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Fronzell's House of Sweet

March 26, 1997|ELIZABETH SOFTKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My mother Elsie is not timid, and neither is her cooking. She has little formal education, but she had gumption enough to leave the family farm in Texas and come to California to seek a better life. Eventually she settled in Los Angeles, but she kept her home-grown cooking skills and spirit of experimentation.

My mother isn't afraid to play with the color, texture or flavor of familiar foods. I remember one Christmas when Mom colored the layers of a chocolate cake green, red and blue to the delight of her three daughters. And her Easter creations were as bold in flavor and bright in color as her hot pink and yellow dresses--with matching hat, gloves and stiletto heels, of course.

Fixing good food seemed to be my mother's destiny, since her mother, Fronzell, and grandmother, Viola, were famous around their part of West Texas for their rich, well-seasoned cooking.

Grandmother Fronzell worked from memory and depended on her senses and the skill of her hands to create memorable meals with whatever ingredients were available--be it chickens from the henhouse or the squirrels and opossums that Grandfather Jeremiah hunted in the woods.

During the Depression, they were tenant farmers in Dawson, Texas, and Grandmother Fronzell often cooked for the owners, the Perkins family, to earn extra money to support their nine children. So not only did the Perkins family enjoy Grandmother Fronzell's sumptuous country cooking, she also brought home highfalutin innovations from their kitchen, such as fresh green salad and relish trays, what we now call crudites.

Because Mom didn't like field work, she stayed in the kitchen to help my grandmother prepare dinner on the large wood-burning cast-iron stove for her family (and frequent guests).

Mom laughs when she recalls her early cooking experiences. "I'd shell the peas, snap the green beans or peel potatoes, all of them from my mother's beautiful garden," she says. "Or I would sift the flour for one of her desserts; your grandmother made delicious cakes and pies. When she was out working in the fields, I would sneak into the kitchen and try to cook like she did. The first thing I tried making on my own was a chocolate cake when I was 9 or 10 years old. I used a skillet, and it turned out to be a chocolate mess. But I kept trying, and soon I could make cakes and hot biscuits just as good as my mother."

Easter time was feasting time on the farm. The younger children dyed boiled eggs with laundry bluing or colored them with crayons, while Grandmother Fronzell and the oldest daughters worked all day to prepare an enormous dinner. "Your grandmother would have everything jumpin'," my mother says.

"She'd make caramel cake, a big white coconut cake, sweet potato and butterscotch pies. And chicken with dressing. That would be the best."

Mom carried on the tradition of a big Easter bash after she married and settled down in West Los Angeles. In the years when my sisters and I were too young to help, Mom would start baking a week early.

While she baked, she would also rehearse songs for the annual Marvin Avenue PTA Easter show. Mom would practice "Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Be in Carolina" while baking a chocolate satin pie, or she would teach me the words to "Tea for Two" while she frosted a daffodil cake. There was no room in our refrigerator for all these desserts, so she placed the cakes in the spare bedroom with the window open to keep the room cool--and the door locked to keep out three little girls with big sweet tooths.

But the Easter dinner was more sophisticated than what she grew up with in Texas. Chicken and dressing were replaced with leg of lamb rubbed with lots of garlic and black and cayenne peppers or a big clove-scented ham, glistening under a brown sugar glaze.

If we were eating at home, dinner would start with a proper appetizer, deviled eggs made from the dyed eggs that survived the stepping, squishing and throwing of our rowdy Easter egg hunts. Oh, how I loved the smooth, tangy filling in the firm egg-white cups. That would have been enough Easter dinner for me, that and a few slices of Mom's cake.

On some Easters, our family would pile into the two-toned Mercury (white and orange, like an Orangesicle) and take food over to my Aunt Juanita's in South-Central L.A. I would romp with my cousins Sharon, BooBoo, Andre and Buggy while the grown-ups sat around playing cards--bid whist, rummy--or a set of dominoes. Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin played on the radio in the background and, because it was the '60s, almost everyone smoked--and dropped the ashes into a very realistic rattlesnake ashtray.

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