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My life story as told through Cowboy Coffee Cake
A quick "about me" and a quick bread recipe
In the traditional greeting of my homeland: Howdy. I guess the first thing you should know about me is that I’m from Texas. A place where the chocolate sheet cakes are as wide and as flat as the prairie and the kolaches are as sweet as the sun is hot. And the cowboy cake, don’t get me started on the cowboy cake.
But let’s talk a bit about me, the person behind Penknife and the newsletter so many of you have signed up to read (omg! thank you), before we get into the baked goods.
As my mother told it, I was born in a cabbage patch (i.e. the late 80s when cabbage patch dolls were all the rage and I supposedly possessed a nose similar to said toy) at 9:27 PM on a Tuesday in mid-September. The drive to the hospital was fraught as our cat was also in labor and my mother threatened my father with words I will likely never know if he didn’t stop at the vet hospital before heading to the human one. As my father tells it, I entered the world bright eyed and bushy tailed, similar to our momma cat’s litter of kittens that were born just on the other side of town.
Much like everyone else, I grew up around food (we all have to eat, I’m not special) and mine looked like blue-ribbon bakes at county fairs, farm eggs from neighbors, dewberries from the brambles in our back yard, all types of wild game from my father’s work, layer cakes from my cottage home baking grandmother, tortillas and tamales from my other grandmother who lived near the border, and also plenty of peanut butter and jelly, cinnamon toast, chicken spaghetti, and other less romanticized stuff.
I’ve eaten a lot of food over the years and can dole out food puns by the baker’s dozen; let’s borrow some of that food television baking magic and speed things up here…
I wanted to go to culinary school after high school, but my parents (and a few rather misogynistic white male chefs I knew) said not to, so I didn’t.
Instead I found every opportunity to study food instead, taking every food studies course offered at my undergraduate university (hook ‘em) and writing my honors thesis on Jane Austen and gastronomic gentility (which was really just an excuse to study abroad and consume lots of tea and pastries under the guise of research).
I then went on to get my MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University, a program co-founded by scholars and chefs Julia Child and Jacques Pépin. While there I met one of the best people I know, food editor for The Boston Globe, Sheryl Julian, who launched my food writing and recipe testing career.
Eager for punishment and more food studies, I moved to North Carolina to complete my PhD in American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While here I’ve co-written a cookbook, associate edited a book on the state’s food landscape, and collaborated with dozens of wonderful food folks in and out of academia, across the state and beyond.
I now work as the Director of Communications for the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City and convince people across the nation to publish my thoughts and musings on food and foodways and how it relates to gender, class, digital media, and more.
I know a lot about food, but in my job as a food scholar, I constantly find myself learning new things about the stuff. For example, the origins of my mother’s prized Cowboy Coffee Cake.
While working with my fellow editor on a big (and very exciting - more to come) southern women and recipes project, I confidently talked up the southernness and truly Texan origins of Cowboy Cake and Cowboy Bread. Presumably due to her South Texas upbringing where she must have first learned this recipe, my mother sometimes erroneously called it pan de campo, Spanish for “camp” or “country” bread and an allusion to a very Texan heritage of vaqueros and cowboys who drove cattle across the state and ate their breads (and I suppose cakes, too) around camp fires. Despite the recipe title (you’ll see below), we humbly called “Cowboy Bread” in our house. Topped with a cinnamon-sugar streusel, leavened with a hefty amount of baking soda, and spooned into loaf pans, I knew this recipe was far flung from any chuck wagon cast iron heritage, but, hey, it was my mom’s recipe so what was I going to do.
Well, I went into the archives and left utterly devastated. Not only was Cowboy Cake, at least my mother’s version, not exclusively Texan, it wasn’t even a family or passed-down recipe. I found versions of the recipe from across the nation, most notably from states without any historical cowboy culture like Pennsylvania, Maine, and Massachusetts. There were decades of mentions of cowboy bread and cowboy cake in school lunch menus printed in weekly local newspapers. One school cafeteria worker admits to calling a coffee cake “Cowboy Bread” for fun and to convince small children to eat it. Did my mom do this, too?! And several recipes claim they originated from a government cookbook (I’m still looking for it). I even found, to my horror, a 1960 recipe from Omaha, Nebraska that seems to have been developed by the Northern Natural Gas Company and published as a type of subversive ad for gas ovens.
Is this life-altering research the food-studies themed foundation of my villain origin story? Maybe? I have this recipe in my mother’s handwriting framed and hanging in my kitchen. It was one of the first recipes I tested, styled, shot, and published. To use a scholarly phrase: I am shook. But also, I’m just hungry for a slice of Cowboy Cake now. In the end, my takeaway from this experience is that it’s important to never stop learning about food…and then turning it into publishable content for your readers. Thanks, mom. Here’s her recipe:
Anyways, that’s me. I wanted anyone who reads Penknife to know a bit more about me and how I come to the wild (and sometimes duplicitous) world of food studies. Thank y’all for being here and for being mighty hungry for more food stories.
Pairs well with:
For more thoughts on food, cooking, women, and general wit, I recommend with all my heart Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen by Rebecca May Johnson. I’ve followed Johnson for a while in her role as co-editor of Vittles, a food and culture Substack newsletter based in the UK and India. Basically, I’m obsessed with her and think you should be, too.
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