Family’s have traditions. Being the product of German Lutheran heritage on my mother’s side and East Texas foot-washing Baptists on my daddy’s side, I am proud of the little that has caught my notice over these 65 years. Dear God, how can it be that the little boy hiding in the bar-b-que pit from his heckling Uncle Bubba in that giant yard on Reinerman Street, Houston, Texas, can be approaching his 65th celebration of dies y sies de Septembre? Many bowls of German potato salad and hunks of Anna Mae Sowell’s chocolate cake later, yes, it is a banner year. Only recently has “the cake” been the subject of discussion. Of my two older sisters, Sue, the middle child, has continued the tradition of offering full service from her kitchen, including lots of recipes from her husband’s German family as well. In my eyes, none, no other, deserves the honors due the cake.
On this leg of my journey, these last four months in Texas, as I get ready to head back to my new adventure in northern New Mexico, we’ve been talking about that cake lately. I had a copy of the recipe on a note card, copied from either Mother’s or Sue’s recipe box. But I had no directions. Mother had stopped making the cake long ago. For many years that responsibility has gone to Sue, but even she had made the cake only as recently as our celebration of Mother and Aunt Mary’s 87th birthdays four years ago. It is Aunt Mary’s favorite. So when I asked Sue recently for directions, she faltered as we talked on the phone long distance. We were planning a cook down to occur in conjunction with a group garage sale we held here in the country. After we finally had committed some directions to laptop memory, I gave the recipe to our friend Bert, who should go ahead and start his new business in retirement, Bert’s Desserts. He made the cake for the gathering, and it was a hit. “That sounds like a recipe I have”, commented our neighbor Pat on the opening day of the sale, before we had eaten even a bite. You know how it goes with old cake recipes, or the chocolate filling for a meringue pie. Everyone has a favorite—the best chocolate taste, no argument. I don’t want to discuss it.
A continuing topic of discussion over the years has been why the cake wants to fall while cooling after it comes out of the oven. Did it always do that, I asked my sister? She didn’t remember, and I don’t know that the dilemma has been solved. Sue made another run at the cake a week later, after going through Mother’s box of recipes recorded on index cards, “Chocolate Cake (Sis)” was the heading on the card. “I think it’s the best one I’ve ever made,” Sue said proudly to me as I was returning from a business excursion to the coast, and as it turned out, on my way to eat a piece of that cake. Yes, it was perfect. The chocolate was perfect, and the butter icing, yes, just as I remembered.
A few weeks ago, Sue and I drove to Houston to visit our Aunt Mary, the only surviving member of Daddy’s generation. Aunt Mary turned 90 last September. She, Mother and I are a week apart—Aunt Mary on the 2nd, Mother on the 9th, and I on September 16th. Mother missed her 90th birthday by eight months. Aunt Mary survives, strong of heart and strong of family memories, although they wax and wane, even in the course of a conversation. Aunt Mary, do you remember the Hollis chocolate cake, I asked her on that visit. “You mean Anna Mae’s cake,” she replied. We were unable to figure out exactly who Anna Mae was. We knew at some point long ago, however. The closest we came, on my speculation, was that she was either the daughter or daughter in law of Aunt Minnie Sowell, our Grandpa Stephen Edgar Hollis’s sister. The index card reads simply Chocolate Cake (Sis), who was Daddy’s youngest sibling, another fine cook in the East Texas southern tradition.
I have the cake recipe documented, and one of my goals for the next four months is to find a bakery in Santa Fe New Mexico who will make this cake for me. And I want it to go in a cookbook of Texas southern favorites. And I want to know who Anna Mae Sowell was, while I still care. Things happen sooner, and quicker, than we realize. I don’t want to be the one dropping the ball on this important piece of history, for our family, those foot-washing Hollis Baptists from Angelina and Trinity County Texas.
Anna Mae Sowell’s Chocolate Cake—Normangee Texas (April 27, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis