Sunday, June 22, 2008

My "Secret" Recipe

People think I have a secret recipe. I maintain that I do not. The recipe is for “Coconut Cake with Seven Minute Frosting”. It came from my Grandma Willie, who lived in the Shenandoah Valley, and anyone who’s tasted its magical fluffy goodness wants the recipe. I have a strict policy that I will not give anyone the recipe because I know people will have trouble making it and call me to complain. So I tell anyone who asks that the “secret” is in the frosting and that they can look up a recipe for Seven Minute Frosting in any cookbook made before 1960. If the person is insistent, I politely say that I don’t give out the recipe, but that they can come over to my house and I will show them how I make the cake. In the decade that I have been making this cake, nobody has ever taken me up on the offer.

The real secret to my “secret” recipe is that there is no secret. It’s just that Seven Minute Frosting is no longer popular and most people have never tasted it. It isn’t hard to make once you’ve seen it done, but somewhat challenging to learn through a written recipe. I watched my grandmother make her coconut cake for 20 years before it occurred to me that I should try to make it myself. It took me an entire day, several batches of droopy frosting, and numerous phone calls from LA to my grandmother and mother in Virginia before I finished a version of the cake that was edible. My grandmother and mother are patient women who love me, but I realized I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of these phone calls now that I was in on the secret.

There is an art to making this cake and after ten years of trial and error, I can now make my grandmother’s coconut cake without thinking about it much. It’s easy for me to bake the cake after a long workday and ice it the following evening. (I do it this way because the cake is perfect when it’s made 12 to 24 hours in advance. Any less and the icing doesn’t have time to work it’s magic. Any more and the cake starts to get soggy.) By Day Three, I’m ready for any Birthday Party/Christmas Meal/Easter Picnic. But it was a long road to get there.

There are some things that cannot be explained in words. Baking a coconut cake is one of them. It is something that needs to be witnessed to be perfected. There are many ways to make a good cake. Each recipe is particular, often a little peculiar, and delicious, as most things made with love and a certain level of obsession tend to be. So if you want my secret recipe, it’s yours. Just tell me when you want to come over.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Letter from Mr. Daniel Marlos

I recently received the following letter from Mr. Daniel Marlos. While it isn't a recipe for typical Sunday Dinner fare, it would make a great breakfast or quick snack for the hardworking cook in the middle of Sunday Dinner preparations. Thank you Mr. Marlos for submitting the recipe for such a delicious treat.

Dear Ms Lutz,
I was horrified when my 18 year old osterizer blender broke down unexpectedly, and since I have been drinking smoothies for breakfast (I realize breakfast is not dinner and is not limited to Sunday, but a healthy breakfast is the foundation of good dietary health), I needed a replacement. I was thrilled to find a Kenmore, glass blender on sale at Sears, and was even more thrilled that it was red and matches my kitchen appliances. It is not quite as efficient as that old osterizer, but it does the job with two speeds and an ice crusher. Who needs 14 speeds on a blender?

Smoothie Recipe:
3 ice cubes
1 banana
other compatible fruit (peaches fresh picked from the tree this morning)
2 heaping tablespoons of unflavored, unsweetened yoghurt
milk to desired consistency.

Blend until smooth and drink two big glasses.
Daniel Marlos

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


This blog started with a simple request. My friend Lisa asked me to write a tract for a group show called "Cottage Industry" at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. For her project, The Tract House, Lisa asked a number of her friends and colleagues to write short texts loosely based on the idea of religious tracts and to address subjects that were "important, genuine, sweet, ridiculous, overbearing, urgent, essential, vital, crucial or critical".

Lisa's call to arms was "Disseminate your dissent!". After thinking about things that bothered me and information that I wanted to share, the answer was clear. I would write about Sunday Dinner.

Sunday Dinner was once an American institution, a special meal for which friends and family gathered together at the homestead after church on Sunday afternoons. Sunday Dinner took a great deal of preparation and required a large effort on the part of the cook (or cooks). Although family members sometimes pitched in, Sunday Dinner was largely the responsibility of the woman of the house. If she were lucky, she might have a cook or a daughter old enough to help out in the kitchen. Because of the amount of labor required and the increasing demands on women's time as more women entered the workforce in the 1960's and 70's, it's easy to understand how Sunday Dinner fell out of favor.

My family ate pancakes or waffles for lunch on Sundays and we never ate a meal I thought of as Sunday Dinner. In recent years, I have become obsessed with the idea of Sunday Dinner as an iconic American meal and I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out where Sunday Dinner came from, what that meal looked like, and what happened to it.

Sunday Dinner was a nostalgic meal from the very beginning. When most people in the world lived on farms and grew their own food, they also ate most of their meals together and didn't think much about it. With Industrialization came jobs in the city and meals away from home. Sundays became the only day that the whole family could share a meal together as they once did on a daily basis. Sunday Dinner came to signify a way of life that was fading away. We still think of Sunday Dinner nostalgically, but we long for different things.

As a working mom, I can't imagine having to prepare a large meal for my extended family on a weekly basis, but I long for it all the same. I believe it is possible to create a new kind of Sunday Dinner in which we remember our connections to the land and to our friends and families, but without a huge amount of labor. With this goal in mind, I've started this website to spread the word about Sunday Dinner and as a way to jump-start my research for a book that seems to be going the way of the original Sunday Dinner. I'll be writing about Sunday Dinners from the past, great recipes, and ways to convince your friends and family to join you for a Sunday Dinner of your own without driving everyone crazy or going to too much trouble. I urge you to join me in this quest and to make Sunday Dinner a meal we can all enjoy.

You can check out my tract Eat Sunday Dinner! Or if you're in the Baltimore area, go see "Cottage Industry", which opens at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore on May 31st. It sounds amazing. In the meantime, welcome to I look forward to hearing from you.