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Family style

Family recipes and our common heritage

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Published 1/3/2007

Patty Pinner, the author of Sweets: Soul Food Desserts & Memories, grew up in Saginaw, where she lives today. Generations of her family's women were renowned bakers.

Metro Times: The enticing photo of the strawberry layer cake on the cover of your book is enough to lure many bakers to explore the recipes, but most of the photos are black-and-white shots of your family, going back at to the 1930s.

Patty Pinner: My publishing company requested black-and-white photos reminiscent of the era when they were taken. They are the look I was after, putting me back to that time.

MT: Tell me about your family's restaurant, Ern's Seafood. Was this your parents' business or your extended family's?

Pinner: Extended family. We all put in our time there, the women and the men too. It was really a lifelong pursuit of my uncle Ern. We all worked there and cooked in it. It closed about two and a half years ago after my uncle died. His siblings are getting on in age and don't have the energy or the health to keep it running. Most of us younger people are working jobs and raising families and that sort of thing. It lasted about 15 years. It was mostly a seafood restaurant and later, on Sundays, it became a soul food place. I work in the post office and I write and my cousins, Ern's sons, work in computers and other things. Nobody wanted it. Restaurants are a lot of work.

MT: Where did you learn how to bake?

Pinner: The book is centered at my grandmother's house. My cousins and I would congregate at my grandparents' house on the weekends. That's when my grandmother did most of her baking, on Saturday nights. We were her sous chefs, stirring per her instructions and adding ingredients when she said so. But I really got the secret little things from my mother.

MT: With a large family, there is usually a sort of hierarchy in the kitchen.

Pinner: Oh, definitely, even today. This year I did Thanksgiving and Christmas at my house, but I still cringe waiting for the stamp of approval from my 80-year-old Aunt Margie.

MT: I was surprised to see that some of the recipes, such as the "old-time chocolate puddin' rum cake," call for store-bought mixes, in this case two: a chocolate cake mix and a box of instant chocolate pudding mix. You must be a scratch baker.

Pinner: The women were scratch bakers, but, like with me, I've got one foot in the generation that says everything should come from scratch and another that is in a modern generation that allows me to take shortcuts. My goal is to one day retire from work and become a scratch cook, but you shouldn't feel that the taste won't be good if you use, say, a cake mix.

MT: Did your mother or the other women in your family share their recipes, the ones that are in your book?

Pinner: I am the oldest girl of my generation. When somebody died, I would inherit her apron collection or her cookbook collection. When my mom passed away in '95, she left several black-and-white marble notebooks filled with recipes, and she used to take down her recipes on the cardboard inserts from stockings. She listened to all the cooking shows on the radio. She never used to share her recipes, not at all. I sometimes feel a tinge of guilt when I'm about to include certain recipes in my books, a part of me that wants to hold back. My aunts aren't really happy that I'm disclosing the recipes either. I don't have any daughters, but these are the maxims and secrets that I would tell my daughter.

MT: Did the men in the family do any of the cooking?

Pinner: Oh, yes, but the women in the family considered the kitchen their domain, their responsibility. In that era, beauty meant more than just the physical appearance. If a woman couldn't cook, her beauty was diminished.

MT: Would you write another cookbook? Has the first one been successful?

Pinner: Yes. I still have my day job, but I get calls and comments from people all over the country to say that their family structure is very similar to mine. This is from both white and black people. It shows the similarities family to family. Despite thinking that we're different, we're all very similar. The recipes in Sweets have their own history. They contain my history, and a little bit of your history as well, the thread of American history that connects us all. I just want people to taste it, and see it, as if they were there. That's why it's important for me to include a little background on each recipe and the woman it came from. I have a cookbook coming out this summer. It's called Sweetie Pies: A Collection of Uncommon Pies and Womanish Observations. I'm also working on my third book. It's called How to Feed a Man Dessert.

MT: Doesn't sound like a cookbook to me.

Pinner: It's a little bit of homespun, man-catchin' advice.

Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly interview for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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