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The next excerpt from Beatrice Allen Page’s unpublished manuscript, Landscape with Figures:

“The morning sun shining in the kitchen inspired me to reline the cupboards and drawers. When I pulled out the old yellowed paper on the bottom of the first one, I came upon a recipe which had somehow gotten lost under there: ‘Dorcas’s Blueberry Cake.’ The ink was so faded that the old-fashioned, gracefully shaded writing was barely legible, but out of mild curiosity I carried it over to the window and read it through:

  • 1/2 cup butter – scant
  • 1/2 cup sugar – Cream well, then add:
  • 1 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/2 tsp soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt – All sifted together. (Keep part of the flour to mix with berries so they won’t stick together.) Then add:
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 cups berries – Bang pan on table three or four times before putting in oven. Bake 20-30 minutes in hot oven. Serve with butter.

It would be interesting to know why you bang the pan.

I’ve been bored with food lately – it’s no fun cooking for yourself –  but I suddenly recalled a delectable blueberry cake we used to have when I was a child. Could this be the recipe for it? On impulse I dropped the cutlery back in the drawer helter-skelter, picked up my raincoat and car keys, ran out through the pelting rain to the car and drove over to the little market in the village to buy a box of blueberries.

Motivated by a mixture of curiosity, nostalgia and anticipation, I actually enjoyed stirring up the cake, contrary to my usual impatience with cooking. The end result looked the same as the cake I remembered. (I was careful to use a pan of the same shape.) And it tasted good, but not the same. Perhaps because it was cooked in my little electric oven instead of the old coal stove; perhaps because I didn’t select the right temperature, not being sure just how hot a ‘hot oven’ was supposed to be; perhaps because it was not so much the taste of the cake I had hoped to recreate as the circumstances associated with it.

I fell into a not unpleasant reveries about the inexorability of time’s flow in which all our lives are engulfed and eventually forgotten. Who was Dorcas, for instance? I never heard her mentioned by my parents or any other relative. A friend of a friend of a friend from ‘way back when?

An image of her began to form in my mind. She was born sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century and grew up in a village not unlike Stoneleigh somewhere in New England. She married a sea captain and had four children. Actually she had seven, but three died in infancy. She spent many lonely months when her husband was away at sea. And life was rugged without any of our modern conveniences. But she had been brought up to cope, without complaining, with whatever problem, crisis or disaster befell her – not only without a martyred air of resignation, but with an acceptance of life, grateful for whatever blessing came her way.

One of those blessing must have been the arrival of June after the long, cold winter and the chilly, reluctant spring. I could hear her saying to the children in a lilting voice: ‘The blueberries are ripe! We’ll have a cake!’ She handed each of them a jar or a pan or a basket and off they trooped to the pasture to pick blueberries.

The children always remembered those little expeditions: the sound of the berries being dropped into the tin pan, for instance, the taste of the ones surreptitiously slipped into their mouths, the feel of the sun on their backs, the smell of sweet fern, their blue juice-stained fingers, the hum of a passing bee, the tinkle of a cowbell. And, of course, back in the kitchen the sound of the wooden spoon against the bowl as Dorcas beat up the batter, and then the smell of the cake cooking, and finally the taste of it hot out of the oven and spread with homemade butter.

When they grew up and had children themselves, they repeated the whole experience. And when their children grew up in turn…So it went on, a family tradition handed down until times changed and the young people began to feel restless, to hanker after excitement. So they left the village to see wider horizons in distant towns and cities.

How many hands had that recipe passed through, I wondered? Not only down through the generations – vertically, so to speak, but horizontally, circulating among friends and relatives of the same generation. Why did it bear Dorcas’s name? Had she once upon a time dreamed up the cake for a fair put on by the village church? And everybody who tasted it begged for the recipe? Was it still being passed along somewhere from person to person?”