Tea cakes. Oh, that takes me back.
Yeah, I remember tea cakes. My mother used to hold church get-togethers at our house, with her friends in the Women’s Fundamentalist Brigade.
Each week, they met in our living room to talk about mortal sin, human depravity, the horrors of hell, and dancing.
These upright women were supposed to be reading their Bibles and praying and talking about how bad missionaries have it. But instead, they spoke in hushed whispers about which woman in town had gone into childlabor six months after her own wedding.
Even so, the church meetings at our house were a great event. All the women arrived, wearing fancy clothes. Lots of polyester. Tall hair, laden with enough hairspray to qualify as a fire hazard. Coral lipstick—the official shade of nice women.
Most of the women wore pearls. “But,” my mother was quick to point out on one occasion, “hardly any of us wears REAL pearls.”
“But,” I asked, “if they’re not real, what are they?”
“Whatever was on sale at Belk.”
The living room would smell like Estée Lauder, Opium, and Chanel No. 5. If you were a little boy, and you were to walk through this room without a gas mask, you would die.
But it’s the tea cakes I remember most. Because tea cakes are essentially big cookies, and I love cookies.
However—and I can’t stress this enough—don’t ever call teacakes “cookies.” Especially in the presence of the woman who baked them, otherwise she will castrate you with quilting shears.
They are “tea cakes.”
The difference between a tea cake and a cookie is subtle but important. A cookie is a large, dense, floury wafer made with sugar, butter, flour, eggs, and milk.
A tea cake, however, is a large, dense floury wafer made with sugar, butter, flour, eggs, and milk.
Is everyone clear on that?
These women would bring tea cakes of all varieties and they would place them on the kitchen counter, wrapped in tin foil.
The kitchen would soon come alive with the sounds of many alto and soprano voices. From a distance, it sounded like a flock of geese invading our home.
My cousin and I would sneak into the kitchen and confiscate tea cakes by placing them into our pockets by the fistful. Eventually an elderly matriarch would notice us.
“Those cakes aren’t for you!” the righteous woman would say, while shooing us with her high heel.
And we would be banished outdoors. “Go outside!” my mother would say.
This is what adults were always saying to us back then. “Go outside!” Adults said this to us every time we had interaction with them. As a result, we practically lived out of doors.
It’s a wonder we didn’t die of exposure.
Still, I can remember those tea cakes. I remember way those women would all sit on folding chairs, eating cakes, with small bites, sipping their tea, crossing their legs daintily, in that formal way females once crossed their legs.
Few young women cross their legs anymore. I suppose this is because so few wear skirts or dresses.
I remember when I was college age, I went to a party at the University of Alabama and I noticed that none of the young women were crossing their legs. It struck me as odd.
“Why don’t women cross their legs anymore, Mama?” I once asked my mother.
“Why are you looking at her legs?” replied my mother. Then she told me to go outside.
The older I get, the further away from that bygone era I drift. It was an era of Betty Crocker cookbooks, AM radios, and KitchenAid mixers. And it all seems so distant.
I recall the way my mother would let me taste raw dough, or cake batter, or help her sift flour. I remember how she cooked by feel. I remember cheese straws. Crustless sandwiches. Chicke divan.
I come from simple people. Nobody had ever heard of a mobile phone. There was no internet.
We kids entertained ourselves with checkers and Monopoly. And when we were hard up for entertainment, we found new, creative ways to give each other subdural hematomas.
We climbed trees. We held bike races. We played Army. We played cops and robbers. We stayed in the woods until a lone adult voice shouted our name.
Whereupon we followed the sacred smell of supper toward home. Toward people who loved us.
And after a meager meal of meatloaf, or chicken, or Hamburger Helper, or pintos and cornbread sticks, if you were lucky, there were leftover tea cakes.
Joy Rogers - February 27, 2023 6:39 am
I remember the Tea Cakes. My husband always talked about the Tea Cakes his sister made, so I scourged The Southern Living magazines and would try them. He would always say: ‘Just like Betty’s’…I would think, if he calls this good, I don’t. Eventually I hit upon a recipe that I really liked that when he said: ‘just like Betty’s’…I could agree with!!
Sean I am so glad I got to meet you when you came to Millbrook, Alabama to be our Grand Marshall for our Mardi Gras parade. I still wish Jamie could have come and that there would have been room for your dog to ride in the parade with you,
allisvant - February 27, 2023 7:19 am
As you so often do, you brought back memories of my youth; tea cakes fresh out of the oven, with a knife & a tub of butter nearby, was food for the gods. Especially after a hard day of “Look Sally, see Spot run!” or the Pythagorean Theorem and beyond!
Karen D. Hill - February 27, 2023 7:30 am
Great one today, Sean. Most likely church ladies back in the day had Sunbeam mixers, however. Kitchen Aid came later and is far too highfalutin.
Dolores - February 27, 2023 10:30 am
Yep, during breakfast we’d be given our list of chores. When I say we I mostly mean my older brothers. Chores were taking care of the farm animals, working in a vast garden and always, always hauling water. Either from the cistern or the spring some distance away.
If we dared linger inside after the tasks were completed we were always told to ‘go outside’. The tv was rarely if ever on during the day. If I followed my brothers outdoors I was admonished to ‘go home’. I was branded a tag along. Going home was still outside just not with them. The boys and their friends usually opted for the woods or the barn.
Dad fashioned a swing in the walnut tree on the way to the outhouse. So that’s where I’d be, watching clouds or singing my heart out. There or riding a fixed up second hand bike with a basket attached to the handle bars. I put a pillow in the basket so my dog Penny could ride along. Her ears flapped and her eyes squinted nearly shut as I pedaled. Her little gumdrop nose happily searched the air for varmints.
How blessed we were to enjoy such freedom. I fear the mental health of our youth suffers from the lack of it.
Peggy Tracy - February 27, 2023 11:32 am
It was Bealls before it was Belks, Sean, and I was there yesterday, wearing my Este Lauder, silver and turquoise, jeans and Trump tee since I now am a 77 year old widow living on Lake Fork in landlocked Texas, but my late Mama was from Samson, Alabama
Left Alabama 50 years ago, but Sean, thanks son for bringing me back home every day and lordy those tea cakes were mighty fine. Roll Tide son!
John in Texas - February 27, 2023 1:43 pm
Peggy, you must have been in Greenville to be in Belks since our Bealls closed here in Sulphur Springs. 🤔 I’ll have to be on the lookout for you there. My wife orders from Belks on line since she doesn’t get around very well with her hip problem. So if it doesn’t fit or is not what she wanted, I get to return it at the store. The ladies there are ALWAYS very nice and cordial about the returns. And you are so right about the tea cakes. My aunt made the best and would bring a batch along with six or seven cakes when they came to visit us from Nebraska. Sweet memories!
Teresa Marie Radwan - February 27, 2023 11:51 am
Jean Sherrill - February 27, 2023 11:59 am
My Grandmother made very few deserts but she did make tea cakes. There was a big drawer in the kitchen where she kept her baking supplies and there in a cloth flour sack were the tea cakes. Wish I had some now.
Melissa Brown - February 27, 2023 12:25 pm
Oh l have fond memories of my grandmother making tea cakes. They were wonderful. I wish l had gotten her recipe, it was delicious !!!
Anne Arthur - February 27, 2023 12:27 pm
Childhood memories are the best. You painted the perfect picture with your words.
Bonnie Specchio - February 27, 2023 12:55 pm
Sean, your blog always makes my day. Growing up in Illinois, I never heard of tea cakes! Just be assured though, that I still make recipes from my Betty Crocker cookbook on my Kitchenaid mixer while listening to the AM radio!
J - February 27, 2023 1:01 pm
They say the past was never better, but I think it was quieter, more imagination, more outdoors, more interaction between kids, adults, communities, teachers. Farm fairs, ladies circle meetings, our 3 person bike gang with playing cards in the spokes travelling the dirt backroads in a cloud of dust. Families got together for reunions, parades, or just dropped by to say Hi. Life was lived, might not have been well, 10 cents worth of candy corn probably meant more to me then, than the android phone does today, but I think we all knew what happiness was and it was exciting. Thanks Sean.
MMiller - February 27, 2023 3:15 pm
The above was true even in NYC which was a collection of neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone and any adult (whether your parent or not) was boss!
Steve McCaleb - February 27, 2023 1:14 pm
I ain’t seen a tea cake in nigh on to 50 years. But your post today has in the words of the immortal Jerry Clower,”has done flung a craving on me”. But the woman who used to make them for me has been gone nearly that long and…..we’ll, it just wouldn’t be the same. I’ll just hang to my memories.
David from CA - February 27, 2023 1:23 pm
I’d almost forgotten about “Go outside.” The motto of our childhood.
Ed (Bear) - February 27, 2023 1:27 pm
sjhl7 - February 27, 2023 1:30 pm
Tea cakes are a favorite childhood memory. In today’s world they seem a lot like sugar cookies but I love them both!
Pat E Prater - February 27, 2023 1:37 pm
Thank you for the memories. I just might make some tea cakes today.
Cozette Coats - February 27, 2023 1:42 pm
I loved the look at this bygone era. Thank you.
Carolyn Shomaker - February 27, 2023 2:10 pm
Loved this! And the reason girls don’t cross their legs anymore is because their dresses are so short, you could see their imagination if they did!
Sharen - February 27, 2023 2:12 pm
Oh yes! I have Granny’s recipe for tea cakes, and I remember spending way more time outside than kids do today. We looked forward to weather warm enough to go barefoot. Did you catch fireflies in the evening after supper?
Allison Mackey Vardeman - February 27, 2023 2:16 pm
My mind is flooded with sweet memories!
Mosby - February 27, 2023 2:45 pm
Tea cakes are made differently from other cookies. Some of the recipes I’ve seen contain a fairly large amount of baking soda, which of course would tend to make thick cake-like cookies. My husband’s grandmother made them in a cast iron skillet rather than in the oven. I’ve been looking for an authentic tea cake recipe for most of my almost-40 married years and haven’t found it yet. At least not one that is cooked in a skillet, or that my husband would verify as tasting like the tea cakes he remembers.
Connie Gibson - February 27, 2023 2:57 pm
When you mentioned AM radio I wondered if you ever had a transistor radio which was the rage in 1962 when I was twelve. I just had to have one and spent many hours listening to AM rock and roll stations which didn’t actual come in very well.
Marc - February 27, 2023 3:01 pm
What a wonderful story today. I also remember dirt sweat necklaces around our necks after a day outside or running thru the sprinkler on the driveway. At my house my grandmother would bring home a sack of the latest food craze, Krystal hamburgers , 30 for $3 I believe , or a box of Krispy kremes . No wonder I was a such a chubby young dude. Thanks for your memories and sharing them with us.
Mary Miller - February 27, 2023 3:07 pm
Describes well the Deep South when I moved here from NYC in the 1970s! It was indeed culture shock! Some elements weee universal like ‘go outside’ I grew up with that in the city!
JonDragonfly - February 27, 2023 3:09 pm
“…toward home. Toward people who loved us.”
Oh my, what a beautiful sound that has.
Carla E. - February 27, 2023 3:17 pm
In our family, it was Cous’n Lillian who was known for her teacakes. Seemed like she was perennially in her 80’s, and was my grandfather’s cousin, but that’s what we all called her. Visits to her house featured games of Parcheesi, her playing the piano for us, and plenty of freshly baked teacakes. We always left with a paper sack full and the bag would show grease stains by the time we got home. Thanks, Sean, for the memories.
Charles Farrell - February 27, 2023 3:22 pm
Yes the good old days. We ran real fast to see who could bottle the most lightening bugs. The house was for sleeping and eating all else outside.
Gayle Wilson - February 27, 2023 3:23 pm
My little Granny made tea cakes, and pound cakes. Sometimes a pound cake a day because that was the staple in the house. Tea cakes were for special occasions – the women’s circle group – aka baptist women. The smell of the tea cakes was heavenly. I wonder if there will be tea cakes in heaven? I guess little Granny and other baptist women, not current day baptist women, will be in charge of the tea cakes.
Carol Robinson - February 27, 2023 3:28 pm
I miss the pinto beans cooked in a pot with snaps, potatoes and fat back !! I still have an empty bottle of Estee lauder that was grandma’s , can’t bring myself to toss it.
Peggy M. Windham - February 27, 2023 3:43 pm
My mother made tea cakes. They were so delicious! I also remember many of the things you mentioned from your childhood. Boy! Those were the days when things were so simple! I miss that!
Ruth Gunter Mitchell - February 27, 2023 4:20 pm
Mother’s teacakes were the best!! Thank goodness, she gave me her recipe before she died. Unfortunately, I can’t find measuring utensils that contain “a little sugar”, “a couple fists” of flour, about “that much” butter, a “little bit” of salt, and “just enough” vanilla flavoring. When I master those amounts, I’ll share Mother’s “best”teacakes with my own daughters.
Helen De Prima - February 27, 2023 5:00 pm
On my grandfather’s Kentucky farm, the big black iron bell by the back porch summoned us from the woods or the barn. And tea cakes were always left over from my grandmother’s bridge parties where she and her friends lunched on chicken a la king and Benedictive finger sandwiches.
AlaRedClayGirl - February 27, 2023 5:15 pm
What wonderful memories! My mother baked cookies, but my grandmother only baked tea cakes. And yes, how I remember my mother telling me to “Go outside and play!” Sadly, it is getting harder to tell kids that now in some areas of the country because of the dangers.
Gloria Miller - February 27, 2023 6:15 pm
Ah, yes – teacakes! Such a treat to run into my grandmother’s pantry and see that oval platter with a tea towel covering it, knowing what was underneath. What I wouldn’t give for my grandmother’s teacakes – and biscuits! And, or course, more time with her.
Sissy Geist - February 27, 2023 6:36 pm
I remember those days of tea cakes. Lord howl wish we could return to those days….Life was good.
Molly - February 27, 2023 6:38 pm
I loved my growing up years and mine were a good many years ahead of yours. Riding bikes all day, or reading books, or exploring places with friends just occupied our time. An older neighbor made giant teacakes because she cut them out with a coffee can! Many sweet memories!
Pat - February 27, 2023 7:07 pm
I remember being called home at night by my dad whistling! We each knew our own dad’s particular whistle!. I tried to let my own kids and grandkids enjoy nights outside playing and enjoying themselves with friends and lightening bugs, sprinklers, bikes and sleepovers.
To bad all that is slipping away.
There is nothing like sitting around a baby pool soaking your feet eating fudgesycles!
RichardC - February 27, 2023 7:21 pm
A great traipse down memory lane. Lewis Grizzard had nothing on you.
Linda Moon - February 27, 2023 8:02 pm
“Marvelous and sublime…it is that natural charm and unpretentious experience of simplicity.” -Richard J. Foster.
Thank you for this real and simple story, Sean. – Linda K. Moon (me)
patriciasimmonstaylor - February 27, 2023 10:10 pm
I laughed my way through this one. Those were the good old days and we didn’t even know it at the time! Thanks for sharing and bringing back memories to those of us who lived this….Precious memories,
catladymac - February 27, 2023 10:34 pm
Shooot, I come from simplke people – and we never had “tea cakes.”
Lori - February 27, 2023 10:37 pm
Every mother in our neighborhood had a different sound for their kid. Ours was my mother banging on the bottom of a pan with a wooden spoon. It was very distinct and we came running. Another mother used a bike horn. Another used a cow bell. Some just yelled. Regardless, we were outside ALL day. No phones. No video games. No one went inside to watch TV. But boy somehow we sure stayed busy. If only we could go back.
Jane Cline - February 27, 2023 11:27 pm
You absolutely crack me up. Those “good ol days” are long gone.
Karen - February 27, 2023 11:55 pm
I am glad to have had such a childhood. Thank you for the memories.
MAM - February 28, 2023 12:14 am
oooo, yum, cheese straws. I wonder if I can find or if I even have my mom’s old recipe. I haven’t had a cheese straw in years. My mouth is watering at the thought.
Ingrid Whigham - February 28, 2023 3:57 am
Yummy! Teacakes are my favorite. When we visited my grandmother in Ariton, Alabama, the cookie jar was usually full of teacakes. We soon took care of that. I’m sure I could eat a dozen or more teacakes in one sitting.
Susanne S Maxwell - February 28, 2023 4:07 am
Oh The Memories❣️
billie tomberlin - February 28, 2023 2:01 pm
Linda Thacker - February 28, 2023 2:41 pm
Ahhh. You took me back to my childhood.
Sylvia Sykes - February 28, 2023 5:17 pm
This is one of your best! Your descriptions of the women, the teacakes and the banishment to outside are “spot on”.
Latane Barton - February 28, 2023 10:05 pm
My Mama made the best tea cakes.. she rolled the lard/flour mixture between her hands until it was just like meal. When they were baked and cooled, she’d spread homemade chocolate frosting on one tea cake and top it with another. Nothing better. Thanks for the memory
Cathy M - March 1, 2023 2:48 pm
I still have my paternal grandmothers hand written recipe card for tea cakes. She laughed when I asked her to write it down bc she did not need written instructions. She would sometimes say that she did not have dessert to offer but she had tea cakes and cold boiled custard. A stand by. She raised five children on a farm during the depression and my dad said she worked as hard as any man on the farm. By the time I came along those hard times were over but the stories of survival continued. She was small in stature but mighty in spirit and strength. She cooked like an angel and started cooking for her Sunday feast on Sat. Always . She played the piano at the Baptist church and then my granddaddy drove down a dirt road with dust flying. She had to get busy and get her dinner on the table that had been set before church. I helped her make tea cakes in the summer when I visited. Delicious! Her secret was just a pinch of nutmeg. Food for the Gods. I feel as if I have been with her this morning. Thank you for that gift, Sean. You are simply the best❤️🙏🏻