With so much time to fill, I finally went through Ma’s recipe boxes—ten years after I brought them from Alexandria to Boston. Some handwritten, some typed, some on long-discolored newsprint or still-white pages from Gourmet magazine, many brought back memories of childhood meals: tamale pie, Brunswick stew, bubble and squeak, walnut biscuits. I discarded many, including frankfurter casseroles, Jello and Cool Whip parfaits, and pretty much anything calling for a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup.
There was a section for household tips, including “How to Stiffen Petticoats.” It began, “If petticoats for week-end dance dresses and cocktail skirts need stiffening, here is a method to revive them after laundering.” I don’t remember week-end dances or dresses requiring petticoats as a child, but I do remember my mother’s hostess apron—a pretty little thing of stiff black netting, gold trim, and a wide black satin sash.
But this post is about Auntie (we pronounced aunt like the insect), Aunt Nathalie, whose newspaper-published recipe for banbury tarts was among those I kept. Auntie, who seemed very, very old to me (and, as a result, scared me just a little) visited us a couple of times in Virginia. Born in 1878 and in her eighties when I knew her, Aunt Nathalie was in fact Ma’s aunt—our great aunt. She wanted nothing to do with airplanes and so took a train from California, staying with us for a month or more. I remember her smelling of powder and violets. She had waist-length yellow-white hair that she braided and coiled up in a large bun at the nape of her neck. One Easter, while the family was at church, she made a cake that surely would have sent any small child into raptures. It was very, very tall and yellow marshmallow chicks encircled the top.
I will make her banbury tarts. I have the time.