Tuesday, August 12, 2008
(Here's another fragment from Cebah's Kitchen, to tide the blog over until I think of something to write!)
Men, approaching the mystery of female thought, enter a dark and many branched forest where their perilously held sense of control can easily veer into panic fear, and this, I suspect, is why the word witch is generally understood as feminine. Although Cebah’s wolves, drawn with what my nephew Jason called bad teeth, and red lolling tongues, were a closer threat in my childhood, there was a legendary witch, deceased, but present, whose two-story log house still stood in a dense wood adjoining our farm. Her name was Aunt Lou, though she was related only by proximity.
As an actual woman, she died the spring that I was born,1959, had never married and lived alone, hidden away by choice or circumstance in a low swag of pines and thickets. Her log house, long abandoned by the time I could walk, in a delicious combination of curiosity and sheer terror, had a great stone fireplace. It took little of my abundant imagination to supply it with a cauldron burbling over uncanny flames. A little wooden staircase, with a mysterious door beneath it, took a corner upward to the attic, littered with whiskey and aspirin bottles, the alphas and omegas, perhaps, of her supposed sorcery. It was in this attic that Cebah and I saw the biggest snake, slowly sliding along the log that supported the rafters. It was as thick as my arm and extended its brown blotched length nearly from one end of the attic to the other, easily 18 feet. We have never managed to convince anyone of this. Awed herpetologist that I was, I preferred the idea of capturing it for my zoo to fearing it might be an avatar or familiar of the house’s former occupant.
Cebah had told me that my sister Sarah, taken with the sudden pity children may have if they contemplate age, insisted that they bake and take molasses cookies to Aunt Lou for Christmas. “Sally was scared that Aunt Lou wouldn’t get nothing, way off up there in the boondocks, I reckon.” The idea, full of mercy and light in its conception, altered somewhat by the long walk through the shadowy and creaking pine woods, was quaking in its boots by the time it passed through that green door, into the dim space of countless stories, lit only by the old fire creeping about in the fireplace coals. Aunt Lou, dressed in what my dad described as nine black petticoats, threw a bucket of corn cobs onto the coals, followed by a slosh of kerosene. Tinder and gas exploded up the chimney with a flash boom roar that finished off the petrifaction of Sarah and her compassion.
The one photograph of Aunt Lou that I have shows her a smiling and kindly looking woman, albeit with the standard crone’s nose. When my dad took his horse and plow to work her garden up for her, and commented on the beauty of her piney roses (peonies), a few days later she made the very long walk, for someone in their nineties, to bring him some of the plants that still bloom in our yard. My impression is that although the modesty of her all-black fashion, extending to her buggy and horses, may have made her witchy to children, she was well thought of in the community, and cared for. A couple of years before her death, at 96, the farm families within walking distance gathered in Aunt Lou’s yard to celebrate her birthday. For this occasion Cebah baked a cake she was renowned for, a rarer cake since it takes a lot of eggs and careful control of a woodstove, Angel food.
Cebah, when queried about the recipe, said, "You don't need a recipe. It's simple." Pressed a bit more, simple is:
Cebah's Angel Food Cake:
Preheat the oven to 350
Sift together 1 cup of flour with 1/2 cup sugar and a half tsp. salt. Whip a dozen egg whites until foamy, add a tsp of cream of tartar, then beat until stiff but not dry. Bit by bit, whip in 1 cup of sugar & 1 tsp of vanilla. Sift the flour and sugar mixture onto the batter and fold it in gently. Pour it into an ungreased 9" tube pan and bake for about 45 minutes, until a straw, inserted and removed, comes out clean. Cool it upside down on a bottle, as Kim remembers. When the cake is cool, carefully run a narrow butcher knife around the sides and unmold onto a cake plate.
Cebah iced this cake with an icing made of crushed pineapple and confectioners sugar. In those days canned pineapple was a gamorous treat - if you wanted to keep the glamor part, these days you'd need to use fresh pineapple. The idea remains the same, add enough chopped fruit and pineapple juice to a pound of confectioners sugar. It should be wet enough to spread without tearing the cake, but not so runny that it runs off.
She also says that this cake does better in dry weather.