Gene, the silver-haired retired truck driver sitting across from me, raked a napkin over his plate discreetly, but I saw it. He glanced longingly at the piece of pecan pie being devoured by his wife Joyce. I cringed and walked over to the dessert table. It was a Sunday in late May 2016, and I tilted uneasily into the fellowship hall at Science Hill Friends, six miles west of Asheboro, North Carolina. Following Sunday services, everyone had gathered for a potluck meal.
Wrapped in a cloud of white frosting laced with toasted coconut, my cake floated on top of my very best glass stand. A moist layer of lemon curd peeked out temptingly between the two layers. There was nothing wrong with its appearance. But only two slices, one of which had been Gene’s, had been cut. The other desserts—Ann’s pecan-studded strawberry cake and Margaret’s milk chocolate cake, along with a host of pies—were almost gone. What was wrong with my cake?
Coconut Lemon Supreme Cake read the little card I had scrolled with optimistic flourishes and tucked in front of my masterpiece. I cut a piece for myself, and on my way back to my seat, I tasted it. I could barely swallow. Dry as sawdust.
The lemon curd couldn’t hide it. And the frosting was decent—let’s be honest, it’s hard to ruin sour cream and powdered sugar—but frosting was just frosting. It wasn’t cake. “No wonder nobody wants it,” I whispered to J.P., my beau of six months. “It’s terrible.”
“Good,” said J.P. “All the more for me.” To his credit, he claimed to relish everything I made, and believed anything could be rescued with enough peanut butter. But it was going to take a whole jar full of Jif to save this catastrophe of a cake.
J.P. had been a “Friend”—what Quakers call themselves—for many years now, and I had started attending services sporadically along with him. At forty-nine, and in the process of disentangling myself from a long-term desultory marriage and trapped in a stressful job in college admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I longed for a new kind of nourishment. My fledgling relationship with J.P., a sensitive sculptor with a generous heart, promised the possibility of a better life but my attempt to fit into his community wasn’t going so well. I had already committed a major gaffe.
On Sunday mornings, Science Hill Friends buzzed around the Meeting House, hugging and shaking hands with joy. As an outsider, I couldn’t help feeling that I had stumbled by mistake into the home of a big, extended family. Today, the widowed Martha, former school teacher and the grand dame of Science Hill, whose parents and grandparents had also attended here, flitted by on her way to greet others. “How are you doing?” she called over to me.
“Good,” I said, before throwing out what I hoped would be an innocent pleasantry. “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain.”
Her eyebrows immediately seized up into a severe line. “The farmers need it,” she said, with a little finger wag. I immediately recoiled, hoping no one else had heard what I said.
What was I thinking? The congregation brimmed with people who earned a living from the land and depended on regular rainfall, especially in the summer. If they weren’t the ones growing corn or soybeans or raising cattle, they sold seed, feed, and tractors to the ones who did or like Gene, trucked it to the masses. And nearly everyone tended a garden to feed their own families.
A verse from Ecclesiastes (5:9), printed on the bulletin, underscored my shame: The profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field. At Science Hill Friends Meeting, farmers reigned supreme. And I had snubbed them with my vain wish for fair weather. I had also failed in my attempt to bring a tasty dish to the potluck. Two strikes in one day.
I didn’t bake a cake again. For the next year, as J.P. and I became more serious, I played it safe. When I did bring something to a Science Hill function, I made either chocolate chip cookies or deviled eggs—dishes I was good at. Dishes that, unlike my brazen “Coconut Lemon Supreme Cake,” didn’t call attention to themselves. Still, I wanted to contribute something of value. I wanted to truly nourish others with homemade food.
The desire to feed others runs in my family, and my grandmother Wilma, the eldest daughter of a farmer in Virginia, learned how to cook out of necessity, not to impress. She concentrated on simple things such as pinto beans, chicken casserole, and apple pie. Her desserts were never showy, and she wouldn’t ever have touted her cakes with a fancy placard. Yet her homemade bread and rolls with their pillowy softness and buttery tops yielded a never-ending melody of oohs and aahs. At her own church, West Bend United Methodist, also in Asheboro, her freshly baked loaves evolved into a ministry of its own, as she regularly toted them to the sick and the needy. She had found her place. Would I find mine?
“Let’s not just hand out sugary candy,” said J.P. in October 2018, one week before the annual “Trunk or Treat,” a Science Hill Halloween tradition. At this special event, everyone dressed up in costumes and offered sweets to children in the community out of the trunks of their cars in the Science Hill parking lot. Equal parts ministry and community service, “Trunk or Treat” provided a safer and friendlier option for local children. And I agreed with J.P. We could do something better than handing out the usual store-bought confections. By now, we had been married for a year, and I was as much a regular fixture at Science Hill as he was. Yet I still didn’t feel as if I belonged.
I thumbed through cookbooks, on a quest for something both yummy and nutritious. I eventually found a recipe for snack-size granola bars and decided to doctor it using my own combination of goodies: oats, almonds, sunflower seeds, coconut, and dried fruits such as cherries, apricots, and golden raisins. J.P. and I swirled everything together with honey and butter and spread the mixture into a shallow pan and baked it until crispy. Each batch—and we made three—yielded thirty-six bars, which we packed in bags along with an ingredient list as a warning for those with nut allergies.
My “kitchen sink granola” wasn’t glamorous, but all of the ingredients, especially the oats, honey, almonds and dried apricots, evoked the kind of foods that sustained our forebears. The crunch of the oats and nuts, followed by a tooth-snagging chew of tangy fruit, soothed my soul. I didn’t know if our treats would be well-received, but as with Wilma, I knew I had done my very best to nourish the masses.
A whirlwind of little goblins and superheroes blew through the Science Hill parking lot and we happily filled plastic pumpkins and canvas bags with our granola bars. To my surprise, when Jody, another longtime member of Science Hill, heard about our treats, she, too, joined the line. “Can I have one?” she asked.
“Of course!” I handed her a couple of bars, the very last remaining, one for her and one for her husband. “Mmmm…” she said. “I just love these things!”
I didn’t think anything else of it, but on the very next day, on Sunday, she cornered me in the vestibule before services. “Will you share the recipe?” she asked. I could tell she wasn’t just humoring me. “Well, sure,” I said, and added, almost as an apology, “it’s really simple.”
I typed up the recipe, and on a whim, because the granola bars seemed to make her happy, I made a new batch just for Jody. When I gave them to her on the next Sunday, this eighty-three-year-old grandmother was so tickled that she jumped up and down in the meeting house. I left not just with a tight hug, but also with the maybe-just-maybe, holding-my-breath kind of feeling that perhaps I had finally crept through a snack-sized hole in the Science Hill Friends community.
Over the next year, that gift of the humble granola bars set in motion a chain of bliss that I could not possibly have imagined, or even thought to have prayed for. After I shared the granola bars, Jody brought me a little bag of her homemade peanut brittle. Another simple recipe, but in, a word, addictive. Then, next thing I knew, people at Science Hill opened far more than their pantries to us. They opened their hearts.
“Would you like to come over and pick scuppernongs?” asked Nancy and Carl. Then it was blueberries with Larry and Ann, and then Bill and Jane brought us not one but two homegrown pumpkins. We cooked these ourselves and ended up with enough pulp for twelve pies, which we froze and, in turn, shared with others.
The timing for this generosity couldn’t have been better. In 2017, I finally left UNC but had worked there long enough to qualify for a small pension. I would write and teach part-time for extra income, but I wouldn’t have a lot of money to splurge. At the same time, J.P. and I decided to complete the construction of a house he had begun long ago but had never finished. We certainly weren’t broke, but money was tight.
We started our own garden and the chain of bliss simply multiplied. Larry gave us young broccoli and cabbage seedlings, and Ann offered as many tomato plants as we could carry away. We also planted three blackberry bushes and ended up with so many that we had to make jam. And how could I not share? When I started giving away our jam, Betty brought me two entire boxes of extra Mason jars. And then Larry let us in on a little secret. “There’s a farmer off Old U.S. 49 who grows an acre of corn just for the community. Go there and pick as much as you want,” he said.
Our first year of tomatoes wasn’t quite as successful as we hoped, but it didn’t matter. Every week in August, Betty and Jerry brought surplus tomatoes to share with others. And not just tomatoes, but squash and cucumbers, too. And like Wilma, I eventually learned to make bread, which we wrapped up and gave away as Christmas presents.
The profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field. Indeed. This simple verse, which I thought I had understood before, now resonated with new meaning. We weren’t just living well on a budget. Thanks to the generosity of our friends, we dined like kings. And my faith, emboldened by my gratitude for the earth, deepened, especially since I was now starting to know what it meant to be a farmer.
In July 2019, during the morning greeting, Martha sidled up to me. “How are you doing?” she asked.
“Great,” I said. “But it’s been kind of dry. We could really use some rain.”
She nodded, and before she moved away, I glimpsed a knowing twinkle in her eye. We understood each other.
Kitchen Sink Granola Bars
3½ cups quick-cooking oats
1 cup chopped almonds
1 egg, lightly beaten
2⁄3 cup butter, melted
½ cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup sunflower seeds
½ cup flaked coconut
¼ cup chopped dried apricots
¼ cup chopped dried cherries
¼ golden raisins
½ brown sugar
½ tsp ground cinnamon
Combine oats and almonds in a 15” x 10” x 1” baking pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 15 minutes or until toasted, stirring occasionally.
Combine egg, butter, honey, and vanilla in a large bowl. Stir in sunflower seeds, coconut, apricots, cherries, raisins, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Stir in oats and almonds.
Spray 15” x 10” x 1” pan with cooking spray and press mixture into pan. Bake at 350° for 15 minutes or until edges are browned. Cool on a wire rack and then cut into bars. Store in an airtight container. Yield 36 bars.
Rumpus original art by Rosie Struve.