My mother was born just as the 20th century was dawning, the second-born child to a farm couple who would ultimately have eight. Their lives were shaped by hard labor, love of God and each other, and the whims of nature. In this environment my mother learned to cook, clean, and nurture. Her knowledge and practices dated at least back to the nineteenth century.
By 1930 the family had relocated to a nearby town, victims of bad luck and the Great Depression, which brought an end to 150 years of farming in the little valley that would always be known as “down home.” My mother would marry soon after, and she and my father would start their own family. Three daughters and a son were born over a 12-year span. Although life changed drastically for her, she remained true to the old ways and for the most part rejected the fast food and quick and easy products around her. Canned goods came from Mason jars with Ball lids, and jellies and jams were prepared on the stovetop from fruit freshly picked or purchased roadside. When she wasn’t cooking for her family, Mom often prepared food for those who were sick and suffering in the community. She would continue this practice throughout her life and was given a community service award by a local civic organization when she was 80.
Sunday gatherings became a tradition after the children left home and started families of their own. The family favorites were her chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, beef stew, chess pie, boiled custard, and applesauce cake. Of all the dishes my mother created, my favorites had to be the applesauce cake, also known as “poor man’s fruitcake” (due to its lack of candied fruit), and boiled custard that always accompanied it. This cake was prepared at Christmas, and you could smell it baking a block down the street. She tested it for doneness with a broom straw.
Mom died in November of 2008 at 101. Months later we all gathered at my home to sort through her few remaining possessions. We found a small package containing the contents of her recipe box, and there, in that unmistakable handwriting, and on yellowing paper, was the recipe for applesauce cake.
1 box seeded raisins 1/3 cup cocoa
2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon
2/3 cup shortening 1 teaspoon allspice
2 ½ cups applesauce 1 teaspoon cloves
4 cups flour 1 cup English walnuts, chopped
3 teaspoons soda
Pour hot water over raisins and let soak while you are mixing the other ingredients. Mix sugar, shortening, and applesauce. Mix flour, soda, cocoa, and spices and then add to applesauce mixture and stir, a little at a time. Squeeze the water out of the raisins (leave moist) and add, along with the nuts. Bake at 300˚ for 1 ½ to 1 ¾ hours.
Note: We use a springform pan or Bundt pan lined with waxed paper or parchment paper.