This Saturday, after four years of sharing the message that pie is a perfect food tradition for Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in other people’s churches, I get to celebrate with a Peace Through Pie social and my home congregation. I am thrilled that Round Rock has joined more than two dozen local organizations and schools in Central Texas, and a growing list of PTP hosts nationwide, but it is going to be a very full day.
It all starts with the Women and Food Symposium at the University of Texas – Austin’s Food Lab, where I am on program with several noted women, including award-winning writer and author Laura Shapiro and New York Times writer Kim Severson. Then, I will introduce Peace Through Pie, which is re-kindling the pie social to spark social change, to marchers in the 27th Annual MLK walk and program in Round Rock, Texas. (The march begins at 1:30 at C D Fulkes Middle School and ends at the Allen R. Baca Senior Center.)
The celebration at Faith4Life Church wraps up my evening with music, a pie baking contest, and a recitation to honor the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Pastor Evan Black and his wife Minister Priscilla invited the congregation and neighbors to come together to share sweet and savory world pies to honor Dr. King’s message of unity and “beloved community,” because Pastor Black says, “Community and diversity are my passions.”
Pastor Black was immediately drawn to the idea of mixing food, fellowship and fence-mending. The husband and father of two bi-racial sons grew up in Atlanta in a family dedicated to equality, diversity, and racial reconciliation. Although his grandfather once refused to allow his mother to attend integrated schools, she stood up for her beliefs, joined the Direct Action campaign, and marched with Dr. King, making diversity “important to me,” Pastor Black explains.
“I really want this to be an event that is open to the community. We are a church, but we want to work with, embrace, and help the community. We want to be part in any way we can. Heaven is not going to be all white or all African American or all Hispanic. It’s going to be a mixed; that’s the way the congregation should be.”
With all of this — plus tastebuds that are still sticky from the sweetness of traditional holiday pies like pumpkin, sweet potato and pecan — I needed a simple pie recipe that would go together fast, but taste deliciously different. I turned to “the ladies” of The Jemima Code, of course, and settled on a book that seemed particularly appropriate for the occasion: Colorful Louisiana Cooking in Black and White.
In a hilarious take the authors, Ethel Dixon and Bibby Tate, attempt to resolve for modern audiences the persistent confusion between southern and soul food by putting the letter “W” next to the recipe title for dishes cooked the way white folks do it and a “B” to show how we roll. Interestingly, some clear distinctions were noticeable, such as the addition of water in the “white” version of a recipe and milk on the “black” ingredients list. This book was a joy to read, but I like my friend and cookbook author Nancie McDermott’s solution better.
She ignored it.
Each little narrative in her cookbook, Southern Pies, shares folklore or teaches pie-making techniques. Nancie also attributes the recipes to their source, many of whom are Jemima Code authors, including Minnie C. Fox and her Blue Grass Cook Book, which I brought back to life in 2005. Nancie’s work does not depend upon labels. She offers no categories or stereotypes. The habit of marginalizing the contributions of African Americans simply does not exist here. This is a great collection of diverse recipes that span the southern pie pantheon giving credit where credit is due — without racial borders.
Butterscotch Pie, for example can be traced to the earliest cookbooks by both African American and white cookbook writers, sometimes called Caramel Pie or Brown Sugar Pie. In her 1948 cookbook, A Date With A Dish, Freda DeKnight cooks brown sugar, butter, and eggs with milk and a bit of flour before baking for a light and moderately sweet dessert with a hint of butterscotch flavor. Patty Pinner updates the formula in Sweetie Pies: An Uncommon Collection of Womanish Observations, with Pie, offering two versions. One follows DeKnight’s lead, making butterscotch from scratch. The other one cuts preparation time and effort by eliminating the milk, stirring the ingredients together, then finishing the pie in the oven, taking its carmel notes from butterscotch chips.
With so many choices, I’m still uncertain which one I will share this weekend to honor the birthday of Dr. King. What kind of pie will you bake?
Faith4Life church is located at 1000 McNeil Rd. Round Rock, Texas, 78681. For a complete listing of Peace Through Pie socials visit: peacethroughpie.org
In Her Kitchen
Patty Walker’s Easy Nut and Chips Pie
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
- 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1/2 cup butterscotch chips
- One (9-inch) unbaked pie crust
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and vanilla in a large bowl and beat until blended well with an electric mixer. Stir in the pecans, chocolate chips, and butterscotch chips. Pour the filling into the pie crust. Place in the oven and bake until the crust turns golden, about 40 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack before serving. You can dress up each slice with a spoonful of vanilla ice cream or fresh whipped cream.
Recipe from Patty Pinner’s Sweetie Pies: An Uncommon Collection of Womanish Observations, with Pie.
In Her Kitchen
Ask the children in my Garden to Table cooking and nutrition class why we gather together daily after school, while elsewhere in the city other kids are at home watching T.V. and hanging out with friends, and these ebullient third through fifth graders will shout with confident pride: “To get healthy, not skinny!”
For about a year, as part of the WellNest at the University of Texas Elementary School, 20 students have grown and maintained organic vegetable gardens, played games that were as much fun as MarioKart, learned about the MyPyramid groups and figured out how to read food labels. They also took away a few intangible values that should help them lead healthy, productive lives defined by good character and common sense — all while cooking their own snacks from whole grains, fruits and veggies. They just didn’t know it.
So when children’s cooking instructor and cookbook author Michelle Stern and I met at the White House last summer (we were among the chefs invited to join the First Lady’s launch of Chefs Move to Schools), and she invited Garden to Table to be part of a workshop she was planning, I jumped at the chance for these kids to show off their culinary smarts and mastery of some very basic life skills. Months later, when Bill Yosses, the White House Executive Pastry Chef agreed to join the event, my meeting Michelle seemed more than serendipitous — it was Heaven sent.
Garden to Table teaches this eager bunch that there are no good or bad foods and that balance and moderation are lifetime goals they should strive to achieve. I confess to them that I too was a fat kid with an insatiable sweet tooth. I didn’t exercise very much at all. And, yet today, I live a mostly healthy life, jogging or swimming daily, passing up foods that don’t really matter that much to me, and saving my calories for goodies that I really love — like Champagne and chocolate. We also learn to respect one another while practicing table etiquette.
The prospect of introducing them to the man whose baking talents make the President of the United States just as nervous about diet as they are was, well, delicious.
Last Spring, David Axelrod, Obama’s senior advisor, told Jay Leno that the President was forced to “separate” from the White House pastry chef to break his bad eating habits. The President’s “pie problem” story was reported in the Huffington Post.
“One of the things that happened when he came to the White House is they have a very great pastry chef. It became a big problem,” Axelrod confided on “The Tonight Show.”
President Obama isn’t the first president to be taunted by the cook’s pie. During his years in the Arkansas Governor’s mansion, President Clinton felt just the same — allured by chess pie. It was made by a woman whose image hangs in the Jemima Code’s gallery of great cooks, Liza Ashley, author of Thirty Years at the Mansion.
Growing up, Ashley developed a passion for cooking while she followed her grandmother around at work on Oldham Plantation where she was born. As she matured, habits of self-control, courtesy, confidence and time management blossomed. She even led a food service team that at one point relied on inmates to get the kitchen work done.
“Ashley is an historic figure,” wrote Bill, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton, in the Introduction to the Clinton White House edition of this Classic Cookbook of Recipes, Recollections, and Photographs from the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. “For three decades she has caused governors and their families to fight and lose battles of the bulge. Her years of service…have left their mark on history.”
Anyone who accepts the First Lady’s challenge knows that teaching kids cooking and nutrition can be rewarding and fun. It can also be a lot of work. There are bureaucracies to navigate. School budgets are limited. And, sometimes, the kids would just rather go home and play.
If Ashley could be with us on June 1 at the Kids in the Kitchen workshop, at a gathering of chefs (including Chef Bill) at the Texas State Capital, and at a fundraising Pie Social hosted by SANDE on June 4 that will honor women like Ashley, she would do more than esteem our dedication to improved lives; she would model it.
For information about Chefs Move to Schools at the Texas State Capitol, or the Kids in the Kitchen cooking workshop at the University of Texas Elementary School and Whole Foods Market, check out the Conference highlights at iacp.com.
To learn about The SANDE Youth Project’s preservation project and Peace through Pie, our fundraising social and Juneteenth celebration, see the events listing at: thesandeyouthproject.org.
In Her Kitchen
Bill Clinton’s Favorite Lemon Chess Pie
1/2 cup butter or margarine
2 cups sugar
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
Grated zest of 3 lemons
1 (9-inch) unbaked pie shell
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and milk. Beat well. With mixer running, add flour and cornmeal, alternating with lemon juice. Beat in lemon zest. Pour filling into pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes, or until center is set.
Number of servings: 8
Betty Simmons sits leisurely on the back porch at 2515 Holman, in Houston’s historic Third Ward with a big, round metal pot in her lap and a curtain of voluptuous hydrangeas as her backdrop. She has a small knife in one hand, peeling what appears to be potatoes. Her white hair is brushed back away from her face, revealing a surprisingly supple and healthy look for a woman of nearly 100. The chain link of a porch swing is barely visible beyond the ornate railing.
Betty is one of five Jemima Code women who are on exhibition through June 19, at Project Row Houses, Round 34 Matter of Food. My artist friend and Peace Through Pie partner Luanne Stovall and I are co-curators of Hearth House, a traveling installation where Betty and the cooks of the Blue Grass Cook Book (the Turbaned Mistress, Aunt Frances, Aunt Maria and Aunt Dinah) are capturing the hearts of visitors just about as much as they enchant us.
Some years ago, as I fretted on a Southern Foodways Alliance excursion over the loss of these women, my friend and mentor John Egerton asked me whether they were haunting me. I shared his silly question with some artsy friends who were having their own unique, spiritual responses to the women. Before we knew it, the idea for the Project Row Houses exhibit materialized.
That phenomenal creative team (Ellen Hunt, Meeta Morrison, Luanne and I) digitized and enlarged the women’s images onto seven-foot-tall, transparent screen-like fabric that is suspended from the ceiling in one of seven shotgun-style houses at PRH.
Of course, we all knew that in order to break the code, the space had to be beautiful, so the walls were painted in warm colors that bring thoughts of sweet potatoes, sorghum and sunflowers to mind. The text is minimal — drawn from the inspirational words of Mary McLeod Bethune and from the women themselves. And, a fourth wall, painted in chalkboard paint, provides a space for the community to share kitchen memories and pie stories (which we erase periodically to symbolize the way the women were erased from history). A rough-hewn long table invites guests to linger and to leave their kitchen tales on recipe cards that will become part of our permanent archive.
When the banners were first unrolled, I actually lost my footing and crumbled onto the floor. And cried. I’d spent so many years waiting for these women to finally be honored. To top it off, on our final day of installation, my mother noticed that as I stood on the back porch of the house just beyond the screen of my favorite, the Turbaned Mistress, my silhouette was eerily superimposed into the screen like the shadow of a child, ready for tutelage at her side. Thank goodness she had the sense to photograph the moment. Obviously, the mystery of the women is very personal. And, it is palpable.
Since Opening Day, people visiting the exhibit have written to confess their experiences, too. They tell me how Aunt Frances looks over them in different ways depending upon the sunlight, or when the hot, humid breeze blows through the house at different times of day.
Is there something special to know about Betty?
Betty was one of those extraordinary slave girls, who grew up in the kitchen in the shadow of a phenomenal Texas cook who had absolutely no idea she was saving a child’s life as she passed on culinary skills casually, one meal at a time. But, she did.
Betty was born a slave to Leftwidge Carter in Macedonia, Alabama, then she was stolen as a child and sold to slave traders, who later sold her in slavery here in Texas, where her cooking skills protected her from a harsh life of field labor in slave times, and helped her manage scarce resources in freedom.
She was interviewed at a time when national pursuits – from board games and radio to mystery novels by Agatha Christie – helped Americans escape the rigors of Depression-era living, and field writers for the Federal Writer’s Project recorded the life stories and oral histories of former slaves.
Sadly, the government didn’t think to ask many questions about food and cooking, but I’m not mad at them. Fortunately for all of us, the conversational style of Betty’s narrative gives an intricately detailed look at the precarious life of a slave cook working at a Texas boarding house. I learned a little about humility, charity and self-respect from Betty. And, after months of putting the wrong things first in my life, I’m hoping she will help me get my priorities straight from today forward.
What do her words encourage you to do?
Here is a bit of her story:
When massa Langford was ruint and dey goin’ take de store ‘way from him, day was trouble, plenty of dat. One day massa send me down to brudder’s place. I was dere two days and den de missy tell me to go to the fence. Dere was two white men in a buggy and one of ‘em say I thought she was bigger dan dat,’ Den he asks me, ‘Betty, kin you cook? I tells him I been the cook helper two, three month, [Betty’s aunt Adeline was the Langford’s cook] and he say, ‘You git dressed and come on down three mile to de other side de post office.’ So I gits my little bundle and when I gits dere he say, “gal, you want to go ‘bout 26 mile and help cook at de boardin’ house?
Betty’s narrative ends with a sad revelation that her massa eventually did lose everything he owned to creditors — including his slaves. She and the remaining servants were sent to various traders — some benevolent, some harsh — in Memphis and New Orleans. Eventually, Betty the child winds up in Liberty, Texas, where she conveys a message that still resonates for for everyone trying to make it through difficult times — including me:
We work de plot of ground for ourselves and maybe have a pig or a cuple chickens ourselves…We gits on alright after freedom, but it hard at furst ‘cause us didn’t know how to do for ourselves. But we has to larn.