Soul Food Cook-Off
Apr 7th, 2011 by Elbert



Pot roast. Turkey and dressing. Ribs. Macaroni and cheese. Steamed okra. Pound cake. Peach cobbler. Hungry? That’s what Cassandra Gaines is counting on.Pot roast. Turkey and dressing. Ribs. Macaroni and cheese. Steamed okra. Pound cake. Peach cobbler. Hungry?

That’s what Cassandra Gaines is counting on. Muskogee’s multicultural coordinator – who is also the manager of the Roxy Theatre and Muskogee Civic Center – started the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Soul Food Cook-Off in 2005 as a community event.

“Anything you do around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is going to draw attention, but this event brings people back to family values,” Gaines says. “We’re such a fast-food society now, but at the cook-off, people come in and sit down and eat some good home-cooked meals.”

In a world where celebrity chefs are all the rage, the cook-off celebrates the unknown and unsung home cooks – grandmothers, mothers, uncles and cousins whose secret recipes didn’t come from a box mix.

“In my eyes, my mother was the best cook,” Gaines says. “She could throw down on some fried chicken, cornbread, candied yams and homemade mac and cheese. Everything was made from scratch.”

At the event, food isn’t the only throwback: Entrants decorate their booths “back in time,” according to Gaines, who’s seen women dressed in muumuus with cotton stockings and aprons as part of their presentation.

Janet Brown, a revenue manager for the City of Muskogee who has won numerous times for her black-eyed peas and butter cake, turns her booth into a café.

“It’s called the Boomer Blues Café, and I have red-and-white-checkered tablecloths on the tables, sunflowers and a clothesline hanging in the front with aprons and dishtowels. I even serve my black-eyed peas in little cast-iron crocks.”

The event has been such a local success that Gaines has taken her show on the road, now under the name National Soul Food Cook-Off, and visits cities including Little Rock, Ark., and Jackson, Miss.

In Beaumont, Texas, she crossed paths with Elbert Mackey from Cedar Park, Texas, who saw the ad for the cook-off in the Austin American-Statesman. Mackey has a keen interest in keeping the culinary traditions of his childhood alive and has spent the last few decades trying to replicate his Aunt Maggie’s recipe for tea cakes.

“The tea cake is a simple dessert to make: five or six ingredients at the most,” Mackey says. “Cooks were able to make their tea cakes special by adding other ingredients such as molasses, grated lemon rind, and flavoring to turn something simple into something wonderful.”

Mackey has entered his tea cakes in several National Soul Food Cook-Offs, including Tulsa and Oklahoma City. He is founder and chief visionary of The Tea Cake Project, which has a Web site,, devoted to the submission of recipes and remembrances of tea cakes.

Gaines pays out up to $5,000 in cash and prizes for each event, and provides four scholarships for a culinary arts education for students in each town where the cook-offs are held. But for many, it’s not about the money – or the 200 people each entrant has to feed – it’s about community.

“I cook up to two days before. It’s a lot, but it’s worth it. It really is,” Brown says. “I’ve met a lot of interesting people and we have a lot of fun. Most people are very supportive and glad if you win, even if they don’t. I can’t wait to start again next year.”

Article by: Danny Bonvissuto
A Traditional Treat of African-Americans Remembered
Mar 10th, 2011 by Elbert

God bless African-American cooks.  Since the eighteenth century, American cuisine has been deeply enriched by the culinary traditions of West Africa.  Considering the bland tastes that dominate northern European food, the ability of enslaved black cooks to improve the flavor of American food continues to be present today.  A host of dishes—ranging from gumbo to jambalaya, and from sweet potato pecan pie to smothered okra—demonstrate the culinary adaptability of African-American cooks.  The end of slavery did not mark the end of such flexibility, either: instead, the availability of more ingredients that had been difficult for slaves to obtain increased the number of dishes that could now become part of the “soul food” diet.

One such post-slavery addition was the tea cake.  Synonymous today with African-American “good times” food, during the slavery era the tea cake had been almost purely the culinary domain of white families.  Originally an English and Scottish afternoon treat, the tea cake became an increasingly popular American dessert during the early and mid-nineteenth century.  Given the use of refined sugar and bleached flour—two ingredients that were very expensive, and therefore rare, for slaves to use—tea cakes did not become common in African-American homes until after emancipation.

But once they took hold, tea cakes underwent the same type of transition that so many other dishes did.  In African-American homes, a practically limitless number of variations were introduced.  Almonds, poppy seeds, lemon, cinnamon, walnuts, and pecans all became African-American ways of spicing up the tea cake.  As so many slave cooks had, using whatever ingredients were available produced newfound variations to the tea cake that became family recipes.  Culinary adaptability did not end with slavery, to be sure.

The heyday of the tea cake was the early and mid-twentieth century.  During that time, tea cakes might be served on any given afternoon or evening, but they were the special preserve of Sundays.  After church, and after the elaborate, delectable Sunday meals that attracted throngs of kin, tea cakes became the final course.  Often served with coffee rather than tea, tea cakes signified two crucial aspects of African-American society: first, the melding of Old World and New World culinary traditions, and second, the importance of “good times” food at gatherings of extended family.

Whether served after work, after a weekday supper, or during a televised sporting event, tea cakes were a subtle but powerful aspect of African-American society prior to the 1960s.  To be sure, the same memories of screened porches, afternoon naps, family joke-telling, and huge Sunday dinners contain the sweet, creatively-flavored remembrance of a tea cake.  Though other foods may be more purely African, the tea cake, in every sense of the word, is truly “African American.”

Hey Kool Aid!
Sep 1st, 2009 by Elbert

One summer treat I fondly remember as a kid was making Kool-Aid Ice Pops. This treat marked the beginning of the new school year for me. I especially remember this time because it was the only time my grandmother would allow my sister and I in the kitchen alone (with no adult supervision) to prepare our treat.

This is a vintage heavy gauge aluminum ice cube tray, circa 1950. We used it to make ice cubes. The pull-back handle would break and separate the ice cubes. This particular type made 18 ice cubes.  On rare occasions when it would snow, we used it to freeze the “snow ice cream” we made.

Vintage Ice Cube Tray

Ingredients for Kool Aid Pops

After mixing our favorite Kool-Aid flavor with plenty of sugar and water, we would pour the sweet liquid concoction into old-fashioned ice cube trays (with the built-in top handle) and place in the refrigerator’s top freezer until they were frozen.

Kool Aid and Ice Tray

It normally would take a couple of hours to freeze the pops, provided I did not open the freezer door fifty or more times to peep at the liquid turn to ice. It was my job to notify my sister immediately when the pops were frozen. My sister had mastered a way to separate and remove the cubes from the tray without causing a lot of breakage to the ice cubes.

Here are a couple of vintage aluminum pastel colored drinking glasses waiting to be filled with ice cubes from the bowl. With these metal glasses, my grandmother didn’t have to worry about us breaking her good glasses when we made our treat. I remember the metal glasses were very cold to hold and would sweat profusely when anything cold was placed in them.

Metal glasses

This was one of the most refreshing treats to cool off with during a hot summer day. For me, it represented the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year.

pic 5- koolaid pops

Did you have a favorite treat that marked the end of summer? Feel free to share your own favorites in the comments.

In the News
Aug 11th, 2009 by Elbert


Aunt’s tea cakes leave a sweet legacy

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Elbert Mackey has been in the Air Force, doing Air Force things. He’s worked in nuclear security, too, making sure nobody breached a sensitive site with evil on their minds.

But that was in his other life. Now Mackey, 60, lives in Cedar Park and cooks tea cakes for a living. Lots of tea cakes, too. Big fat ones, small flat ones, crunchy and mushy. None of that cinnamon-covered stuff either; that’s a snickerdoodle . No sprinklings of sugar; those are sugar cookies.

Mackey is a tea-cake man, a guy whose obsession for his aunt Maggie Wimberly’s tea cakes, the ones he ate as a child growing up near Minden, La., led him to gather recipes wherever he traveled around the world and eventually to compile a book of tea cake recipes.  [Read the full story here]

Family Reunion
Aug 3rd, 2009 by Elbert

I attended my biennial family reunion in Louisiana.  It is always a joy to catch up with family members. Thought I’d share a few pictures with everyone.




Carole’s Blueberry Lemon Tea Cake
Jun 2nd, 2009 by Elbert

This is one of the many wonderful recipes you will find in The Tea Cake Roundup.  A tasty twist on the traditional recipe. Try it and drop me a line and let me know how you liked it.

1 cup blueberries
1 2/3 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divide these two measurement amounts
½ cup butter softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
½ cup milk
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ tablespoon grated lemon peel

Preheat oven to 350° degrees.  Grease and flour 9” x 5” loaf pan.  Set aside.  Toss berries with the 1 tablespoon flour.  Set aside.  Cream butter, add sugar and beat until light and fluffy.  Beat in eggs.  Add milk, remaining flour, baking powder, and salt.  Beat until just combined.  Fold in prepared blueberries and lemon peel.  Pour into pan.  Bake 60-70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean.  Cool 10 minutes and remove from pan.  Prick top with toothpick.  Now to glaze.  (See below)

In saucepan combine ¼ cup sugar with ¼ cup fresh lemon juice.  Heat to boiling, stirring until sugar dissolves.  Brush hot glaze over top and sides of cake.  Cool completely.


Food for the Soul
May 13th, 2009 by Elbert

Have you ever noticed how food brings people together? We gather at Sunday dinners, potlucks and BBQs. Laughter flows as we break bread together. We offer food for comfort -a fresh baked cookie to a crying child, a casserole for someone who is sick or grieving and a pie to welcome a new neighbor.

As we look back on those times, we remember the smells and tastes and as our senses are engaged the rush of laughter and warmth comes flooding back too. Food is and always will be an important part of our traditions, a legacy which we can pass on to our children and their children. As we pass on the recipes we also pass on the traditions, the family stories, the history.

We are at a time in our history when connection, tradition and community have taken center stage. The economy has helped us to reevalute our priorities and many are choosing simple pleasures over costly outings. We are again gathering in backyards and dining rooms, sharing food, laughter and love.  I hope that as things improve we will continue to engage in these simple pleasures and that we will pass then on to the next generation.

The Legacy of the Tea Cake
Apr 15th, 2009 by Elbert

Southern food historians say tea cakes evolved from an English recipe brought to America by British settlers in the 18th century. They were known as “little cakes” and were served with afternoon tea, but are called tea biscuits in Britain today. teacakes54

The basic recipe was passed by word-of-mouth for generations. Unlike the English, Southerners made the cakes for snacks or special occasions, especially at Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. Each cook added special ingredients, such as molasses or grated lemon rinds and spices.

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