Or, The Black Man’s Steak and Gravy
By Kimber Thomas
If blackness and southernness had a love child, it would be a teacake.
It was high noon and 1955 in Reganton, Mississippi, the hottest day of the year. Black women were strutting up and down the road, to and from work, with sweat dripping from their platted hair and flour sack aprons. Stray dogs were scratching up screen doors for a sip of something cool, and the sun was beaming down on the bedroom of Lottie’s shotgun house like God was looking at it with a flashlight.
Somethin’ was in the water. Somebody was coming to town.
Lottie worked in Miss Edith’s kitchen, and her brown skin had cast a permanent shadow against Edith’s white Kenmore stove, white sink and white boiler. Miss Edith had been up since the rooster’s crow – to the beauty parlor first, for her curls; to Ms. Aden’s store, last, for groceries – because her husband was set to arrive home from a trip up North later that evening and she wanted to welcome him back as best she could. Lottie was told to fix steak and gravy and biscuits and cake for the couple’s dinner that night, and since the occasion was a special one, she took extra care to massage the salt and pepper into the steak, to add a little extra flour for a thicker gravy, to make a little more dough for a denser biscuit, and to add a little more sugar for a sweeter cake. Miss Edith wanted to reintroduce her husband to the south, to how it tasted, and Lottie made it happen, masterfully.
The black women around the town had been whispering about another man who was also due to arrive at the setting of the sun: Lottie’s sweet lover, Joe D. Hunter. Though all the other women knew that Joe D. was a po’ show of a man, Lottie enjoyed his presence, and his coming had her as giddy as a schoolgirl. As Lottie rolled out the biscuit dough, she stared out of Miss Edith’s kitchen window and imagined Joe D. walking down the road and turning into her fork. Before Lottie knew it, she had let out part of a giggle. Just as her daydream was getting good, it was interrupted by Miss Edith’s shriek.
“Lottie! That gal of yours is out there on that trike with her back out again!”
Miss Edith was sitting on her floral print couch with her clothes starched and hair pin-curled, getting her weekly dose of the Lawrence Welk show. The beginning was her favorite part: Lawrence Welk would appear on stage, and bubbles, sometimes as small as buttons, sometimes as large as teacakes, would surround him. “From Hollywood! The one and only…” When the show got to the good part, Lottie’s pie-faced daughter, along with some little black boys from up the road, passed by her screen door, licked their tongues out, and took off, laughing.
“Yas’m,” Lottie replied.
Lottie rushed outside, snatched her daughter up, and told her to go sit on the steps off the back of Miss Edith’s kitchen. “You know betta’ den’ dat!” Lottie fussed, with her lips skinned back over her teeth. Her son was already back there, peeling the white paint off the back of Miss Edith’s house. “Stop dat!” Lottie hollered. Black and white folks alike knew that when the Good Lord was giving out sense, both of Lottie’s children were somewhere sleep.
Lottie prepared the spread for Mr. J.W. Rideout’s return. The yellow Formica table was already set with fine china plates, silverware, and napkins, so Lottie put the main dish – the steak – in the middle of the table, placed the porcelain gravy boat to the left of the steak, the bowl of hot buttered biscuits to the right of the steak, and the glass cake plate, which contained a pyramid of pound cake slices Lottie created, at the head of the table. Miss Edith was delighted, and Lottie watched from afar as Mr. Rideout entered the house, embraced his wife, and the two ate together in what seemed like a scene out of Gone With the Wind. Because Lottie knew that Miss Edith hadn’t gotten extra pretty for no reason, and because she also knew that a watched pot would never boil, she decided to take her children and head on home for the night.
“Goodnight, Mrs. Edie. Goodnight Mista Rideout,” Lottie said.
“Alright Lottie, see you first thing in the morning!” Miss Edith replied. “Oh, Lottie,” Miss Edith stopped her as she was walking out of the house, “could you count those Co-Colas and make sure they’re all there?”
“Yas’m,” Lottie replied. “It’s eleven of ‘em.”
“Oh goodness, I just, I could’ve sworn there were twelve in there!”
The sound of Miss Edith’s voice echoed as Lottie and her children walked up the dirt road towards their house. The children were in front of Lottie, taking turns running and punting a glass Coke bottle. The light brown dust that they kicked up along the way formed around Lottie in a circular motion, like a teacake. The darkness of Lottie’s skin, the goldenness of the dust-formed delicacy, and the fierce combination of both, was enough to whet a dead man’s appetite.
And that was fine by Lottie. The love that she’d missed for so long was headed home at the setting of the sun.
Lottie was off in her white rusted foot tub washing up when she decided she’d make Joe some teacakes and fried bologna. She wanted to give him something that he could feel, and black women all around the Deep South knew that this dish was da black man’s steak an’ gravy. Teacakes were also the closest things to something sweet that she had, and since they kept well and tasted good, she figured they were her best bet. Lottie covered herself in some ten-cent dusting powder, greased down with some lard, took the hot comb to her bang and kitchen, and slipped on her pink duster. Love smelled like lavender and hog meat. She was ready to work.
Lottie fried the bologna first. It popped and sizzled and bubbled up in the cast iron pan until it couldn’t take anymore. She laid it out on a platter to rest. Then, for the teacakes, she sifted
4 cups flour,
2 tbsp baking soda, and
1 tbsp baking powder
together in one bowl, and creamed
2 cups white sugar,
2 eggs, and
1 cup butter (softened)
together in another. Lottie combined the two bowls, shaped and kneaded the dough with a mason jar until it was smooth enough for her liking, and cut out perfectly round teacakes with the jar’s top. She placed them, one by one, on a baking sheet, and let them go at 350° for ten minutes.
The teacakes that Lottie produced were sweet, coy, and finally, political. On one hand, they were a reflection of her newly emancipated ancestors who recreated the English teacake using staples they had on hand to make the teacake their own. On the other hand, they represented a black woman who desired to be loved and who wanted to embody sweetness and taste so badly, but who fell short and had to make do with the sweet taste of a teacake.
Lottie took extra care to gently peel each teacake off of the baking pan, one by one. In her mind, the bologna would sit on the left side of her rickety, wooden kitchen table, and the teacakes, which would form a pyramid on the platter, would sit at the head of the table. She placed each teacake on a plate, one on top of the other, turned a silver pie pan over on top of them, and hid them in the pie safe.
Since her children had knocked themselves out from playing so hard earlier in the day, Lottie decided she would go ahead and wait in bed for Joe’s return. She laid on her back and stared at the ceiling until the man who had the key to her kingdom turned in for the night.
Women around the town always said that “every shuteye ain’t sleep.”
Lottie jumped up as she heard Joe D. burst through the front door. “Lottie!” he called out softly. Lottie closed her eyes tight and pretended to be sleeping. She giggled to herself and waited to see how Joe D. would react to seeing the teacakes she made for him. Though she hid them from the kids, Lottie figured that Joe would go looking for them, and would find them, once the smell hit him like a ton of bricks. He stumbled around in the kitchen for minutes. Lottie couldn’t take it anymore, so she got up to greet him.
The two embraced for what seemed like eternity. Joe picked Lottie up and spun her around and she giggled and blushed and laughed and hugged. It was marvelous.
Lottie glanced over at the dish where she hid the teacakes to find every single one of them gone. The silver pie pan was tumbled over on top of the counter, and nothing was left but darkness. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw two little shadows, running barefoot with their hands full and fists folded like thieves in the night, headed to the back of the house.
Lottie turned back towards Joe and smiled shyly as he bit off a piece of fried bologna. He was delicious, and most importantly, he was home.
 In a 2006 USA Today article, Millie Coleman, author of The South’s Legendary Frances Virginia Tea Room Cookbook, explained that “tea cakes were introduced to the Colonies by the British, who served sweet cookies or cakes with afternoon tea or with the more formal ‘high tea’ later in the day.” How African Americans came to know teacakes, however, is debatable. Some culinary historians assert that teacakes may have been the slaves’ version of the English teacake, while others, like Jessica B. Harris, point out that teacakes “were not a slave food” because bleached flour and refined white sugar are “ingredient[s] slaves would not have had access to.” Conversely, the positions of the slaves who worked in the Big House should not be disregarded. Jessica Harris notes in Chapter 5 of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America that these slaves occasionally had access to more foods and ingredients than other slaves; this alone suggests that slave cooks may have been introduced to teacakes by virtue of having to make them for their European masters.
 Cornmeal cookies were also popular among African American families in the American South during the mid-twentieth century. The ingredients of these treats are similar to those of teacakes, except cornmeal replaces flour in the recipes. In What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives, Covey and Eisnach note that slaves relied heavily on cornmeal as their main source of dough for baking which suggests that slaves likely consumed these cookies.