Thursday, January 8, 2015

Frostings of Sweat and Sweet Talcum

"Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum." ~~Harper Lee, from "To Kill A Mockingbird" (chapter one)

I love this description of hot summers in the South. When I read it I can actually smell the lightly scented, loose face powder my mother has always used. 

The first time I read To Kill A Mockingbird was long before I was married. When I read it years later with Eler Beth there were words and phrases that held new meanings for me. Thomas is originally from Alabama, and some of his stories about his childhood before moving up North included words and phrases I'd never heard before. So when I read this with Eler Beth, the first time I'd read it since being married, "teacakes," and, later in the same chapter, "chinaberry tree" meant something to me.

The first time I made Thomas my Mom's recipe for home made, from-scratch, cookies -- what we always just called "scratch" cookies -- Thomas saw me taking them off the cookie sheet and putting them on a plate and said, "Hey! Teacakes!" I thought that was charming. It evoked an image of ladies in Victorian lace, sipping tea, and choosing small sugared or iced "cakes" from a tray. 

Now what I'd made were just simple cookies. They were butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, and milk, mixed into a thick dough, rolled out, and cut with a round cookie-cutter. They had no decorations, no frosting, nothing. They just tasted really, really good. But Thomas said that when he was a child, sweets that looked exactly like those cookies were always called "teacakes." Sometimes they were plain, and sometimes they were frosted, but they were "teacakes." And he still calls my cookies "teacakes" to this day. 

Before when I'd read this book I'd pictured "teacakes" as being actual cakes, but Thomas said no, cakes were cakes, but the small ones, like my cookies, were "teacakes." Anyway, when I read this with Eler Beth the words jumped out at me and made me smile; made me remember the circumstances of the conversation Thomas and I had had about "teacakes" that long-ago day.

And before when Scout mentioned a chinaberry tree it didn't make me wonder what kind of tree that was, but when I read it with Eler Beth I knew what a chinaberry tree was because there had been one in Thomas' yard when he was little.

So this is a favorite sentence for me because I think it is beautiful imagery and because it makes me smile and remember.


Paula said...

Chinaberry trees are quite familiar to me. I grew up with one in my yard too. I played house under one and canned the chinaberries and boy did they stink when we opened them up a few days later.


My mom would take an afternoon nap and bath, so this made me smile. Beautiful imagery, indeed. I'm glad it evokes such special memories for you. Thanks for sharing.

Barbara In Caneyhead said...

Yep, Thomas is right. In the South teacakes are plain cookies just like you describe. They would be served with tea or coffee and are great to dip in the beverages. My Bug is a master tea cake maker.

I still "set" my make up with loose corn silk face powder. And I remember stories Mama told me of her mother, Mama Ruth, sitting up half the night fanning the four girls on the sleeping porch in the summer.

Thanks for the memories!