Their Eyes Were Watching God: Tea Cakes

I love food and I love to read. As a result, each month, I combine these two interests in a post about food from literature. I'll mostly be sticking with books from classic literature, so you're likely to know the storylines anyway, but just in case you don't: warning: there may be spoilers ahead.


Today marks the start of the American Library Association's Banned Books Week. I wrote about my feelings on banning books in last year's Banned Books Week entry, so I'll spare you a second diatribe, but if you care about intellectual freedom, first-amendment rights, or just about being able to read some really good books, I strongly recommend you participate. There are lots of ways to show your support for not banning books. The easiest, and in my opinion, the best, is simply to find out which books are most often banned, and borrow or request them from your library. Libraries can use records of how often a book is checked out to help support the argument against banning that particular book, so not only do you get to read a good book, but you support intellectual freedom! If you're handy with a camera, and have always wanted to read, say, the opening passage from Nabokov's Lolita to an audience, another way to show your support is with the Banned Books Week virtual read-out. You can upload yourself reading passages of your favorite banned books on their YouTube channel! Finally, your local library may be having Banned Books Week events, and I'm always a fan of supporting local libraries. Get involved!

Every time I look at a list of banned books, I'm startled by the titles I see: with some, I can't even begin to imagine how they're controversial; with others, I can't believe parents want to deny their existence to their children. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is in the latter category. That is, I get why some people find it controversial: not only is there racism, but the book admits the existence of sex. But there's nothing graphic, and both those themes get the serious treatment they deserve. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a beautifully written, moving book about the importance of being true to yourself, to your feelings, and to your goals and desires. It's about working for what makes you happy, and it's about how love can change and transcend any situation.
Granted, I'm a little biased--I love this book. When I first found it, I read the line "There are years that ask questions, and years that answer" and I was a goner. (I was in the middle of a year that asked questions, and the next time I read it was a year that answered.) Even beyond its well-composed plot and interesting characters, this book resonates with anyone who has longed or searched for something. Janie, the main character, is a black woman who wants to find love. She wants a relationship in which she's treated as an equal, in which she desires and is desired, in which she is able to be herself and is appreciated for that self. Apparently, if you're a pretty black Floridian woman in the early 20th century, that's asking too much. Other characters try to point out to her that she should be happy as long as she has safety or stability or money or anything good at all, but for Janie, that's not good enough. And we understand through Janie that when we long for something--anything, not just love--nothing else will come close. We can't settle, and we shouldn't have to. The book emphasizes how important it is to our psyches to pursue our dreams, even if they can't last.

Also, there's a lot of food in this book, and I'm down with any book where food matters. When picking something to make for this entry, I had quite a few recipes to choose from, but I settled on the most obvious choice: Tea Cakes.

Tea Cake is the man whom Janie loves. His real name is Verigible, but Tea Cake is a nickname, one we can presume the ladies gave him for, well, how sweet he is. "Are you as sweet as all that?" Janie asks, upon meeting him, and with that comment starts up their whole romance. Non-human Tea Cakes are basically sugar cookies, but southern. There seems to be some controversy over whether they should be flat and crisp or puffy with soft insides. The recipe below is for the flatter and crisper variety, but you can roll them thicker than 1/4 inch if you want them softer. You can glaze them, ice them, or create sandwich cookies with them by spreading jam in the middle, but their real raison d'etre is to be eaten plain alongside a nice cup of tea, whose flavor they won't overpower (hence the name).

Confession! Because I am a yankee and didn't know about tea cakes before this, I wanted to turn to an expert for a proper recipe. The following is an adaptation (and veganization) of Paula Deen's Southern Tea Cakes.
As Sweet As All That Tea Cakes

Makes 1.5-2 dozen, depending on how thick you roll it and how big your cookie cutter is. This recipe can scale up if you want to make a lot, in which case I recommend using a mixer.

1/2 Cup sugar
4 Tbsp (1/2 a stick) margarine, at room temperature
2 Tbsp soy yogurt
2 Tbsp soymilk
1/4 tsp vanilla
1 1/4 Cup flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder

Cream together the sugar and butter with a fork (for those of you who don't know what "cream" means, mix them until creamy or well-combined). Mix in the soy yogurt, soymilk, and vanilla. Add the flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Mix until it forms a soft dough.

Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30-60 mins. You can skip this step if you want, but you'll have to use a lot more flour rolling it out, since it's such a sticky dough.

On a lightly-floured surface, roll out the dough to about 1/4 inch thickness. Using a cookie cutter, biscuit cutter, or an inverted drinking glass, cut into even circles. Gather up the scraps, reroll and cut, until you're out of dough. (Like Janie when Tea Cake went gambling with her money!)

Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes, until the edges are very lightly browned.

If you want to enjoy these in the style of the characters in the book, eat with tea while telling your life story to a neighbor on her porch.
Or move to the Everglades with them. Whatever you like to do with your Tea Cake is none of my business.

What are your favorite banned books?