandfather, and my lack of height from both grandmothers.  Amazing how you can mix and match the genetic pieces!

I never thought there was much resemblance among us sisters or cousins until I looked at this photo, years after it was taken at my nephew’s wedding.  At first glance, we don’t look alike.  We’re tall, short, square, willowy, young, older.  My cousin Marvel particularly does not resemble the rest of the family.  Then I noticed our legs.  We all have calves and ankles that are shaped the same.  So it’s from Mother’s side of the family–Bowers legs.

Mother would say they are bad legs, because some of us tend to painful knees and arthritis.  But I think that curve of calf to ankle is kind of nice.  Now I have to hunt for photos of the younger generations and see if the shape has been passed on.  I hope that piece of the genetic code has legs!

The Bull That Sat Up

Photo by Fir0002
Daddy raised a few beef cows on our small farm in Tennessee, never more than 20 or so.  He sold the calves to feed lots when they were several months old, and kept a few to sell as yearlings for beef.  The cows were all Herefords, but the bull was an Aberdeen Angus, always a short, black, thick, shiny bull with no horns and a prodigious amount of muscle (i.e., nicely marbled beef).

Daddy named his bull after whomever he bought it from.  The first one I remember was Charlie, after Uncle Charlie, Aunt Maud’s husband.  Charlie was a beautiful bull and did his job well, producing pretty hybrid calves, but he liked to eat.  He got so fat that Daddy was afraid he would fall and break a leg, which would be the end of him, so he sold him.

I was in college when Daddy sold him and bought Little Charlie, also from Uncle Charlie.  Little Charlie also was efficient with his herd, but he had a couple of quirks.  He insisted that Daddy greet him and pet him whenever he came to the stable to be fed.  If Daddy pretended to ignore him, Little Charlie would push Daddy with his head and nearly knock him over until he got attention.

The other quirk involved the way he got up and down from lying in the field.  Have you ever seen a cow get up?  Normally, a cow lies on its chest and stomach with its legs tucked under.  When it rises, the back end comes up first, and the front end follows.  Little Charlie got up like a dog–front end first.  And sometimes he would pause in transit and sit like a dog for a few minutes as well.

Daddy told me about this on the phone.  I refused to believe him.  “It’s the truth, baby doll,” he said.  “You wait, he’ll do it when you come home next time.”

When I came home, I still thought Daddy was joking, but I took my old Instamatic with me out to the field where the cows were lying on their chests, chewing their cud.  Daddy called, “Come here, babies.  Come here, Little Charlie.”

Little Charlie raised his front, legs straight.  He sat for a few moments contemplating Daddy, then finished rising to his feet and walked over to nudge Daddy with his nose.  I snapped pictures as fast as the Instamatic would go.

Somewhere in the boxes and boxes of old photos in my basement there’s a picture of a stocky black bull sitting like a dog in a green field.

The Yellow Car

I never intended to have a yellow car.  I never considered this, or thought of it as something I wanted.  The brightest color I ever had was Toyota’s “medium red pearl,” which I felt was pretty racy.

Then I went car shopping in 2007.  Due to the occasional snow up here, I was looking for a four-wheel-drive, small SUV that handled well and wasn’t too expensive.  So I test-drove some Jeep models, which handled like golf carts on a rainy course.  The Toyota was too expensive for me, and the Pontiac seemed cheap and clunky.  Suburus were nerdy and didn’t hold the road well.

I went to a Hyundai dealership after work, on a whim, to look at the Santa Fe.  The salesmen were busy, so I walked around the Santa Fe models–bigger than I expected–and mused about whether this was really me.   A flash of yellow caught my eye.  There on the showroom floor was a yellow 2006 Hyundai Tiburon.  Tiny, cheeky, with Michelin tires and a six-cylinder engine, it was a toy sports car.  And it was marked way down.

What could it hurt to test drive it?  Ha.  I was a goner.  I drove a hard bargain and took it home that night, kissing goodbye my dear old Toyota.

Since then I’ve learned that having a yellow car makes you vulnerable to shameless remarks–“is that a taxi?”–and makes it impossible to fade into the crowd.  The dry cleaner guy knows my car.  The neighborhood kids know my car.  When I first got it, my colleagues wanted to drive it around the corporate parking lot.

It’s not fun to drive in snow, and it has to be dug out when there is more than two inches on the ground.  I dented it on a rock in a driveway in the Adirondacks, and I’ve scraped it innumerable times on concrete bumpers and sidewalks.  The gas mileage is not that great with such a big engine in a small body.  And I can’t be anonymous when I’m driving it.

But, you know what?  It’s fun.  It makes me smile.  Having a Hyundai as my middle-age-crazy car is a little embarrassing.  But if that’s the worst thing I do, it’s not so bad.

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