Book Mark: From Tea Cakes to Tamales

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Tea Cakes to Tamales
photos courtesy of Texas A&M University Press

Food brings people together, connecting generations in both the preparation and sharing of the meal.

In her new book, From Tea Cakes to Tamales: Third-Generation Texas Recipes, journalist-turned-culinary historian Nola McKey explores the state’s food ways through heirloom recipes. In this collection of more than 100 third-generation (and older) recipes, Texans share not only the delicious dishes they inherited from their ancestors but the stories and traditions that accompany them.

With a strong focus on Texas’ cultural diversity—recipes include Norwegian rosettes, Italian pizzelle, Czech sauerkraut, Chinese fried rice, Mexican caldo, Wendish noodles and African-American purple hull peas—McKey documents the culinary impact of ethnic groups from around the globe.

The third-generation stipulation is important here, as McKey said, “Recipes that have lasted at least three generations are time-tested and usually represent some tasty dishes. Second, those recipes usually have some interesting stories associated with them, and I wanted to collect the stories as well as the recipes. Third, those recipes often represent links to a family’s ethnic roots—sometimes the last remaining links—and I wanted the cookbook to reflect a broad spectrum of cultures.”

Tea Cakes to Tamales
illustration courtesy of Texas A&M University Press

But this book is not for foodies alone; history enthusiasts will appreciate the snapshots of daily Texas life captured in the narratives accompanying recipes. Told primarily in the words of today’s cooks, these multigenerational family recollections can take anyone on a trip down memory lane back to a beloved grandmother’s kitchen or a great-aunt’s holiday table.

McKey writes, “For most families, the links to generations past are few and somewhat tenuous: DNA, at least in the case of biological families. Surnames, usually, but not always. Given names, sometimes (bestowed in honor of ancestors the namesakes may never meet). Faded photographs. Perhaps a few antiques. Tombstones in a distant plot.

“In some families, however, the ties that bind include a vibrant connection, one they celebrate often: food. As family members savor dishes associated with their ancestors, they’re linked to the past in a tangible way through the taste, smell, and texture of food.”

She also includes recommendations for festivals and museums where readers can learn more about Texan- foods and cultures.

Additionally, McKey provides tips for preserving your own family recipes and for recording the heritage surrounding a special dish. She has also written about how to decipher, adapt and preserve the heirloom recipes she believes are an important link to the ethnic and cultural history of Texas. When cooks in the present generation make and share the same dish that was prepared decades earlier, they continue the timeless legacy and honor the traditions that connect food and family.

Illustrated with family photos and original watercolors by Cora McKown, From Tea Cakes to Tamales: Third-Generation Texas Recipes will, itself, quickly become a Texas family heirloom.


A Sample from the Book
Mrs. Kelly’s Chicken and Rice

The contributor of this recipe warned, “Do not even think of making this dish with margarine or milk; if you do, it will be awful. Yes, it’s a rich dish; think comfort food.”

4 whole chicken breasts               1 pint cream

Salt and pepper                             ½ cup butter

1 cup white rice

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Place chicken in a Dutch oven; add enough water to cover chicken by one inch. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer over medium heat about 45 minutes or until meat is falling off the bones. Drain, reserving broth. Remove and discard skin. Let chicken cool. Strain broth.

Measure strained broth and add enough water to make 2½ cups liquid. Pour liquid into saucepan, heat to boiling and add rice. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until rice is tender.

Remove chicken from bones; discard bones. Cut chicken into bite-size pieces. Return chicken to Dutch oven and add cooked rice. Stir in cream. Add butter a little at a time so that the rice absorbs it. Cook over low heat a few minutes or until flavors blend. Taste and add a little more pepper, if desired, to cut the richness slightly. Note that the chicken will stick easily and absorbs liquid very quickly. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Contributed by Karey Patterson Bresenhan • Ellen Sprott Kelly’s granddaughter by marriage •   Fayette County


by Christine Brown
Texas A&M University Press