"Margaret's Picture of Pneumonia" by Susan Worsham
By Chris Offutt
My approach to cooking is one of passionate intensity that traditionally involves a great deal of what used to be called “blue” language, or plain old-fashioned cussing. My current kitchen project will be a trial, since I intend to follow a recipe for “Bible Cake.” It seems crucial that no matter how much flour swirls in the air, how many eggshell fragments enter the batter, and how poorly my preparation goes, I shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.
For a while I tried to convince myself that cussing in English wouldn’t matter since the old-timers in the Bible spoke Aramaic, a language nearly lost. And the Almighty had a lot more important concerns than worrying about the relative chasteness of my mouth during something as minor as baking. Then again, God is no doubt a polyglot in order to understand all the imprecations and requests from every corner of the globe. (A phrase that always perplexed me—if earth is round, it lacks corners.) Since I undertook to build a Bible Cake, I needed all the luck I could muster. So I composed an advance list of words to use under culinary duress, language that would not offend the Lord, the cake, or my wife.
Substituting ingredients is a long tradition in cooking: milk for buttermilk, margarine for butter, Crisco for lard, but every cook knows the result is never satisfactory. There is absolutely nothing as good as lard. The same holds true for cussing. Bellowing “gold doggit” doesn’t have the same calming emotional effect as the original. In fact, the alternatives to curse words are pretty lame. Here’s a quick rundown. I’m counting on you, gentle reader, to know the originals.
Darn. Dang. Ding dang.
Gee whiz. Jiminy Christmas. Jeezum crow.
Baloney. Bullpucky. Bullhockey.
Son of a gun. Son of a buck.
Son of a biscuit eater.
Shoot. Sugar. Shucks.
The last one is my personal favorite. In moments of high irritation, the phrase “Oh, fudge” will pass the lips of the most pious and devout women in town, ladies who never miss a Wednesday night prayer meeting, who are perpetually willing to assist the needy, sit with the grieving, and tend to the sick. But in the kitchen they’ll drop a stick of butter and say, “Oh, fudge,” then glance about with a quick pang of minor guilt. The thing I always wonder is this—are they thinking the other word? Because when I hear anyone mutter, utter, or scream “Sugar!” I know in my heart they’re talking about dooky. The original word springs fully formed into my mind, with all its attendant sensory attributes. And I bet it’s the same with that devout church lady, too. (Maybe this is why fudge is so frequently offered at church bake sales.)
As a student of the Bible, I’ve always sympathized with Aaron, a pretty smart guy, priest and prophet, who lived his life in the shadow of his more famous brother Moses. Aaron is mainly known for challenging the Pharaoh’s magicians by turning his walking stick into a big fat serpent. The magicians countered this assault by throwing all their rods to the ground and turning them into a bunch of snakes. Things looked bad for Aaron until his serpent began eating all the Pharaoh’s snakes! Eventually it got down to the final battle between Aaron’s snake, swelled up from eating, and the Pharaoh’s last snake, desperate and demoralized from watching his buddies get swallowed up. Combat was neck-and-neck, which is pretty much always the case when it comes to snakes. The stakes were high, and I am willing to bet cash money that during such an anxious moment Aaron muttered a few Hebrew versions of “fudge” and “sugar.” You couldn’t blame him if he did. (His snake won, by the way.)
Thinking this way was giving me the willies about making the cake. If I couldn’t trust myself not to cuss, how could I trust myself to include the requisite amount of baking powder? I wondered if even thinking cuss words would offend God. Since the Lord knows all, I have to rely on His compassion and understanding that a lowly sinner (a multiple repeat offender) would at least make an effort to still his nasty tongue even if the thoughts remained wicked as heck.
The recipe for Bible Cake is from a cookbook sold by the Haldeman P.T.A. in 1967. (I attended all eight grades at Haldeman Elementary, graduating as class valedictorian, the apex of my academic career.) For cover art, my mother photographed the school with a Brownie Hawkeye camera, which she pressed tight to her abdomen, bending her neck at a harsh angle to peer through the viewfinder. The perforated pages of the cookbook are held together with tabs that tuck beneath a long plastic spine, known as “comb-bound.” It was printed by the Women’s Clubs Publishing Co., Inc., a firm specializing in cookbooks, police calendars, and civic directories. The last few pages contain temperature charts, ingredient substitution lists, and recipes for “Supper Quantity Cooking,” such as Chicken Shortcake for 135.
Local women supplied the recipes, including my seventh grade girlfriend, Annabelle Sparks, her mother, Gaythal Sparks, and my first grade teacher, Mary Alice Jayne. Annabelle recently informed me that she chose a recipe for Jam Cake because it was her teacher’s favorite dessert. (Ah, the intricate politics of cooking!) Lela Watson, who at this writing still lives in Rowan County, Kentucky, at age 101, contributed Bible Cake.
The idea behind this recipe is ingenious since all kids love cake and dislike reading the Bible. Typically, children assist an adult in the kitchen with this undertaking. The recipe is laid side-by-side with the Old Testament and New Testament. Young kids learn how to negotiate the numerical format of the Bible, and older children help interpret Scripture to ascertain the ingredients. The adult must take great care to check and double-check and triple-check each step. It’s easy to mess this cake up. Then the whole deal backfires. Dessert turns out lousy, children are less inclined to peruse the Bible, and grown-ups are angry at all and sundry. In short, Beelzebub wins. So plan carefully, gentle reader, and give yourself time to work out the details, for that is where the devil resides.
1 cup Proverbs 30:33
2 cups Jeremiah 6:20
6 Isaiah 10:14
1/2 cup Judges 4:19
4 1/2 cups Leviticus 24:5
2 heaping teaspoons Amos 4:5
1 cup Nahum 3:12
1/2 cup Samuel 16:1
1 teaspoon 2nd Chronicles 9:9
1 teaspoon Exodus 30:23
3/4 cup Numbers 17:8
A pinch of Mark 9:50
Blend Proverbs and Judges with Jeremiah. Beat in yolks of Isaiah. Sift Leviticus, Amos, Exodus, and Chronicles. Cream all together. Blend in Mark. Beat whites of Isaiah until stiff, blend in. Stir in slivered Numbers, chopped Nahum, cut Samuel 16. Mix well.
Turn into greased pans dusted with Leviticus. Bake at 325 degrees one hour until Gabriel blows his horn. (Oven timer!)
(Out of respect and a certain delicate maturity, I shall refrain from making any comments about beating Isaiah until stiff, adding a cut Samuel, and creaming all together.)
Like most Southerners, I believe myself familiar with Scripture and gospel. And like most Southerners, I didn’t know it nearly as well as I thought. For one thing, I had no idea who Nahum was. I couldn’t recall him in the least. Fortunately for my fragile ego, it turns out that not much is known about Nahum in the first place. He was from Alqosh, a city originally known for its worship of an Assyrian moon god whose name was Sin. As the religious wars of yore reached their peaks, the word sin was appropriated by the winner and used to describe the worst of human endeavor. (Take that, moon!)
Contemporary religious scholars debate the significance of Nahum: Did he prophesize the fall of Nineveh, or did he record its destruction after the fact? Was he truly a prophet or “merely” a poet? In a form of compromise he is recalled as a “minor prophet,” a term that belittles even as it elevates, a sad fate indeed. Still, I suppose it is preferable to being merely a poet. This has a personal and painful resonance for me. Apparently my writing has been nominated twice for a MacArthur grant, the so-called Genius Award, but unfortunately this honor has eluded me. Does the status of having been in the running make me a “minor genius,” or am I lumped into the vast category of merely brilliant? Due to the intense shroud of secrecy surrounding the MacArthur process, I will never know. My sons, however, delight in calling me “Not-a-Genius Dad.” Though this sobriquet stings, I take some small solace that it beats “Minor Dad.” (Then again, all fathers become minor as the children grow, and all prophets become major with time.)
Possibly the very strength of Nahum’s lyricism contributes to the controversy over his status. He’s simply too good a poet to be a prophet. Nahum clearly devoted more time to writing than pursuing the intellectual metaphysics necessary to attaining the post of “major prophet.” Describing the triumphant attack on Nineveh, Nahum pens powerful imagery:
The shields of their warriors are gleaming red,
Their fighting men are all in scarlet;
Their chariots in battle line flash like fire.
The squadrons of horse advance
They charge madly on the city
They storm through the outskirts like torches
Like the zigzag of lightning.
Then, as now, the justification for invading a foreign state required clever reasoning by political leaders. Nineveh was a city that worshipped Ishtar, a goddess whose sacred rites allegedly involved sexual activity, possibly between women. This served as fodder for war. (Nobody really wants a city like that lying around the desert.) Nahum informs us, with his trademark brilliant (not-a-genius) poetry:
Woe betide the blood-stained city, steeped in deceit
All for the persistent harlotry of a harlot,
The alluring mistress of sorcery,
Who by her harlotry and sorceries
Beguiled nations and peoples.
(Personally, I would like to test my endurance against persistent harlotry but that is neither here nor there.) Nahum’s attempt to legitimize war makes about as much sense as the never-found weapons of mass destruction. But no matter, a coalition of Babylonians, Scythians, and Medes banded together to destroy Nineveh. Now the city is little more than an archaeological site in present-day Iraq. (Surely a coincidence.)
The famed battle occurred around 2,600 years ago. It must be noted that transmitting a 2600 hertz tone over a long-distance phone line gains access to the telephone system, allowing intrepid gray-hat hackers to explore Internet protocols. A magazine with the name 2600 was founded in 1984, coincidentally the name of a prescient novel by George Orwell about a tyrannical country perpetually at war and engaged in constant surveillance of its citizens. The coincidences continue apace: the 2600 hertz tone anomaly was discovered by blowing a plastic whistle into a telephone, the whistle itself being the prize in a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal. Today it is possible to purchase, via tele-phonic Internet, a container of crunch biscotti from a website supervised by a gentleman by the name of Nahum Ephraim Teitelboim. That’s right—Nahum, the minor poet of antiquity!
Lastly, I would like to remark upon one ingredient—the absolute necessity of a pinch of Mark. The Scripture quote is as follows: “Salt is good; but if the salt loses its saltness, how will you season it?” This is among my top ten favorite lines from the Bible. It has about it a flair of the Far East, a Zen-like insight. I admire the blunt pronouncement that salt is good, the repetition of the word “salt,” and a comment on its state of being salt. What I most admire is that practically any noun can be substituted into the sentence and maintain its essential wisdom, to wit:
“Fudge is good but if the fudge loses its fudgeness, how will you fudge it?”
“Instant messaging is good but if the instant message loses its instant messageness, how will you instant message it?”
“Treats are good but if the treat loses its treatness, how will you treat it?”
Bear in mind, gentle reader, if you bake your treats with love, your family will love you. (And keep the cuss words to yourself.)
To assist any and all bakers—professional, amateur, or savant—I’ve included the Scriptures in which the ingredients are found. This will reduce your Biblical sleuthing and speed your cooking time. I’ve taken the liberty of abridging the longer passages to avoid confusion and specify the individual elements. Otherwise you may wind up with a cake that includes frankincense, wine, a heifer, talents of gold, myrrh, and calamus. This will not please your diners.
Proverbs 30:33 --– Butter
“For the churning of milk bringeth forth butter.”
Jeremiah 6:20 – Sugar
“To what purpose cometh there to me frankincense from Sheba and the sweet cane from a far country?”
Isaiah 10:14 – Eggs
“And my hand hath found as a nest the riches of the peoples; as one gathered eggs that are forsaken, have I gathered the earth.”
Judges 4:19 – Milk
“And he said unto her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink; for I am thirsty. And she opened a skin of milk and gave him drink.”
Leviticus 24:5 – Flour
“And thou shalt take fine flour and bake twelve cakes thereof.”
Amos 4:5 – Baking powder
“And offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened.”
Nahum 3:12 – Figs
“All your fortifications are like the first ripe figs; shaken, they fall into the mouth of
Samuel 16:1 – Raisins
“David was met by Ziba who had with him a pair of donkeys saddled and loaded with two hundred loaves of bread, a hundred clusters of raisins, a hundred of summer fruit, and a skin of wine.”
2nd Chronicles 9:9 – Allspice
“And she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents of gold and of spices great abundance.”
Exodus 30:23 – Cinnamon
“Take spices as follows: five hundred shekels of myrrh and half that amount of cinnamon, and of sweet calamus.”
Numbers 17:8 – Almonds
“The next day Moses went into the tent. He found that Aaron’s staff for the tribe of Levi had not only begun to bud, but it bore ripe almonds.”
Mark 9:50 – Salt
“Salt is good; but if the salt loses its saltness, how will you season it?”
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