Lost Knowledge


One day I had a taste for a pound cake. A traditional southern pound cake. When I have a taste for something, I’m not happy until I get it. I tried purchasing some, and it didn’t satisfy. I looked up a recipe from a highly regarded cake-themed cookbook, and prepared it as directed. Fail. It was far too sweet.  The recipe called for two sticks of butter and 3 cups of sugar. I blinked when I saw that ratio, but I made the recipe anyway. I couldn’t eat it. 

I decided to check for a pound cake recipe from Edna Louis and found her vanilla pound cake recipe from The Taste of Country Cooking. Her recipe called for two sticks of butter  and 1-2/3 cups of sugar - a little more than half the amount of sugar in the first recipe. 

The cake was wonderful.  It was much closer to the elusive taste I wanted...

Edna Lewis was born in 1916. That puts her squarely in the generation of both of my grandmothers. Nana was born in 1906, and my maternal grandmother, Mary, was born in 1913. 

If you read Edna Lewis’ recipes, she is meticulous about technique. You cook through her eyes. Nana could smell salt when cooking and know when something was overly salted by smell. Grandmommy (Mary) made candy without thermometers. She knew by sight, smell and experience when caramel or brittle was done. 

I lament this loss of experience. Nana, Grandmommy and Edna Lewis are all gone now. We have the cookbooks of Edna Lewis for a guide, but there is no one to tell me how to make Nana’s prized yeast rolls or Grandmommy’s pecan caramel candy. I want to recover the knowledge of the Grandmothers, the continuity of culture within the family. 

We know about social media and craft beer and streaming and cosplay, but what have we forgotten? My grandmothers would have been children during the time frame covered in the show Downton Abbey. They would have experienced the advent of electricity in the home, indoor plumbing, the telephone, the invention of the copy machine, the supermarket and the tv dinner (which arguably is responsible for the downfall of modern civilization!)  They lived through world wars, the Depression, Jim Crow,  death and interment camps, reservations, unbelievably male dominated business environments, and a different understanding of marriage and the roles within.

Our grandmothers have much to teach us. Join me as I seek to recover what our grandmothers knew.