LSS: Teaching and teacakes

One of the joys of teaching is learning.

When I realized I needed to teach a unit on historical fiction to my sixth-grade students, I was thrilled. I love reading historical fiction — which makes teaching an easier task. Students can tell when a teacher loves the subject matter. In fact, I’d say that students are able to decipher the truth about most anything. If a teacher’s heart isn’t in something, they know.

As I prepared to teach a novel about the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man accused of kidnapping Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s son, I realized how little I knew beyond the basics about the Great Depression.

So, I found Depression era music. We studied the Dust Bowl, stock market, hobo lifestyles and food from the Depression.

Through Facebook, a friend introduced me to videos on youtube.com called “Cooking With Clara.” Clara is in her mid-nineties and cooks simple food in her simple kitchen. I showed a couple of the five-minute videos to my students. I explained that they needed to watch and listen carefully and write down at least one of Clara’s Depression-era recipes. I added that if anyone wanted to make any of the recipes, I would give extra credit.

Never did I expect the response I got. Students brought Clara’s food in all week. More than any of the recipes (including pasta with peas, homemade bread and egg and pepper sandwiches), students chose to make Clara’s sugar cookies.

When the first student opened the Ziplock bag, I had a strong déjà vu moment. I knew exactly what those cookies were going to taste like. In watching my students watch Clara making the cookies, I had not realized that I knew those cookies.

Clara was making my great-grandmother’s teacakes.

My great-grandmother passed away almost 20 years ago, but the aroma of those cookies was exactly the same as the one produced by opening one of my great-grandmother’s cookie tins.

It made sense.

Clara and my great-grandmother could have been contemporaries (though my great-grandmother would have been a few years older). I guess lots of people made a version of those cookies in the Depression. My great-grandmother just kept making them — and called them teacakes.

Throughout the week, as more students brought more batches of Clara’s cookies, my great-grandmother’s presence grew. The texture and shape of my students’ cookies varied as wildly as my great-grandmother’s did. Sometimes they were soft and chewy. Other times they were hard as brickbats — and as some of my students noticed, they hurt your teeth.

From an old friend I reconnected with online letting me know about a little old lady who cooks Depression era food in her simple kitchen to the unnamed person who beautifully edits those videos and puts them online to my students taking the time to make the recipes and bringing them to class to share, the whole thing was sweet.

I felt like I had a little visit with someone I loved and missed.

Jan Risher column, Long Story Short, appears on Sundays. She can be reached at jan@janrisher.com.

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