A week or so ago, we stopped to see our friends Melvin and Anna in Casey County. We don’t get over there as much any more since our boys started going to school in our own county. Now it is a rarer treat to do some shopping in the valley at the Mennonite stores and produce places and to visit with friends. [As a point of references, Kentucky counties—all 120 of them—are large in area: we live on the western edge of Pulaski County and one of my dear friends here—also on a new farm created out of someone’s former, idle homeplace—lives clear across on the western side of Casey County—and we are a 45-minute drive apart (if you take the shortcut, that is). Diana grows amazing heirloom tomatoes, by the way, at MeadowBrook Farm—they will soon be available at a variety of vendors in Lexington and at a specialized market forming in downtown Somerset, Kentucky on Saturdays.]
My son and I were waiting in the car—Anna wasn’t home—and I heard Melvin’s booming voice, “Catherine, get in here!” I thought, uh oh, what have I done now? [Melvin, like my husband, can be a big tease—and quite funny—I often say they are “twin brothers from different mothers.”] So in we went and there was my husband, and Melvin, in full visitation mode, at the kitchen table (we were only supposed to stay a few minutes as I had produce in the trunk and chores to do).
“Pull up a chair and have a piece of cake!”
You don’t have to ask me such a question twice. We gathered around the table and tore into a beautiful sheet cake that Anna had prepared. I thought that Anna would be pleased to learn later that Melvin was such a gracious host in her absence.
We ended up talking and visiting for some time and Melvin showed us some old Casey County News clippings he had cut from a cache of papers a neighbor had given him—going back to the 1960s. After a bit Anna came home, walked in the back door, and, for some reason, didn’t seem too glad to see us.
I realized it was the cake—we soon found out that she had baked it for a Sunday afternoon youth gathering and there we were, sitting around smiling and laughing, with almost half a sheet cake gone. As a home baker myself, I know how crestfallen I would be, and so I was the first to ask about it (I also like to know when or why people are mad at me so I can remedy—or try to—the situation). So, long story short: I insisted that I bake her another cake—it is called “Mrs. Butterworth’s Cake” and calls for that syrup. We were then invited to join them for supper with the youth from the church—who gather at different houses on Sunday nights (ages 17-21 years) to play volleyball, have a meal, and hymn-sing into the late evening.
On Sunday we arrived around 5pm to a fully set table for twenty. The young people were playing volleyball. A cooling breeze, after a humid and stormy morning, filled the kitchen as Anna and I put food into many serving dishes and poured cold spring water into glasses. Anna had prepared “Poor Man’s Steak” (another favorite dish), a rice casserole, homemade crescent rolls, a Jello salad, from-scratch caramel pudding and strawberry cheesecake. I brought a large spinach-strawberry salad (with local strawberries, at last!) and the remade sheet cake. It always amazes me how much food is served at large Old Order Mennonite and Amish gatherings—and how effortless it seems (and leftovers are rare).
After the dishes were done (many hands truly make light work), the day faded into twilight and we talked on the porch and in the house. The youth gathered around the large kitchen table and sang hymns after supper—a cappella—from hymnals that they brought. There is something lovely and moving when hearing a group of young people—or any people—just breaking into shared song. We don’t see this too often outside of church in our own culture. Their singing has a less melodic, shape note quality and I realized that they have probably never heard recorded music or musical accompaniment. So the melodies are learned and passed along by others in their community.
As I looked out across the fields, I felt the embrace of the westerly wind after the morning storms. We were surrounded by song and praise—with a background chorus of evening birdsong—and two people who have become dear friends to us in the past five years. How could I not feel grateful and blessed? I savored this reality, in quiet benediction, and I smirked to myself when I realized that this is exactly the kind of interaction we are missing when we post on Facebook or “tweet” something into the universe—or even blog about trivial, useless, or important, things.
E.M. Forster wrote in his novel, Howard’s End: “Only connect.” How prophetic he was at the turn of the last century—even then, the modern age was presenting a certain sense of disconnection. The writers and artists felt it first as they are always the empathic pulse of the zeitgeist. [Not long after we met about ten years ago, one of my best friends back in New Hampshire gave me a copy of Howard’s End—I hadn’t read it in a very long time. Edie reminded me of that line and I’ve been saying it, as a mantra, ever since.]
So, back to that cake. On Friday, I brought home the phone-book sized cookbook from Anna’s kitchen—one I’ve not seen before so I’ve been furiously copying recipes out of since: Kitchen Capers by Jean Donovan [Shelbyville, KY: 1985]—and had at it. The cake actually has a pancake-y flavor—likely the yellow butter cake paired with the syrup flavor. Only I used real, 100% maple syrup (which provides a much better and authentic maple flavor)—and I used real butter (and, as I didn’t have any fresh orange rind, I added a liberal tablespoon of Grand Marnier). I think even Mrs. Butterworth would approve.
Mrs. Butterworth’s Orange-Pecan Cake
1 cup butter, softened
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 ½ cups Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
3 tsps baking powder
¼ tsp salt
¾ cup orange juice
1 cup finely chopped pecans
1 Tbsp grated orange rind
Cream butter until fluffy. Gradually beat in sugar. Add ¾ cup of the syrup and beat until well-mixed. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add dry ingredients alternately with ½ cup of the orange juice. Mix in grated orange rind and nuts. Pour batter into a greased and floured 13x9x2 inch pan and bake in 350 degree oven about 1 hour or until cake tests done.
Topping: Heat together the remaining syrup and juice and pour evenly over hot cake while it is still in the pan (I poked holes in it, first). Garnish with whipped cream or orange slices, if desired.
[Original recipe from Mrs. G.C. (Irene) Brown, Shelbyville, KY.]