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A Cookie With a Past

March 05, 1992|FRANKI V. RANSOM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When I first walked into Mary Jordan's restaurant two years ago, I was instantly reminded of the Southern kitchens I'd grown up eating in. A replica of a wood-burning stove stood in one corner; simple, square wooden tables were scattered about the dining room; a long, glass counter displayed Mississippi mud pies, apple and peach cobblers, sweet potato pies.

But there was something else in the small Monrovia place called Mama's Oven that triggered a flood of childhood memories: a batch of freshly baked cookies.

"Are those tea cakes?" I asked Jordan, already knowing the answer. "It's been years since I've seen tea cakes."

"They sure are," she answered, reaching under the counter for one of the spicy cookies. "Try one."

Jordan--"Mama" to her customers--watched closely as I bit into the soft cookie. It was a lot thicker than I remembered, but the taste was the same.

There I was, back in Mississippi, a scrawny, long-legged 10-year-old peddling my red bicycle with my cousin Dee Dee on the handle bars. We were racing home because my sister was baking tea cakes, Dee Dee's favorite snack. But then we crashed head-on into a neighbor boy riding his shiny new bike. Dee Dee flew off the handlebars, hitting her head on the dusty road.

My brother ran out when he heard Dee Dee's screams and carried her into the house, where he laid her on a bed. Dee Dee, holding a cold towel on her head, raised herself up and asked, "Are the tea cakes ready?"

Back at Mama's Oven, Jordan asked, "So, how is it?"

"Yeah," I said, finishing off the last bits of the nutmeg-flavored cookie, "that's it."

Jordan, plump in the way a good cook should be, smiled. "That's what everyone says," she told me. "They say, 'That's just how Mama used to make them.' "

The last time I'd eaten a tea cake, I'd just graduated from high school and was living with my oldest sister in Milwaukee. Her mother-in-law used to mail shoe boxes full of tea cakes to my nieces and nephews, who always fought over them. But these days I eat tea cakes as often as I can find them.

"You get a glass of buttermilk and a tea cake and you think you're in heaven," says Jordan's sister, Carolyn Goynes, who often helps out at the restaurant. "They're just little sweet, buttery, flat cakes, something between a cookie and a cake."

The sisters come around the counter, pull up chairs and talk about how their mother and grandmother used to make tea cakes "adding a pinch of this and a handful of that."

"If you grew up poor," says Goynes, the talkative one of the pair, "tea cakes were the closest thing to something sweet that you got."

But neither Jordan nor Goynes learned how to make tea cakes when they were growing up. And there was no written family recipe.

Only their sister, back in Oklahoma, remembered how to make them. When Jordan and Goynes moved to California, they'd call back home and ask her to bake a batch and mail them to California. The Oklahoma sister soon tired of this routine and sent Jordan and Goynes a recipe.

After sharing the cookies with friends, Jordan started selling tea cakes at her restaurant, which has been open two years on Colorado Blvd. "I thought they'd be a big hit," Jordan says, "because it seems like no one makes them any more."

Food historians say tea cakes evolved from an English recipe brought over by British settlers in the 18th Century. They were known as "little cakes" and were served with afternoon tea, but are called tea biscuits in Britain today.

The English tradition was kept in the South. But unlike the English, Southerners made them for snacks or for special occasions, especially at Christmas, Valentine's Day and Easter. Each cook added her own special ingredients, such as almonds or grated lemon and orange rinds.

The basic recipe was passed down by word-of-mouth for generations. But in more recent years, tea cakes were considered forgotten until entrepreneurs, including Jordan, began marketing them.

Etha Robinson, 50, sells old-fashioned and lemon-flavored tea cakes at the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles. She developed her recipe from watching her grandmother Emma, who lived in the Mississippi Delta. Emma would dump fistfuls of ingredients into a large ceramic bowl and hand-mix the stiff batter before rolling it out and shoving the can-cut cookies into a wood-burning stove.

Robinson's grandmother never said how much butter or sugar to add, but she gave her granddaughter this advice: "If you know how to cook, then you should know how much to put in."

After graduating from Tougaloo College in Mississippi, Robinson left her hometown of Yazoo, Miss., and moved to California, where she worked for 27 years as a science teacher.

In 1985, Robinson and her two sisters opened Koletha's Kitchen in Inglewood, specializing in Southern cooking and home-made ice cream. Although the restaurant was short-lived, the tea cakes were a hit. In 1988, she began selling the cookies in other restaurants and donating them as door prizes at community events.

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