Friday, October 9, 2009

White Trash Motherlode: Strawberry Shortcake

Gramma Rhetta was most famous for her fried chicken and cornbread, hands down. My Mama always tells a story about a little neighbor boy, Jakey, who had some freaky kind of chicken radar; whenever Gramma got out the skillet and glugged some oil in there, Jakey would appear like magic. He'd hang around the screen door, sniffing through the fine mesh like a stray cat.

Of course, he usually snagged an invitation to supper. Gramma never could resist a stray, human or animal.

Once, in irritation, my mother snapped at him, "Jakey, why are you always hanging around when we have chicken? Your mama makes fried chicken, too, ya know!"

Jakey smiled sheepishly and said, "I like Henrietta's chicken better. It's cripper."

Semantics aside, Jakey had a point. There wasn't crisper chicken anywhere in the county.

But when it came time for dessert, Gramma had another tool in her arsenal. On very special occasions, when true pull-out-the-stops decadence was necessary, Gramma made Strawberry Shortcake.

Most people don't understand the significance, and if you aren't a Ludlam or a Stephenson (or married to one), you wouldn't. Because a lot of people make Strawberry Shortcake. No big deal, right? Ha! What other people fail to realize is, their Strawberry Shortcake is shitty.

Strawberry Shortcake on those sponge cake rounds they sell at the grocery store? Shitty. Strawberry Shortcake on pound cake? Shitty. Strawberry Shortcake on Pop-N-Fresh biscuits? Double Shitty. Strawberry Shortcake with Reddi-Whip? Don't get me started.

No, no, no. Gramma made a shortcake dough from scratch, so buttery and rich it almost oozed off the countertop. And then she'd sprinkle coarse sugar on the top of it, which made every bite crackle just so. And after it was baked and barely cool enough to handle, she'd split that sucker open and slather MORE sweet butter between the layers.

And then came the real cream, the kind from the local cows, whipped with vanilla and superfine sugar into frothy nirvana. No fake dreck from a can for Gramma.

And of course, the strawberries. Gramma only made Shortcake in June and July. Only the best berries need apply. And she wasn't stingy with them either. Actually, she wasn't stingy with anything when it came to that dessert.

It was such a gut-buster, so rich and overflowing with opulence, that we only ate Strawberry Shortcake once a year. Maybe twice, tops. And, the very best part?

Gramma let us eat Strawberry Shortcake for lunch. Just Shortcake. Because really, who wanted to eat anything else when faced with such beauty? My sister and I thought that was the coolest thing ever.

When Shortcake Day rolled around, my sister and I gorked around all morning, busting at the seams to tuck into a humongous, towering slice. Our enthusiasm was always lunchtime, even the adults scrambled to the table.

Legend has it that Wild Uncle Johnny brought his first fiancee, Lou, over to Gramma's house one Shortcake Day. Lou was completely baffled by all of the hoopla and pomp and circumstance surrounding the event.

"For Heaven's Sake," she said, a little peevish. "It's just Strawberry Shortcake."

Everyone in the room stared at her, gobsmacked and slack-jawed. *Just* Strawberry Shortcake? This girl clearly had mental deficiencies.

Now that I think on it, no wonder that marriage was doomed. Strawberry Shortcake Day was momentous!

Strawberry Shortcake Days were some of the most memorable days of my life.

Alas, when Gramma died, her recipe went with her. I've tried to duplicate it many times, without success.

Miss D. chose this recipe from the White Trash Motherlode book to make together this week. It had all the necessary things--butter, flour, sugar, milk, berries, cream. And the girls enjoyed making it and ate the finished product, happily.

I poked listlessly at mine and couldn't be bothered. Strawberry Shortcake just isn't much fun without Gramma or an entire morning of fanfare. Some traditions are meant to die, but it doesn't mean they're forgotten.

Strawberry Shortcake
serves 6

1 pint strawberries, washed and sliced
1/4 cup sugar

2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup milk
1/3 cup butter, melted
Sweetened whipped cream, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place strawberries in a large bowl; toss with 1/4 cup sugar and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Stir in the milk and melted butter until the dough forms a ball.

Pat the dough out onto a clean surface to a 1-inch thickness.

Cut 6 circles in the dough with a round cookie cutter or cut into six free-form pieces, whichever you prefer.

Place the shortcakes on a baking sheet and bake for 12 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes.

Spread each cake with whipped cream and top with strawberries.


  1. What a delicious memory! Your Gramma sounds like a very special lady. I don't think mine has ever fried anything in her life! =)

  2. I feel the same way about my nonna's gnocchi. Of course she never wrote the recipe down -she insisted she didn't have one- and I'm too afraid to try and make them because I know they won't be as great as hers... probably they wouldn't even be close! At least you had the guts to try, although maybe it didn't turn out the same because you made it in October? Just a thought. I love your family stories, by the way.

  3. wow just posted something similar great mind think alike! looks great!

  4. I love reading your memories and the memories of your mother. They're beautifully preserved with your words. And I'm SO bummed that you don't have Gramma's recipe. I was totally going to use it tomorrow night for a dinner party!

  5. What a wonderful story! I sure do wish I knew you during the Strawberry Shortcake Haydays!
    Did your Grandma pass down here recipe? Or was it one of those recipes..with a little of this and a little of that?

  6. Ck and so many of her recipes, she just did it from memory...which is a pisser for us girls who like a compass of some sort.

    But as I get older, I am kind of glad that I remember those delicacies that nobody else could reproduce...I don't want to compare it to Proust and his madelines, because that book was fucking boring, but there is something to be said for the strange gestalt of memory.

    And, if I'm honest, even if it's a sandwich, if someone else makes it for's WAY better than anything you could make. Take Mama's tuna sandwich on squishy white. There is NO reason that the sandwich is good, except that your Mama made it...and to you, that was home.

  7. What a great story! I love homemade shortcake. You're right, there is no substitute for the real thing. My mom used to buy the spongy things and Cool Whip and even frozen mushy strawberries if I remember correctly. It's a wonder I'm not in therapy!

    I don't know if I've ever heard of gorked. I like it! :D

  8. Sounds yummy. It also sounds like your gramma was a very special person.

  9. What a beautiful post and wonderful tribute to your grandmother! My great-grandmother was the same way. She cooked and baked without a single recipe. Now that she's gone, you can try to reproduce, but alas it will always be just that-a reproduction. The memories are sweet and I have a hard time wanting to share those tastes with my children. But, gone are her chicken and dumplings and strudel and kolaches... It makes me wonder what it is that you or I make today that our children will feel this way about someday.

  10. I loved reading this post and like the others, was bummed to find out that I couldn't snag the recipe. I think it is awesome that you have such a great memory with your Grandma. I grew up on the oposite side of the country from mine and didn't realize until it was too late how great it would have been to spend some time in the kitchen with her. I would have liked her perogue recipe. Don't tell my Mom but Grandmas were better. ;)

  11. Your gramma was stunning! I love B&W pics, and that shawl she's wearing is classy.

    Guilty as charged: I hereby swear that I will never use those shitty shortcake rounds from the store again (WTF was I thinking!?!).

  12. I want to start a Shortcake Day tradition now!

  13. Oh my gosh!!! What fun, vivid memories...thought I was transported back in time for a spell.....

  14. Ink: Do it! Or whatever dessert your kids like that deserves least Shortcake had berries in it, I guess?

    Ungourmet: I have no idea where I got the term "gorked." Must have been from someone...crap, I AM getting Alzheimers.

    jc: Good for you. Those shitty shortcake rounds are Twinkies with indentations!

  15. Go Gramma. Go (away) Lou. What lovely memories.

  16. Unconfidential: no worries, Lou went away. As did Sheila. And then, many years later, Wild Uncle Johnny showed up with a boyfriend named Lyndon Johnson (no lie) who wore a yellow silk cape...

    Now THAT is a story.

  17. Those outlawed shortcake rounds now remind me of the press and stick toilet bowl cleaners. I bet the shortcakes also stick to the shitter!

    Yellow cape, holy batboy Robin! I hope he has a matching leotard for a complete ensemble.

  18. Oh, man, the best strawberry shortcake I ever had, in Virginia last year at the house of great friends who take strawberry shortcake even more seriously than barbeque if that's possible, looked like this...on biscuits, really, not cake, and certainly not angel food cake nastiness. Homemade whipped cream, and enough for a full meal. Heaven. Totally Southern.
    i'll try your recipe and let you know. I'm sure you did grandma proud.
    Good for you. I think pudding day should now be strawberry shortcake day...
    btw, I love anyone who combines the phrases "tuck into" and "gobsmacked" in the same post. Where in the heck are you from? MidWest and Australia? Love it. Now just work in a Bostonian "wicked pisser" and you're set.

  19. jc: who are you? Whoever you are, you crack me up. Please don't leave.

    Nap: Wait until you meet me...I talk like a poster child for "On The Road"...although I am not a fan...

    I say some words "Nort Dakoota" and I say some words like all the summers spent in "Tex-ass" and then there's those 5 months we spent in Kansas, where they say "warsh your hands"...

    EVERYONE laughs at me because I'm ass-crazy accent girl. I have no rhyme nor reason to how I pronounce words. However, I am lacking some East Coast in the lexicon, so I may need to relocate for a bit to become even more colorful...

  20. What a wonderful story.

    I LOVE strawberry shortcake. But I cheat. I buy the Sara Lee poundcake and use the canned whipped cream.

    I imagine the stuff made from scratch is MUCH better though.

  21. Aw...what a lovely tribute...I'm sure your daughters will one day speak very fondly about your shortcake. We do about our nana's soup and roast dinners, my grandad's homegrown cherry tomatoes and my grandma's steamed puddings... xxx

  22. TKW - I believe you need a trip to Bawlmer (hon) to add some new colorful words and phrases to your vocabulary. And please bring shortcake.

  23. The thought of this shortcake makes me want to cry. Cry and salivate. (I am guilty of using those pre-made cakes AND pound cake. I can't believe that my shortcake world was so small.)

    Although the cake sounds heavenly, the memory it conjures up for you sounds even better.

  24. i just love this story about the strawberry shortcake.

  25. Now you've made me hungry for fried chicken and strawberry shortcake! Drats! I don't cook is the worst part!