Growing up in central Florida, strawberries were a big deal. Fields surrounded the city where I lived and my grandpa used to stop at roadside stands to buy flats of berries to share with us. Every year there was a huge strawberry festival during which you could try all sorts of strawberry recipes: strawberry milkshakes, strawberry pizza, strawberry fritters, and of course, strawberry shortcake. Needless to say, I was very excited to try the cookbook’s recipe, especially considering that this and the surrounding entries were submitted to honor the early black teachers of Arkansas, which included Sue Bailey Thurman’s mother Susie Bailey!
The “Early Arkansas Teachers,” entry includes has one entry for Charlotte Elizabeth Andrews (Mrs. John Stevens)* and one for Susie Ford (Mrs. Isaac G. Bailey). We chose to make the recipe for Mrs. Stevens, but wanted to acknowledge that Sue Bailey Thurman included three different entries – dinner, dessert, and beverage – to honor her mother and the work that she did in rural Arkansas.
Now, to turn to Charlotte Andrews Stephens. Andrews was born into slavery in Little Rock on April 9, 1854.** Little Rock had what has been called an “urban slave system,” in which enslaved people were treated as servants and had more freedom to move about the city and obtain an education. Accounts of her upbringing and parents’ biographies suggest that they were beneficiaries of this more flexible practice. To be clear, African Americans in this system were not free and in the decade leading up to the Civil War the flexibility of the system was severely restricted. Both of Stevens’ parents were educated and her father, William Wallace Andrews, founded a Methodist Episcopal church called Wesley Chapel where he served as minister.
Andrews felt strongly about educating African Americans in the community and when Union forces took control of Little Rock in 1863, he opened a school in Wesley Chapel. Eventually the Quakers, with aid from the Freedmen’s Bureau, opened their own school in town called Union School. Little Charlotte Andrews attended the school and began teaching the other students when her own teacher was absent. She was only 15 years old!
When the city established its own public school system they hired Stephens, making her the first black teacher in the city’s public schools. After one year she left Arkansas to pursue a Teaching Certificate at Oberlin College. It took her three years to complete the certificate, but she did not do them consecutively because of financial difficulty. Everytime she ran out of tuition money she would return to Arkansas and teach. In all, she taught for seventy years in Little Rock. She was also involved in a number of civil clubs like the YWCA, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Federated Women’s Club. She was a charter member of the National Association of Colored Women club in Arkansas. In 1910 a school for African Americans was named in her honor, the only school in Little Rock named for a woman until 1960, and in 1950 a larger school replaced the structure, but maintained her name. In 2001 the new Stephens Elementary School was constructed, but in keeping its name it continued to honor Charlotte Andrew Stevens. She died in 1951 and her funeral was held at her father’s church. This esteemed woman certainly did much for the Little Rock Community, but especially the three generations of children that she taught. For, as Sue Bailey Thurman writes, her efforts certainly prepared “hundreds to enter the best schools and colleges in the land.”
1 quart fresh strawberries, sweetened
2 cups sifted cake flour
2 1/2 teaspoons double acting baking powder
3 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 stick butter
3 tablespoons water
1 egg, beaten
Melted butter (for crust)
As a recipe, this was not like any shortcake I had ever tried, but it was fun to make and not too complicated. There were some architectural challenges, but it gave us Great British Baking Show vibes.
After reading through the recipe, it seemed that this would basically be a giant biscuit. The first step was to sift the dry ingredients together. Then, “cut in the butter.” We did this by using a box grater to shred frozen butter. I went through a biscuit phase just before the pandemic and I would definitely recommend using frozen butter if you need to make biscuits or pie crust.
Next, we were to add combined milk and eggs until the dough becomes soft. However, there was no milk included in the ingredients list… So, we just guessed, adding milk until it seemed “right” (entirely subjective with no knowledge of what it should look like).
After the dough is formed, we were supposed to turn it out onto a floured surface and knead it until the dough holds shape. This is not like biscuits, which you are supposed to handle very carefully, as you do not want the butter to melt. Suspicious of what this was asking us to do, we kneaded it far just a minute or so until it came together.
Now, here is where things got tricky. The recipe told us to divide the dough in half and roll each piece into a circle that would fit an 8in pie plate. After that we place one into a well-greased pan, spread melted butter, and then add the second on top. So, as far as we understand a pie pan has crimped edges like this:
If we put two circles in there they would come out exactly the same, meaning that if we attempted to do the final step “spread strawberries between layers and serve with whipped cream,” it would not really work (unless we were supposed to take the top layer out, flip it upside down without breaking it, and then have a little container for berries, but that really did not seem right). We also had questions about how the layers would remain separated. Also, how are we supposed to separate them without it crumbling?
We decided to proceed using a spring pan so that we could easily slide the pastries off when they finished baking. We spread the butter and did our best to get the second disc in the pan without breaking it. We let it bake for the listed time of 20 min at 450 degrees.
It looked great when it came out. After cooling we took both pieces out together and decided to cut them into squares. They were very thin, but incredibly salty – like almost inedible. Our theory is that we used kosher salt instead of table salt without adjusting the amount. We have not had any trouble with this on any other recipe, but we can’t imagine that this was the intended level of salt for the final dish. Fortunately, the sweetness of the ice cream and strawberries cut the salt, resulting in a fine little biscuit shortcake.
We wish that we could have been witnesses to the “feasts of strawberry short cake” in celebration of Miss Lottie Steven’s birthday, but we were definitely thinking about her while we enjoyed our simple summer treat.
*Her name is actually spelled Stephens and the correct spelling will be used throughout the post
**The cookbook lists her birthday as 1856.