In the afterword to Cook & Tell, his collection of cherished “narrative recipes”, Georgia food writer and raconteur Johnathan Scott Barrett offers his readers a challenge. “I hope you’ll be inspired to take pen to paper and capture some of your best recollections that come to mind. Write what you feel, what you remember, and why that recipe, or those dishes, meant something special to you and your family.”
Three ingredients, and minimal preparation. I suspect these qualities commended the recipe to the leaders of the annual Vacation Bible School at the First Methodist Church of Liberty, Texas that summer of 1978, when I was staying with my grandparents for the week. To a hopelessly unathletic, nearsighted, bookish, introverted boy-child, my grandparents’ home and community in those days was a welcome sanctuary of peace, love, and unconditional acceptance. I remember leaving the church kitchen that day after we’d made the cookies, with a few of them in a plastic sandwich bag and a copy of the recipe (printed with purple mimeograph ink) taped to the bag. Grammy and I each had a cookie as we drove back to the cozy mid-century ranch-style house on Webster Street, saving some for Granddaddy for after dinner.
She adopted the recipe as her signature cookie, making probably hundreds of dozens over the following years. She would cool them completely, then freeze them in large Tupperware containers, layered between waxed paper. Without fail, when anyone would drop by for a visit (expected or otherwise) she would have a plate of lemon wafers ready for guests.
22 years later, on a Saturday in June of 2000, I was ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. I went to visit her at the house on Webster Street the following day, and spent several hours sitting at her bedside. We spoke very little, and as I took my leave I leaned close to kiss her goodbye. “I love you” I said. “I love you too—so very much” she replied, in that sweet soft voice. The following Thursday morning early, the phone rang. My mother was calling, to tell me that her mother, my Grammy, had died in the early morning hours. Sometime in the days that followed, as we met with the then-current pastor of the First Methodist Church to plan the service, he kindly asked me if I wanted to have a role in the service. “Yes,” I told him. “I want to sit in the front row and cry. That’s my role in this service.” And it was, and I did.
A year later, I was ordained as a priest in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Waco, Texas. Following the ordination liturgy, the assembly adjourned to the parish hall for a grand reception. Prominently displayed in the middle of the buffet table was an enormous platter of lemon wafers. I gasped, then wept, when I saw them, and immediately went to the committee members who had organized the party to find out who had brought them. They did not know. No one could say who had brought lemon wafers to the celebration; they were never seen at a St. Paul’s gathering before or after that night.
When I hear the stories in the book of Exodus, of the mysterious heaven-sent manna that sustained the children of Israel all those years in the desert, I wonder if it didn’t look and taste just a little bit like these…
1 box lemon cake mix (see Notes)
1 “scant” cup vegetable oil
Mix all ingredients together thoroughly. The batter should be rather firm, but not stiff. Measure out by rounded teaspoons onto ungreased baking sheets, leaving about 3” between cookies (they will spread out quite a bit). Bake at 350° for 8-12 minutes until cookies brown slightly around the edges. Allow to cool for 1-2 minutes on the baking sheet, then carefully remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
Note 1: Don’t use “extra-moist” or “pudding in the mix” cake mix for this recipe. Plain (cheap!) boxed cake mix is sufficient.
Note 2: In recent years, cake mix companies seem to have reduced the quantity contained in each package (presumably as a cost-saving measure.) You may need to reduce the quantity of oil slightly in response.