I never met Cora Chacey, but I know two things about her: she liked to make sweet things, and she gave credit where it was due.
The evidence comes from recipes found in her green metal index card box:
Date Nut Roll Candy (Mother’s)
Pink Lemonade Pie
“Smacking” Angel Cake — Blytheville
Lemon Supreme Cake
Sandwich Cookies — Eliz. Guthridge
Virginia’s Apple Pie
Mother’s Orange-Raisin Cake
Fluffy Brandied Mincemeat Pie
Uncooked Fruit Cake — Annie Mae Griffin
Christmas Rainbow Poke Cake
Apple Skillet Cake
Fruit Bars — Gene Smith
Chocolate Covered Raisin Cake
Blue Berry Pie
Jane’s Favorite Apple Crisp
Virginia’s Pecan Pie
Jan’s Fresh Apple Cake
There are also vegetable dishes (Spinach Casserole and Crooked Neck Squash Casserole, both attributed to Jane Keeney) and a single entrée (Stir Fry Chicken — Ella Mae). But the majority of these recipes — whether in her printed handwriting on a “Here’s what’s cookin’” recipe card; typed on a manual typewriter; cut from a magazine or newspaper; or, in the case of Jan’s Fresh Apple Cake, typed on the back of a workplace’s Absentee Report form — are for desserts and candies, things you’d make for holidays, or when company’s coming, or to take to a potluck.
I came by Cora Chacey’s recipe box while looking in a thrift store for a cast iron skillet. There were no such skillets on the shelves of pots and pans, but there the green metal box was, incongruously, probably the closest place the Savers workers could find for it when they sorted the donated items.
At Savers, price tags have colored strips, and each day, items tagged a certain color are half price. It was yellow tag day, and on the bottom of Cora Chacey’s recipe box was a yellow price tag for $2.99. For $1.50 plus tax, the box was mine.
I had wanted a cast iron skillet for a while, partly because I’d tried several recipes lately calling for a heavy skillet, and partly out of an atavistic longing, perhaps to return to or recreate some home-and-hearth security from the past. I also wanted one for the ability to make a breakfast specialty of the cook I used to share a kitchen with, a puffed wonder of eggs, milk, and flour that our cookbook called a German pancake.
After finding none at a few thrift stores, I went to the place where I’d looked at them often, stopping in for anchor bolts or a faucet adapter: a small local hardware store. I chose an 8-inch Lodge, and bought it from a man wearing a tape measure on his belt. My receipt was written out by hand, with a pen from the bouquet of writing tools in his Continental Batteries pocket protector.
My grandmother’s cast iron skillet lived on the stovetop of her sage green gas oven, on the right rear burner. She fried hamburgers in it, and much more, I’m sure, but I didn’t pay attention. Mom had one, too, but I don’t remember her using it much. Both of them are gone now — no one to call and ask — so I did what we do when feeling solitary and looking for quick community. I turned to Facebook.
“Nation!” I asked, along with a skillet photo. “What is your favorite thing to make in a cast iron skillet? Or, if you don't use one, your favorite thing to eat that was made in someone else's?” And the nation responded.
Cornbread, said a college friend in Maryland two minutes later.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake, said a friend in New Mexico.
Homemade biscuits, said a flute-playing friend here in Little Rock.
Fried chicken, said a former co-worker in Little Rock, who was frying some in her skillet at that very minute.
Peach pie, said a writer from Washington state, who had eaten one at a restaurant the night before, baked and served in the same skillet.
Answers came for ten days. A college friend in Memphis sent his recipe for skillet steak. Four Arkansans mentioned fried potatoes. One invoked deep-dish pizza. Grandmothers were given props. Votes for cornbread were cast from Arkansas, Ohio, Memphis, and Mississippi (the latter with a story of a husband who’d put an heirloom skillet in the dishwasher), and from a young friend deployed in Afghanistan.
There was maintenance advice, too, all from men. A fireman-photographer in Tucson observed that it needed curing and directed me to two web sites describing the process. The minister who baptized my daughter, and who will officiate at her wedding, also told me to season the pan (use peanut oil, he said), and what kind of cornmeal I should be using (white, stoneground), and what specialty grocery store I should buy it from. Weeks later, when my father visited, he cautioned me not to use soap when washing it.
The first thing I tried in it was Cora Chacey’s wisp of a Corn Bread recipe:
2 c. cornmeal
Pinch soda & salt
It was incomplete, and the results were disappointing. A second batch of cornbread, from the recipe on the cornmeal sack, was better. The first real meal in it was a homey win: bacon, and then potatoes (which had been boiled a day earlier and chilled) fried in the bacon grease. The first thing I cooked in it for company was also bacon, sizzling up crisp while the three of us stood in the kitchen and talked.
I looked up Cora Chacey’s obituary in the archives of the newspaper where I work. If she were alive now, she would have just turned 92, on Oct. 12. But she died in 1999, at the age of 78. She was a member of a large Baptist church in Little Rock, where she sang in the choir. She had been a purchasing director for a bakery. She had no survivors.
When I wrote about religion for the paper, I had written several stories about this church, so I got in touch with a contact who was well acquainted with many of the church’s oldest members. She was happy to get on the trail. But she was able to find out little more: Cora’s maiden name was Austin, she married later in life, she moved away for some time. No one still living and lucid seemed to remember her. Ella Mae of the chicken recipe lives in a nursing home, with memory loss.
I can only wonder who had possession of her little file box for all these years, and why it was finally given up. The price tag’s 8/10/11 means it just arrived at Savers this summer. There’s something else about the box that suggests it might not have been in use in someone’s kitchen, that it might have been stored away with other things of Cora’s. It has the fragrant, powdery smell of a grandma’s closet.
There was one other catch in the net I cast for cast iron skillet foods. A poet from Oregon wrote, “German Apple pancakes, or Dutch Baby, if you prefer. Yummy, yummy!” Dutch Baby, it turns out, is a variation on that puffed pancake I’d been missing.
And there’s one other recipe in Cora’s box. I might have bought the box simply because I felt sorry for it, sitting there trying to blend in among the cast-off kitchen tools. I might have been drawn to it because of two items on the display shelf above my kitchen sink: my mother’s recipe for Brownie Cupcakes from scratch, and her mother’s Spice Cake recipe, both written out in their distinctive handwriting, both spotted with the very ingredients they listed, both found in the backs of cookbooks years after they’d been gone. But here’s the main reason I decided to bring the little file box home. The second recipe I saw said “Puffed Pancake — Judy.”
The cookbook with the German pancake recipe said to gather people at the moment it comes out of the oven, so they can ooh and ahh over it. It’s not the kind of dish you make when cooking for one. But it is the kind you might want to test-drive before you serve it to guests. I made one, decreasing the ingredients by 1/4 for my smaller skillet. It puffed miraculously, just like it was supposed to. And with no one here to ooh and ahh, I did what we do. I posted a picture on Facebook.
Within minutes, the ooh and ahh came down from a friend in Canada: “What is that?! That looks good, whatever it is!”
I haven’t yet attempted my womenfolks’ recipes. I said I know Cora Chacey liked to make sweet things, but I don’t know how many of these recipes she ever made. Possibly, like most of us, her intentions exceeded her actions. I can’t really know much at all for sure from her recipe box, besides the fact that she had friends she shared food with, at social events public and private, happy and sad, where sweet things were served and savored. Perhaps some of these friends were far away, like many of mine, people we see once a year if we’re lucky, people we’ve shared the fellowship of the table with in our homes and restaurants and college cafeterias. Until we meet again, until I have the gift of feeding some of these friends around my table, we’ll stay connected like this, around the oven-glow of our computers, loving from afar, living where we live.
Something else about that pancake: you can reheat and re-crisp the leftovers in a toaster oven the next morning, but it’s not the same. It’s like manna, good only for the day it was made.
Puffed Pancake — Judy
(Click here to download a PDF recipe card to keep in your own recipe box.)
1 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. milk
1 T. sugar
½ t. ground cinnamon
¼ t. salt
1 ½ T. butter or margarine
2 T. sifted powdered sugar (optional)
½ t. ground cinnamon (optional)
1. Combine first 6 ingredients in a large mixing bowl: beat until smooth at medium speed of an electric mixer. Place the batter in freezer while skillet is heating.
2. Place butter in a 10” ovenproof skillet (cast iron works best). Place in a 425-degree oven for 4 minutes or until butter sizzles & skillet is hot.
3. Pour batter immediately into skillet. Bake 27 or 30 minutes until puffed & golden (do not open oven before 25 minutes).
4. Combine powdered sugar and cinnamon; sift over hot pancake. If desired. Serve immediately. Yield 6 servings.
Laura Lynn Brown is a baker’s daughter who lives, writes, feeds guests, and cooks with an electric stove in Little Rock, Arkansas.