Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Every Town Has One

I grew up pre-Martha Stewart in a small town.  Our home cooks had a wonderful lady named Betty Feezor who hosted a daily cooking show on the local TV station in Charlotte.  Other than that, they relied on word of mouth - recipes and methods that had been time and taste-tested by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters-in-law and next-door-neighbors.

And we knew good food - still do.  And every small town had several ladies who took care of our special occasions with remarkable talent and ease.

You all know who I mean.  We all knew the cake lady in our towns.  No matter where you lived - she made the best wedding cakes in the world.  They were usually heavy, moist pound cakes delicately flavored with lemon or almond, and they were frosted with either homemade butter cream or an amazing seven-minute frosting that still takes me back to my childhood when I encounter it today.
 (photo courtesy of flours-sf.com)
Before the days of grocery-store deli counters, the cake lady was our only resource.  These days we seem to have two options on extreme ends of the spectrum - either go to the grocery store and risk buying something with icing that tastes a little like shaving cream or engage the services of one of those fondant artists for a beautiful cake that costs as much as a decent used car. That being the case, I'm still a fan of the cake lady - when you can find one.  Thankfully, in many small towns,you can still attend wedding receptions and watch the women exchange approving glances and nods as the cake is cut and passed around.  Those nods say "Ummm.  Mary Nell made this one...", or "Knew it!  Joan's lemon pound..."

(photo courtesy of charmandsalt.com)
But we don't stop there.  Every (Southern) small town also has a cheese straw lady.  This girl has perfected the art of the classic cheese straw or cheese ring (depending on the way it emerges from the pastry bag).  She is known for her ability to make a PROPER cheese straw - one which bears no trace of the flour that you know is in there, but instead presents itself as a delicious bite of buttery sharp cheese with the perfect kick of cayenne pepper that is miraculously and mysteriously crisp. They might just float away if you aren't watching.  In recent years, dozens of commercially prepared cheese straws have hit store shelves, some of them very good.  But I have yet to find one that truly compares to the local version. The cheese straw lady's talent is as much in demand as the cake lady's. 

By way of illustration, one of my favorite cheese straw stories happened at my parents' 50th wedding anniversary celebration.  One of the guests, a woman who had been gone from our town for close to 30 years, came up to me at the event and said, "Honey, would you mind giving me the name of your cheese straw lady?  These are just delicious.  We don't have anyone in my town who can make them like this.  I have been making do ever since I moved away from here!

And then there is the butter mint lady. 
 (photo courtesy of Winston-Salem Journal)
Today's crowd and, sadly, even some of today's caterers, consider a butter mint to be one of two things - either a rock-hard piece of commercial candy overdosed with peppermint oil - or - something made with powdered sugar and food coloring and more peppermint oil that resembles a bit of stale cake icing pressed into a little candy mold.  Neither of these is an acceptable substitute for the real thing.  A homemade butter mint is made the old-fashioned way by pouring the boiling hot candy onto a marble slab and, at just the right instant, pulling it (with bare hands!) into the tender pieces of candy that melt in your mouth like no other.  The butter mint ladies are dying out (maybe from exhaustion and/or third-degree burns?) but growing up in my town, we had at least half a dozen of them.  Butter mints fell from the sky like rain on every special occasion in those days.  I'm told there is a man not far from here whose mother had the foresight to teach all of her children the craft of butter-mint-making before she died.  God bless her.

Now - did I mention chicken salad?  It should contain nothing but white meat and is never to be made with Miracle Whip. In a small town, there are only one or two highly trusted chicken salad ladies.  We're funny about the chicken salad.

  And we can't forget the lemon blossom practitioners. 
 (photo courtesy of food network)
 These little lemon cakes, baked in mini muffin tins and saturated with sugary lemon goodness aren't as easy to accomplish as one might think - at least not to our lofty small town standards. And just so you know, they predate Paula Deen by several decades.  She just had the good sense to inform the rest of the world about what we already knew.

Speaking of small towns, this may be the first of many posts about them by way of looking at mine. 
 (photo courtesy of hoghappenin.org)
 They are in themselves American treasures, too often looked down upon and seldom celebrated.  That is a shame, too, because small towns have nurtured and produced some of America's greatest talents, not the least of which are the cake ladies and their cheese straw-butter mint-chicken salad-lemon blossom sisters.

So stay tuned for future posts from Main Street.  In the meantime, if you run across a good butter mint, get the girl's name and give me a call.


  1. Yummm thank you for a trip down memory lane. I'm off to look for a cheese straw lady now. :-)

  2. Love this post! I'm from a small town in New Hampshire. My Mom was the cake lady and my girlfriend's Mom was the baked bean lady - we're baked bean people here in New England :0)

  3. Chicken salad - absolutely! NO DARK MEAT! And none of that yucky Miracle Whip stuff! LOL! I'm a Yankee girl, born and bred, but I know what's right and wrong here! lol

    I think I just might be able to be the local "scone lady" if I played my cards right and wanted to change careers. LOL! Which I don't. So I just make 'em for my family but am always happy to share the recipes.

    XO Diane