In my childhood and teen years, I spent my summers, almost every fall and spring weekend, Thanksgiving and Easter at my grandparents’ home in Oxford. On fall weekends, the Friday ride to Oxford was fraught with anticipation of all things Eastern Shore. Once we had left at the end of summer to go back to school, I missed Oxford terribly and I looked forward to crabbing, fishing, swimming, sailing and biking as deeply into the fall as I could. Our Friday afternoon arrivals also brought on a gnawing in my belly for a bicycle visit from Bill Benson. Captain Benson’s rectangular extra-large flat wire bicycle basket was carefully lined with newspaper and would predictably be filled with homemade goodies from his wife, Miss Sara.
Once we had arrived “home,” as it was always referred to, I would drop my duffle in my room and quickly rush to the back yard fence and peer to the left. That’s the direction where Captain Benson would come from. He’d round the corner on his bike and be headed our way just moments after we had arrived. In the age of no cell phones, looking back, I wonder how Miss Sara’s timing was so impeccable. She lived at the water end of town, and we did not pass her house on the way in, so how did she know we had arrived? Like clockwork, by my second or third glance I would spy him and rush to open our wide, white wooden gate. As his figure rode closer, his cloud of white hair and round rimmed spectacles came into view and all seemed right with the world. A slight man whose stature in town was much larger than himself, Capt’n Bill was a favorite cousin of mine and it wasn’t just because of what was in his basket, but that is a story for another time. His bike would glide to an easy stop just like the ferry and he would put his kickstand down before ever so carefully reaching into his basket and handing me a cardboard box that was lined and covered with foil, and a bag of Maryland beaten biscuits. My mother would sense his arrival and poke her head out the back door with a wave and a thank you.
On an ordinary walk, our uneven brick sidewalk back to the house was challenging to navigate but, with treasure in hand, one could not be too careful. Once I had made it by the two step stairs and across the outside porch, mother would hold the door open for me, I would walk through the kitchen threshold, and I would lay our prize on the counter. When the tinfoil came off our dessert was revealed. Layered Bavarian cream and green Jell-o trees with cherry berries and baby mandarin oranges lurking beneath the surface was a sight to behold. It was the 1970s, the golden age of Jell-o and all that was wildly possible with gelatin and an unlimited imagination. To the side of the forest of glamorous shimmering trees would often be a tiny bag of mini Rice Krispies Treats topped with a layer of peanut butter and chocolate.
I would go on to have similar exciting food experiences with my Nana’s lemon meringue pie, and from other family and neighborhood bakers I would relish tastes of moist buttery rum cake, delicate apricot pastries and Mrs. Taylor’s famous cheese ball. My children would be blessed with visits to their grandmother’s house in Oxford with the anticipation of the house always, I mean always, smelling like brownies. They looked forward to her cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving and enjoying homemade cookies while listening to the 6 p.m. Methodist church bells on the front porch.
The anticipation of delicious homemade food is something we can all relate to. If we are lucky enough to have a special cook in our life, we should place them on a prominent pedestal. Treat them not with indifference, celebrate them, revere them, thank them. With all the attention given to the professional chefs in the media, let us not ignore the most important cooks in our lives. I’m talking about someone like a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a neighbor. I’m talking about the everyday person who enjoys cooking and wants to share it with others around them. The kind of person that drops off homemade soup to you when you are sick, brings their special dish to a holiday dinner or all out hosts the holiday dinner; the person who brings homemade goodies to share with work buddies, just because. These kinds of people make our lives special. They bring us joy and they make us feel important and loved.
Whether we admit to our internal cravings for routine, the cooks in our lives satisfy this need as well. Our family could always count on Cousin Susan to bring her made-from-scratch buttery parker house rolls every Halloween to our house without fail year after year until COVID hit. It was something you could count on and look forward to. Just as I could always count on and look forward to the blueberry pie my mother made me for my birthday, or my great grandmother’s currant cake recipe at Christmas. These predictable and tasty events are so important to our well-being, that we lose a piece of us when a recipe dies with the cook. My mother lamented for years that she could never mimic her grandmother’s hot dinner rolls. Apparently, as she described, they were like “pillows from heaven.” She left no recipe when she died and so the taste went to heaven with her.
As the holiday season nears, our thoughts may drift to dishes and desserts we may not have tasted in a long while. Anticipation coupled with disappointment is a hurtful combination many of us have had to bear recently. An inability to gather and share food displaces our sense of belonging and makes treacherous times even more difficult to endure because food connects us to each other in ways we do not always realize. Taste has an uncanny way of spawning memories. As we carefully attempt to gather again, what will we ask of the cooks in our lives? What are the dishes and desserts in your life that mean the world to you?
When I think of holidays, I revel in the timelessness of an old-fashioned holiday cake. I enjoy the subtle flavors of these cakes made in a time when many ingredients were less available and tastebuds hadn’t been hijacked yet. Enjoyed with a cup of hot tea, the satisfaction of an honest dessert is very real and grounding to me. I professed my love of a well-prepared bourbon soaked, aged fruitcake in last year’s column, and considered sharing the recipe this year. I mentioned it to one of my sons and he hesitated and looked at me with his head half-cocked. You really want to do that mom? Are you sure? I could have received no better compliment than that. He knows it’s special, he gets me! So, I will not be sharing my fruit cake recipe or great grandmother Ida May’s currant cake as they have both been nixed by my son, and I am positively gleeful about it.
However, I will share my great grandmother Ida May’s Orange Walnut cake recipe. As the story goes, her neighbor across the street claimed some of Ida May’s recipes as her own and had them printed in a local publication under her name. The two women sat on their front porches in their rocking chairs just rocking and staring at each other for years over the matter. Beloved recipes can spawn small town spats.
I am forever grateful for the cooks in my life, the ones currently in my life, the ones that have since passed on and the ones I never met but got to know through stories and recipes. I hope you will join me this season in making sure the cooks in your lives know how special they truly are. Celebrity cooks come and go like vapors from a kettle, but the unpublished unknown cooks that intimately touch our lives and will only be famous to a few family and friends are the ones that really deserve the accolades. They are timeless, just like an old fashioned cake.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Orange Walnut Cake
1 cup of sugar
1/4 lb butter
2 cups of flour, plus 1 TBS flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup of soured milk (add 1 tsp lemon juice, let sit for 10 minutes)
1 tsp orange extract
1 cup of raisins
1/2 cup of English walnuts
zest of one orange
Juice of one orange
1/2 cup of sugar
Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 9×13 pan with butter. Cream the butter and sugar and add the eggs. Mix well and then add the baking soda with the flour and sour milk alternately. Combine the raisins, orange rind and walnuts, and dust with 1 TBS of flour. Add orange extract, then the nuts, raisins and orange zest. Bake for about 35 minutes or until a knife comes out clean. When you take from the oven, pour on top 1/2 cup of sugar mixed with the juice of the orange, and leave the cake in the pan until the sugar mixture on top crystalizes.
This recipe can be made gluten free by substituting an equal amount of all-purpose gluten free flour for the wheat flour. This recipe can be made dairy free by substituting an equal amount of “Smart Balance” for the butter.