We all have a cherished family recipe, each stain representing a story. For author Whitney Miller, that recipe was scribbled in the back of a church cookbook 100 years ago, and it’s steeped in history.
Yes, my great-grandmother did walk miles to school. And yes, she did carry a pail—a syrup can, actually—containing her lunch. Mary Prudence Ladner was born in 1915 in Poplarville, Mississippi, so she experienced the Depression years, and comfort during those times was homemade. Her mother, my great-great-grandmother, Hattie, made tea cakes, and these became lunchtime treats to place in the pail, enjoyed by her 11 children.
Decades later, my great-grandmother continued this tradition, making the same tea cakes for her kids. My twin great-aunts recall sitting at a flour-covered table as children, rolling the sweet tea-cake dough into long, thin shapes to form “snakes” while my great-grandmother rolled a simple ball of the tea-cake dough between her hands and flattened it into a round on the pan, leaving an imprint of her fingers on each cookie. She made huge batches, using a 5-pound bag of flour. Total yield: 80 cookies.
One of my grandfather’s cousins once asked her why she baked so many each and every time, and she said confidently, “Well, right now it is just you and me, but in a little while someone else will stop by.” Sure enough, she was usually right.
The recipe has since been passed down through every generation, and the tea cakes make a sweet cameo at every holiday gathering. When I take a bite, I can’t help but feel surrounded by family, both past and present.
Whitney Miller is the first winner (season one) of MasterChef and author of the cookbook Modern Hospitality: Simple Recipes with Southern Charm.
Take a look at how this 100-year old recipe has evolved.
LATE 1800s: Whitney’s great-great-great-grandmother Prudence “Prudie” Smith Ladner first bakes tea cakes.
1915: Prudie, a midwife, helps daughter Hattie give birth to Whitney’s great-grandmother Mary Prudence Ladner (later Strahan).
1921: Mary begins carrying lunch and a tea cake to school.
1939: Whitney’s great-great-aunt Essie creates her own version by adding ginger.
1940s: Essie’s husband starts making homemade cane syrup—growing, cutting, and shucking the sugar cane.
1950s: Whitney’s great-great-grandmother Hattie Tyner Ladner first makes the tea cakes for her grandchildren, looping in a new generation.
2010: Great-grandmother Mary Ladner Strahan adds pecans to the dough before entering a recipe contest. She takes home first prize.
2012: Great-grandmother Mary dies before her 97th birthday. Her family recipe lives on in the November 2012 pages of Southern Living.