Here at NC Food we write about all aspects of our state’s traditional foodways. We tell potential bloggers to think of food as communication – what growing, preparing, and eating in certain ways says about a community’s traditions, history, and values.
This week I saw an example of community values emerging through food in a powerful way. My partner Isaac worked for five years as a reporter at The Times News in Burlington, NC. One of his coworkers was Mike Wilder, a longtime education and features writer. Mike is one of those rare people you can disagree with on politics, religion, or any number of other supposedly hot button issues, and still really like and respect. Mike doesn’t talk much about himself – Isaac knew him for years before discovering he played music at his church and at local retirement communities. He loves opera, and kids, and is usually described as sweet, although he doesn’t suffer fools gladly (if at all).
On March 3 (coincidentally Isaac’s birthday), Mike ended up at Alamance Regional Medical Center. Everyone knew he hadn’t been feeling good, but even so the report of cancer in his colon and liver was a shock. Mike’s only 45. He’s started chemotherapy, and has a long road ahead of him. A road that, even with health insurance, promises to be prohibitively expensive. Here’s where community comes in.
The Times News passed the word on to readers through editor Madison Taylor’s blog. They wanted to let folks who have read Mike’s stories for years know that they can rely on the reporters filling in for Mike to do a good job. But they also knew readers would want to know about Mike because he is a local. As far as the paper goes, he’s family. Receptionist Vicky Davis (who is honestly about the sweetest person I’ve ever met in my life) immediately stuck a jar on the desk where she greets visitors to collect money, and began thinking of something bigger – a bake sale, to be held in the paper’s break room. Vicky said, “We do love our Mike! Miss his laughter……his presence.”
They covered the tables in the break room with pastel table cloths, and set up areas for iced cakes, pound cakes, loaf cakes and breads, cookies, candy, and pies. Vicky alone made so many items she had to buy 25 pounds of sugar. All over Facebook, people were bragging about the items they were bringing in – coconut custard pies, a 15-layer chocolate cake, pecan pies.
Packages of cookies were not just grouped in freezer bags but dolled up for Easter with curled ribbon. The support page made just for Mike (In Mike Wilder’s Corner) kept up a running tally.
Then the culinary department at Alamance Community College wanted to contribute. According to the college’s public information director, Ed Williams, the week was dedicated to “practical pies,” and the culinary teachers said they would wind up with eight pies to donate to the sale.
The Alamance Reads selection this year was To Kill a Mockingbird, and in recognition of the many references to cakes and community foods in the book, a Calpurnia’s Pound Cake Cook-off was held at the Graham Public Library. Competitors in the contest asked if they could donate cakes made from the prize-winning recipes.
Mike Wilder is a huge fan of Jeanne Robertson; one of Alamance County’s biggest celebrities, Robertson is a former Miss North Carolina from the 1960s and a humorist and public speaker. Her humor is rooted in stories of place – they often begin, “In our area of the country . . .” One of her famous bits involving why you should never send a man to the grocery store describes the importance of taking food over upon hearing that a friend is sick. “I make only one thing,” she says, “and that’s small little 7-up pound cakes.” When she heard about Mike’s illness, Robertson offered to make one of her famous cakes to be sold, accompanied by the recipe and one of her DVDs she believes is Mike’s favorite. She also donated DVDs to sell on Mike’s behalf.
I was touched by the outpouring of love and support from this Alamance County community. Yet, the skeptical part of me hoped that they wouldn’t get stuck with too much of these hundreds of goodies. After all, how many people are going to make a special trip Easter week to the newspaper office to buy a cake? If you had asked me, I would have guessed that they would make a few hundred dollars for Mike’s bills.
There was some help in outreach, though. Richard Orcutt, owner of Atlantic Sign Media, stopped by the office and offered to set a sign up the day of the sale to advertise to passers-by. The school system and even City Hall let folks know about it.
In the manner of 21st century community, word also went out by Twitter and Facebook – Ms. Robertson reminded her local FB fans to stop by the sale to help Mike – “a great guy we’ve all enjoyed reading for years. He’s a part of this community’s family & needs our support during this difficult time.”
Well, the sale was scheduled to start at 9 am, and continue until closing, or as long as items remained to sell. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Madison Taylor, the editor at The Times-News, reported yesterday afternoon: “People lined up to buy at 7:30 for our 9 a.m. event. And by 10:30, we had been cleaned out and had more than $3,500 to show for the tremendous efforts of so many. People continued to come to our office even when we had nothing to sell. Those who did left money in a jar at our front desk. We collected more than $1,000 after the sale was over. It was an amazing display of community at a time when it’s more cynical to believe those kinds of days are long gone. I can only offer my thanks to people in Alamance County for their generosity and kindness. And yes, many told stories of how Mike’s reporting made a difference in their lives.”
It is indeed good to remember that communities like this exist all over North Carolina. In honor of the blow-out bake sale of love, here is Jeanne Robertson’s famous 7-up pound cake recipe, as well as a link to the winning recipes from the Calpurnia Pound Cake Cook Off. And just for fun, a link to Robertson’s explanation of why she shouldn’t have sent her husband to the store. Remember, when you make these cakes because you’ve heard someone is sick or has passed, that’s how we do things in this part of the country.
Jeanne Robertson’s 7-up Pound Cake
Can be frozen until someone your know is sick … or has ‘passed.’
2 sticks of margarine
½ cup of shortening
3 cups of sugar
1 ½ teaspoons lemon extract (give or take a little)
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract (sometimes Jeanne pours in more)
3 cups of all-purpose flour – measure before sifting
7 ounces of 7-up (Jeanne uses diet 7-up to cut calories)
Official directions in bold – Jeanne’s secret notes in italics.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Cream margarine, shortening and sugar. Put under kitchen light until soft. Beat with a mixer.
Add lemon and vanilla extracts. Add now so you won’t forget. Cake tastes funny without ‘em. Beat some more.
Add eggs one at a time. I throw all of them in at the same time. First, take off the shells.
Alternate adding flour and 7-up, beating after each addition. Finish with 7-up. I don’t alternate. Dump it all in. Go for it! Turn mixer to highest level. Stand back. Add more 7-up if it looks dry. Sprinkle in more flour if it looks too moist. This is not rocket science.
Spray 10″ tube pan with Bakers Joy. No need to “flour.” Important! Be generous. Trust me. Or split the batter and use two 8″ tube pans. This will give you two cakes. Math.
Cook at 300 degrees for 1 hour or until it “tests done.” To test: poke a knife or broom straw in and out of cake until nothing sticks. Note: It takes longer to cook one big cake than two smaller ones. Higher math. Think about it. Adapt.
Take whatever you cook out of the oven – let it sit for 30 minutes before flipping over on a plate. Flip the cake. Not you. Waiting a lot longer will require a chiseling step. It gets ugly.
Wilder donations accepted at the Times-News at 707 S. Main Street, Burlington, NC 27215. Call for more information (336) 227-0131.
Thanks to all the Times-News folks for their contributions and photos.