The first day of September is rich with meaning for so many people in so many ways. For students of every age, from Pre-K (something that hadn’t even been invented in my day) right on through doctoral studies, it marks the time when attention turns from the delights of summer to demands of learning; for those of us in New York, it signals the start of another year’s rich smorgasbord of cultural delights – from ballet to Broadway; and, of course, if, like me, you hail from Alabama or some other state where football takes the ascendant over pretty much everything else, it’s time to Roll some Tide!
But, September 1st is also, for Miriam, Mary B. and me, the day Mama died. It’s hard to believe it’s been forty-two years already since that day in 1973, (you can find my long-form essay on the subject, “THE DRAGONFLY,” here: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/the-dragonfly/ ) but she didn’t leave us empty-handed, and her legacy has proven more resilient than even I might have imagined. So even as I look forward to a new fall season, it is good to pause and give thanks for the many gifts she gave to us, and, in truth, brought with charm and grace to every new place the Wilson family ever lived.
One of these was Decatur, AL, where we lived from April 1967 to August 1969. Located on the south bank of the Tennessee River where it reaches its deepest point on the map, Decatur was abustle with all sorts of enterprise when we moved into our new house on Greenwood Drive. There were new factories being built in every direction, the space industry in Huntsville, only 20 miles away, was growing by leaps and bounds, and as a result, the city was truly awash in those days with newcomers. We were everywhere.
In fact, there was even a Newcomers Club, made up of lovely southern ladies who recruited new members by delivering a “goodie bag” of local treats to all the new arrivals, then gathering once a month for a “coffee” in the home of some newly arrived member. Now, as anyone who remembers her would affirm, this was an activity tailor made for Mama, and within only the first few months she was already signed up to host the group at our house. (See photo.)
But, of course, being a newcomer is, by definition, a short-lived distinction, so it wasn’t long before Mama was making arrangements with our new neighbors to have a similar monthly gathering – only this time a luncheon – that would include all the women who populated our cul-de-sac. It was a good bet that most of them were newly arrived and amenable to the idea since the land we were all living on in our newly built, brick veneer, two-story houses had been a cornfield only a year or two before. It was no surprise to any of us that Mama’s new luncheon club was a big success from the very first.
I only remember their married names, for the most part. There was Mrs. Dejesu next door on one side whose husband, “Benny Carle” (the local kids’ show personality), had just purchased the local TV station, and Mrs. John Guice, wife of Decatur’s newest young Doctor, on the other. Mrs. Etheridge, with her passel of children (including one of my new classmates), was directly across the street and Mrs. Lee (whose husband, John, gave me the worst summer job I ever had working the night shift in a bread factory) two doors down. And, there on the end, near the top of the cul-de-sac circle, lived the Sandlins, Margaret, whose name I do remember, and her husband, rocket-scientist Jim. I remember him especially well because he had a silver Chevrolet Corvair convertible (unsafe at any speed!) that he very generously let me drive for kicks from time to time, and I still remember her name because it remains, even now, at the top of one of Mama’s hand-written recipes, saved from one of those neighborhood luncheons of so long ago: “Margaret Sandlin’s Cherry Dessert.”
And, so, with a holiday weekend looming – barbecues at the ready – and many family gatherings in the offing, I thought this might be the perfect time to both remember Mama on this anniversary as well as to honor her generosity of spirit with everyone – newcomers, late bloomers, and especially the unloved and unlovely – by sharing this recipe. It is a great refrigerated option for a warm end-of-summer day, though sinfully rich. But don’t let that stop you! You’ll be a hero to every would-be child in your family. And, just for what it’s worth to that small percentage of my readers who are Bama fans: It’s a crimson and white concoction!
RECIPE: MARGARET SANDLIN’S CHERRY DESSERT
NOTE: What you need to know right up front is that this can be the easiest dessert you ever made if you’re willing to make it according to the original recipe, which uses Dream Whip topping and canned cherry pie filling. It will work almost as well that way, and most people might not even notice the difference, but I just couldn’t do it, so have substituted real whipped cream for the Dream Whip and made my own cherry topping from fresh cherries, which is truly a luscious thing!
Also, this is a layered recipe, so I’m going to write it one layer at a time, starting at the bottom, to make it easier to follow.
Preheat oven to 350°.
FIRST LAYER: Graham Cracker Crust:
2 packages of Nabisco Honey Graham Crackers (Note that these have shrunk lately, but the smaller box still comes with three packs of crackers inside, only they’re also smaller. This recipe is for two of the newly-sized inside packs.)
1 stick butter, melted
smash crackers while still in the unopened pack, then open and pour into food processor. Pulse for several pulses then process for about 10 seconds until crumbs are fairly small and evenly distributed. Place in mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Pour melted butter into the well and stir crumbs into butter until well mixed. Place in the bottom of well-buttered 9″x 13″ x 2″ Pyrex baking dish (see photo). Cover with waxed paper and tamp down till flat and level and bottom is evenly covered. Discard waxed paper
Bake for 5 minutes in pre-heated 350° oven to set. Turn off oven. Let crust cool.
SECOND LAYER: Cream cheese and pecans
1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
1 1/2 cups (one-and-a-half 8-oz packages) Philadelphia Cream Cheese
1 cup shelled pecans, chopped
Place cheese and sugar into bowl of electric mixer and using blade attachment blend thoroughly until completely smooth. Carefully spread mixture over crust layer.
Sprinkle chopped nuts over the cheese layer as evenly as possible. Refrigerate to set while making next layer.
THIRD LAYER: Flavored whipped cream
2 cups heavy cream
3 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whip cream with whisk attachment of electric mixer. Begin at medium speed and when frothy, add sugar and vanilla a bit at a time. Move to high speed until whipped just a bit more than you regularly would to give it stronger body resembling Dream Whip (to hold up the cherries).
Remove dish from refrigerator and carefully layer whipped cream on top of pecans. Return to refrigerator while making next layer.
TOP LAYER: Cherry topping
4 cups fresh cherries, pitted and halved. (I have only used red cherries to date, but one of these days would like to try Queen Anne cherries instead (the yellow/red ones). I think either would be good.)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
Put cherries with nothing else into heavy sauce pan and place, covered, on medium heat for a few minutes (about 15), stirring frequently, until the fruit releases it’s juices.
Meanwhile, place dry ingredients in a small bowl and whisk together to combine thoroughly before adding to the cherries. Pour into hot cherries and return to stove, over low heat this time, and bring to a boil. Simmer for a couple of minutes until the mixture has thickened. Remove from heat. Let cool completely. (You don’t want to put warm cherries on cold whipped cream or it might collapse).
Once completely cooled, carefully spoon cherries over desert and even out to cover completely. Refrigerate for at least four hours before serving. Bask in compliments.
Another note: It has also occurred to me that it might make more sense to put the cherries in after the pecans and then cover with the whipped cream on top. But then, of course, you’d be left with just a white dish without much eye appeal. That’s why I think the next time I do it, I might just leave out the whipped cream layer entirely and then, when serving, place a dollop of whipped cream on top of plated squares of cherries over the cheese filling. Just a thought.
From Mama’s kitchen, and mine, to yours! Have a wonderful holiday, wherever you are, and don’t forget to thank your angels every chance you get!
© 2015 George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.