Cara Ellen Modisett
My sister, brother-in-law and nephew in the cabin kitchen at Claytor Lake State Park.
I wonder if casserole is as common among northerners as it is in the south, I asked my Port Jervis- born, Milford-Newton-Long-Island-Newburg-Chinatown-schooled, Fordham-graduated* husband.
I’m sure they’re as popular up there as they are here, he figured.
It wasn’t a strange question for me to be asking, given that s'mores and pimento cheese weren't in his otherwise extensive vocabulary until at least after we were engaged.
We were eating casserole, comfort food concocted by my sister, who’s a mom now and therefore privy to motherhood’s comfort-food-cooking. I’d come home to Roanoke from outpatient surgery in Charlottesville and she had put it together for us, with oven instructions for Phil (the cook between us): cheese on top and pasta, ground turkey, onions and tomato underneath, good healing food, with a salad and brownies to finish it all off. You should pick up vanilla ice cream, she suggested.
Comfort food is never overrated.
I realized over our casserole dinner that it was the day before our church homecoming, that second-Sunday-in-June we always looked forward to in childhood, when great uncle and great aunt and grandparents were still alive and my mother played organ at the little country church in Leaksville. We’ve grown up and our time and attention has moved even farther south – my sister and I now live in southwest Virginia, down the valleys, one grandson nearing two years old and a granddaughter on the way, bringing our parents down here more often in their retirement, which they’re spending with us and on month-long trips to national parks and campgrounds in New England and Colorado and Mississippi.
Homecoming. I miss those meals. Everyone in the church basement, the long tables put together and piled with deviled eggs, ham biscuits, pimento (pronounced “piminna”) cheese sandwiches, various forms of Jell-O salad (my grandmother’s most memorable incorporated grated carrot and raisins), baked beans (with and without little hot dogs or bacon), green beans, scalloped potatoes, sweet tea, coffee, pound cake, Nellie’s coconut cake, brownies, pie.
My aunt Brenda not long ago gave us copies of our great-aunt’s recipes, copied and bound into a spiral book. In January, my mother decided to try out one of the recipes, a “Mahogany Cake,” for my birthday, which we celebrated during a family weekend at Claytor Lake State Park. She made us guess what was in it that gave it such an interesting flavor we couldn’t quite put our fingers on… a little, no fruity, but… vegetable-y?
The secret, she finally admitted, was – tomato paste. And Mom’s unintentional twist was 16 ounces of tomato paste, resulting in a not completely unpleasant, but a little dense and odd-tasting, cake. Looking back at the handwritten notes, we realized it had called for “1… 6-oz. [can] of tomato paste.” Despite the mixed and hilarious results of that dessert, she tried out another one for Dad’s birthday – a sauerkraut cake, a little on the unconventional side, measured correctly this time.
My sister and her husband had their revenge on Mom’s birthday, serving up a small cake complete with candle. For some reason, we couldn’t figure out that the unearthly taste we smelled before we even tried a bite was garlic.
After much laughing, we set those aside, firmly, and Meg brought out the real cake, made with oatmeal, also from Neva's recipes, sans garlic, and much tastier.
I think we’re holding off on the experimental baking for a while.
Here’s Neva’s Mahogany Cake recipe, with the correct measurements (which we haven’t had the courage to try again). We don’t know where it comes from. If you have any leads, please share them with us in the comment fields below!
from Neva Bushey's Recipe Box
1 box devil's food cake mix
1 package instant chocolate pudding
1 6-oz. [can] tomato paste
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup oil
1 tablespoon instant coffee
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Blend and beat.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes.
Sprinkle on top: 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon
Here's another recipe from Aunt Neva:
Yellow Tomato Preserves
Simmer 3 cups of prepared yellow tomatoes for 10 minutes.
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 package SURE-JELL
Bring to a rolling boil and add 4 1/2 cups sugar.
Bring to a boil and cool one minute.
* ("Oy! You want to describe ME as the casserole!" my husband noted later.)