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Archive for February, 2011

Watermelon Cake

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

I received a letter this week from B. J., a former neighbor in Jacksonville Beach. She knows that I’m a big fan of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, so she often sends me news articles about her, or about her home in Cross Creek, which is now a state park. This article was about the actor who played Jody in the 1946 movie version of The Yearling with Gregory Peck. B. J. wrote:

I remember how I cried and cried when I saw that film. They used to show it on TV and after the first time I couldn’t watch it anymore.

I loved The Yearling, but one of my favorite Rawlings books is Cross Creek Cookery.  It is not exactly a cookbook; it’s a narrative about Florida foods and the stories behind them, with a few recipes thrown in. The book includes a story about a watermelon cake made by Marjorie’s mother. The recipe, sadly, was lost over time, but M. remembered the cake had red and white sections, a green “rind,” and black “seeds.” The watermelon cake made its first appearance at her fifth birthday party, when her entire kindergarten class and some neighborhood children came over.  Here’s how she describes the event:

The occasion was to depart from the custom of accepting gifts, and it was announced that every child would receive one. I have wondered if I was not popular and this was a bribe to assure attendance. … The moment came for the dispersing of the gifts. Father, an ardent amateur horticulturalist, had planted a small very choice imported French pear tree. This was of a size whose slender limbs could all be reached by children of kindergarten age. The individual gifts had been wrapped in tissue paper and tied to the imported pear tree with silk ribbons.  At the signal, the guests, who were supposed to approach demurely, one by one, and pluck a gift, shrieked like Comanches and rushed pell-mell for the tree. It was torn literally limb from limb, and the neighborhood fat boy, arriving last in the race, fell prone on all that was left, the slender trunk, and flattened it to the ground. Anything but ice cream and the watermelon cake would have been an anticlimax. These inspired respect in the savage eyes, and the only indecorous note over refreshments was the fat boy, who, not to be outdone this time, made a dive for the remaining watermelon cake after slices had been served, and crammed two handfuls in his maw.

 Don’t you almost feel like you were at that birthday party?

Photo Credit: Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, LC-USZ62-106862 (b&w film copy neg.)

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Ernesto at Up River Friends Cemetery, Perquimans County

I never wash dishes without thinking of Grandma. When I was small I often stood on a stool beside her and listened to her talk as she sluiced a soapy dishcloth over and around each glass, plate, and fork. A window above the sink gave us a view of the side garden and a section of road from the house to the church. Between gazing out the window and washing dishes, she kept up a running commentary on what passed outside that window. Sometimes what passed was current, and sometimes it was memory.

“There goes Mr. Stanley,” she might say, nodding out the window where a man picked his way down the side of the road. “They call him the Traveling Newspaper, because he tells everything he knows. See those cotton stalks at the edge of the garden? If you stay still and watch, you might see a bird pull some cotton to line her nest. That’s why I put in a few cotton plants every year—for the birds. I can remember many a time I stood here and watched your daddy and the other boys playing at rabbit hunting. Some boys would be rabbits, some would be dogs, and the others would be the hunters. Look at all these spoons we used! That’s what happens when you eat ice cream. One time when your daddy and uncle were little, I went to get them ready for church while Granddaddy did the breakfast dishes for me. He told me we had used every fork, knife, and spoon in the house.”

Grandma was 49 when I was born and had already lived in her house up the road from the church for 25 years. The next closest house, nearer the church, had belonged to my great-grandparents. She would live in her house another 41 years, until she moved next door to live with my aunt and uncle. During that time I grew up, Granddaddy died, the barns came down, and Grandma was rendered deaf in her left ear when a clown shot off a gun too close to her head inside the church. (The gun was shooting blanks, and it was all supposed to be in good fun, but Grandma never forgave that clown, entirely, though she tried.)

I moved away from North Carolina, which began my letter-writing binge. Periodically, I received a response. Once she sent me her recipe for cornbread, and in a later note asked, “Did you make a good pan of bread? It is good with field peas or don’t you like peas?” She sent me a birthday card with a $5 bill in it and a message: “Use this to go to lunch one day when you’re not too hungry.” And once I got a mysterious packet, a bulging brown envelope. Inside was a white paper bag, and in the bag I found two pieces of cardboard taped around something soft. A slip of paper fell out of the white bag and fluttered to the floor. Grandma had written: “Gift wrappers gone on strike. Ha.” Sandwiched between the sheets of cardboard she had folded a piece of handmade white tatting.

Grandma’s funeral was in October, when the cotton stalks lay bent and broken, and boys could again pretend to hunt rabbits in the empty fields. The minister was new to the Up River Friends Meeting, and I dreaded hearing him speak. He hadn’t known my grandma long enough to conduct her funeral.

He told us about the first time he met Grandma. He had walked into Uncle Arnold’s house and greeted my grandma, Ms. Mary, who sat in her green upholstered rocker. She immediately invited him to sing.

My uncle thought she was confused. He said, loudly, “Mama, that’s not Eric [the former minister]. Eric’s the one who sang. This is the new preacher.”

And Grandma replied, “I know who he is, and I want him to sing.”

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