Almost six years ago I wrote my very first post for this blog. I was 22, freshly out of college, and had just moved into an apartment with Dan outside of Washington, DC. I was in a job that was meant to be temporary, but the economy had just crashed and it was looking more and more like I was stuck there. I desperately missed home, and I thought that if I could just cook and eat something that reminded me of home I might feel better. I set out to make a recipe from my grandmother, Bobbie. Bobbie, my dad’s mom, was the woman who taught me to love Southern cooking, and Sunday night dinners with her were a memory I cherished and sorely missed. I knew that making her country style steak would be what I needed to snap me out of my funk, so I did just that. That recipe was the first post on Biscuits and Such, a project that has become the part of my life that most closely ties me to the Southern food culture I so dearly missed.
my great grandparents, Flossie and Stanley Ballenger
Bobbie and I spent a great deal of time with each other during the first 16 years of my life. She was always nearby, whether we lived in Florida or in North Carolina, and she and I were pretty constant companions. We cooked together, swam together, sunbathed together, talked, laughed, and sometimes cried. She was there for me when things were tough, and she never failed to put a smile on my face. She had stories, so many stories, and she was always happy to share with me about her life. I loved hearing stories about her and her siblings growing up in Raleigh, the years she and my grandpa shared in Chapel Hill, about my dad and uncle as kids, her studies at Meredith College (she was an English major and she was full of sayings about language and grammer. My favorite was her response to someone asking where something “was at.” She would quickly reply “after the preposition at!”). One of the things I miss most since she passed away are her stories.
Bobbie’s father, Stanley, was a professor at North Carolina State. His family, the Ballengers, were from Tryon, in the mountains. Bobbie’s mother, Flossie (I know, best name ever), was a Caudell of St Pauls, in the southern piedmont of North Carolina. After they were married they moved to Raleigh and bought a piece of land on Rosedale Avenue. They had four children- Juanita, Barbara, Theodore, and James.
Bobbie at the Swamp House, 2001
The Caudell family (Flossie’s family) tree and Flossie with her parents and siblings
As I enter my late twenties I am more and more interested in the stories of my family. I’m lucky enough to still have my mother’s parents to ask about their lives and their families, but to learn more about my dad’s parents I have to dig a bit, to talk to extended family. I wish I could listen to all of Bobbie’s stories again today, with pen and paper ready. Talking to family- her siblings, her sons, her cousins, is the next best thing. This past July Heather and I spent a morning with her brother Ted and his wife, Ann, in their Raleigh home. We talked about Ted’s life growing up in Wake County (and Ann’s growing up near Smithfield), about Ted’s mom, Flossie (called Nanny by the family), and most enthusiastically about food.
I asked Ann to help me find a family recipe that reflects their memories of Stanley and Flossie and their life in Wake County. She sent over a few possibilities but captioned the recipe for pound cake with “the best I’ve ever had.” I clearly couldn’t pass up that sort of endorsement! So while Ann and I whipped up a batch of Nanny’s Pound Cake (Ann is quite the task master, I spent a lot of time sifting and resifting of flour), Ted regaled us with stories of our family, showing pictures and pointing to branches on the family tree.
The Caudell family
The pound cake came out of the oven piping hot and smelling like heaven. It was delicious, and after digging in ourselves I packed up some of the leftovers to bring home to my Dad (who was in town running megalodon charters) and Dan. After dinner that night I toasted and buttered some pound cake for them and my dad shared his memories of Stanley and Flossie, of his favorite foods on Flossie’s table (namely milk mush), his memories of visiting Stanley’s family home in Tryon, the Ballenger homestead on Rosedale. As I told him everything I’d talked about with Ted and Ann you could see the sparks go off as he connected the dots, remembered people and places and foods and family.
Flossie’s parents, Ples and Nottie Mae (Big Mama)
Florence (Flossie) Ballenger
The pound cake was fantastic, but the stories were better. I’m so grateful to have family members that are willing to spend a morning with me, talking family lore over cups of coffee and giving me instructions on the best ways to sift flour. The more I dig into the history of North Carolina the more I feel the desire to connect with my own Carolina roots, and I’m loving exploring all the branches of the family tree. The lesson I’ve learned again and again is that food is the ultimate connector. The look on my father’s face as he talked about eating mush at Nanny’s house for Sunday supper was priceless, and I’m so excited to dive further in, searching for the recipes that mean the most to the people who make and serve them.
Heather photographing Ted & Ann
Nanny’s Pound Cake
3 1/2 cups cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 tsp mace
1 cup whole milk
1 lb butter
1 tsp vanilla
Heat oven to 325F.
Cream butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar and continue beating. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until fluffy.
Sift flour. Stir together flour, baking powder, salt, and mace and sift again. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients a little at a time, alternating with the milk, until it is fully combined, finishing with flour.
Grease a fluted bundt pan and pour batter in. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Let rest 15 minutes before flipping out onto a plate. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. Try the leftovers toasted with butter!