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  • Writer's pictureSteven Keith

Savoring sweet food memories 100 years in the making

I have such fond memories of trips to visit my grandparents when I was growing up, and not just because of the fun times we always had. Whether staying for a few hours, days or weeks, there were also plenty of delicious sights, smells and tastes to savor as well.

Homemade Appalachian Jam Cake. For Mammaw.
Homemade Appalachian Jam Cake. For Mammaw.

I remember my Pappaw Messer’s fried hamburgers (hand-pattied with breadcrumbs and onions inside, served on white bread) and the mess of savory corned beef and cabbage he’d make for good luck on New Year’s Day.

I still picture the glistening eggs he’d fry up for Mammaw Messer, which she’d blanket with so much black pepper you could barely see anything but by the time she took her first bite. We’d watch in disbelief as we sipped a cup of “coffee” Pappaw gave us. Nevermind that it was 99% sugar and milk, we felt so grown-up nonetheless.

Celebrating Lula Keith's 100th Birthday
Celebrating Lula Keith's 100th Birthday

Its memory so strong, I can still almost taste the bubbling skillet of sausage gravy he’d make on Sunday mornings, so thick and rich and golden brown that your fork would nearly stand up on its own when dipped in it. It’s by far the best I’ve ever had and, to this day, I’ve never seen or tasted anything quite like it.

He was once a cook in the Navy, so let me just say the sailors he feed were some lucky sons of guns.

I remember my Mammaw Keith having a warm loaf of homemade sourdough bread waiting on the counter every time I walked in the door – ready for me to dig into it, slathering each slice with soft butter – along with an extra loaf she’d already wrapped in foil for me to take home.

Unless Pappaw Keith beat me to it.

I often think about the homemade banana bread, zucchini bread and pimiento cheese spread she made that became sought-after dishes at church potlucks. And, later in life, I remember enjoying her famous Kentucky “jam cake,” a traditional dense Appalachian spiced fruit-and-nut cake made in a Bundt or fluted pan that quickly became one of my wife’s favorite treats.

One of the best ways to enjoy it!
One of the best ways to enjoy it!

I still recall all of these long-gone tastes as if it were yesterday, but some of them are not limited to just memories alone.

Although three of my grandparents have passed, we celebrated Mammaw Keith’s 100th birthday last week during a lively party where she regaled us with stories from the good ol’ days, played a tune on her trusty harmonica and proved she could still “run” (laughing all the way, mind you) even if it was in a walker.

Cards were read, gifts were opened, old photos were viewed. As for me, I honored her with a nod to all of the loving memories she baked up for us grandkids growing up.

This time, I was the one who made her a jam cake.

• • •

Years ago when my grandmother sent me home with a loaf of her delicious sourdough bread, she also gave me a Ziploc bag full of the starter she used to make it.

Still smiling after 100 years.
Still smiling after 100 years.

As foul-smelling as it was, I was one excited boy who faithfully fed that starter every three days, letting it bubble and gurgle on the counter between times, using it to make Mammaw’s bread on my own anytime I wanted.

I kept that starter for years, sometimes freezing it for long periods of time, before pulling it back out to start the whole process again. It become somewhat of a ritual of mine, which I enjoyed immensely, but it was quite a commitment to keep it going. Somewhere along the way life happened, and I either accidentally tossed it or it went bad or suffered some other dubious fate I can’t recall.

All I know is that I regret not having that little piece of my grandmother’s handiwork around now to provide comfort and nourishment even after she’s no longer with us. I’ll make a new starter someday and start baking that same bread again, hopefully passing her legacy down to my own children and grandchildren-to-be.

Just don’t ask me to play the harmonica.


Mammaw’s Jam Cake

1 cups butter, softened

4 eggs

2 cups brown sugar

1 cup buttermilk

3 ½ cups flour, give or take

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. cloves

2 tsp. baking soda

1 cup blackberry jam

1 cup peach preserves

1 cup raisins

1 cup pecans

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

  2. In a large mixing bowl, blend butter, eggs, sugar and buttermilk until combined.

  3. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, spices and baking soda.

  4. Add dry mixture to liquid mixture, a little at a time, until well blended.

  5. Stir in the jam, preserves, raisins and nuts just until all are incorporated.

  6. Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean, with a separate pan of water underneath the cake to maintain moisture. Cake will have a wet appearance even when it’s done, so be careful not to overbake it.

Note: God love her heart, Mammaw forgot to include how much flour to use when sharing this recipe with us. Through much trial-and-error, we settled on the amount shown, but you may need to adjust it a tad to obtain a moist consistency.

Mammaw’s Pimiento Cheese Spread

1 lb. American cheese, shredded

1 lb. cheddar cheese, shredded

1 small onion, chopped

1 medium size pimiento (red pepper), chopped

Miracle Whip, to taste

  1. Mix the cheeses, onion and pepper together in a food grinder, mixer or bowl until well combined.

  2. Stir in enough Miracle Whip or mayonnaise until it’s easy to spread.

Note: Mammaw would combine all ingredients together in a food grinder, but you can just blend them well in a mixer or bowl.

• • •

Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at

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