Caroline Cooks: From Teacakes to Tamales

With cooler temperatures settling on the South and a season of gathering and gift-giving ahead, we sent freelance food writer Caroline Leland to scope out some recent Southern cookbooks.tea cakes to tamalesTexas-lovers and culinary history enthusiasts: journalist Nola McKey has a book for you. When baking her grandmother’s tea cakes conjured poignant family memories, McKey embarked on a quest to collect third-generation recipes with connections to her home state of Texas. Grandchildren (and grand-nieces and -nephews) submitted more than 100 culturally diverse recipes, handed down from grandparent to grandchild, along with black-and-white photographs and nostalgic stories centering on these family dishes.

From Tea Cakes to Tamales: Third Generation Texas Recipes would be particularly valuable to someone documenting his or her own family culinary legacy. Some of the stories that accompany recipes remind me of ones told by my own family members, though they are less amusing when I have no personal connection to the tale. A handful of the book’s anecdotes are utterly fascinating — such as the tale of Marie Sophie Victorie Lebel Commins Stewart, a French woman who was sent to be a nun because her height (over six feet) doomed her marriage prospects in her parents’ eyes. She escaped the convent, married, re-married, and ultimately owned and operated an inn and spa in Texas — where she served a flaming plum pudding on special occasions.

Ever interested in cornbread after reading Crescent Dragonwagon’s The Cornbread Gospels, I was eager to try the austere “Mama Smith’s Cornbread” recipe. It turned out much denser than I was accustomed to, and received mixed reviews from my family members who tried it. I thoroughly enjoyed it alongside the book’s hot baked antipasto, which brought together boiled potatoes, red sweet roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and olives under a blanket of seasoned breadcrumbs. I decided the antipasto benefitted from an addition of grated parmesan cheese (not included in the recipe). A friend who joined my family for dinner liked the antipasto so much she opted for a third helping in place of dessert.

More than half of the cookbook’s recipes are desserts, so I had some trouble deciding which to try first. After polling my family, I finally settled on a sweet potato pie and a chocolate meringue pie, both of which received rave reviews from family and friends. The chocolate pie included a peanut-butter/powdered-sugar crumble that beautifully rounded out the richness of the chocolate, while the sweet potato pie was a fresh-tasting, not-too-sweet delight. My father, an eager sous chef for me in this round of recipe testing, was particularly proud of the ultra-flaky crust he was in charge of making.

Overall, our only point of dissatisfaction was that the chocolate pie filling turned out a bit runny — either due to the vagueness of instructed cooking time in the recipe or because my curious and hungry siblings kept opening and shutting the oven door.

Of the half-dozen cookbooks I’ve reviewed, From Tea Cakes to Tamales carried by far the highest rate of satisfaction across the board for recipes tested — a bit lucky considering the book focuses more on the dishes’ histories rather than descriptions of the foods themselves. Each of the included recipes is obviously time-tested and deserving of its place in this collection. As you could guess from its title, this quirky cookbook is worth keeping in mind as a holiday gift for any Texas friend who loves to cook and anyone interested in the preservation of multi-generational recipes.