Remembering Dad, Family and Vanilla Muffins

Late last week, my brother David and our Aunt Betty Cole Thompson drove together from Virginia to see my ailing father. My mother and I shared with them that dad’s time was running short, so they made haste for Memphis. They arrived at dad’s bedside late Friday afternoon. My mother, David, Aunt Betty and I took turns holding dad’s hand, telling stories about days gone by that we hoped he could hear, and playing recorded messages from brother Trey and nephew Patrick from far away Hong Kong.

Following the visit with dad, Paul and I hosted my mother, Aunt Betty, David, my Uncle Jim Cole and Aunt Suzanne (Jim’s wife) for dinner.

My Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim remain the lone family historians with first-hand knowledge of my father’s early life. With my dad’s living siblings together, I asked them about family dinners growing up with my dad and grandparents. I knew my grandfather, but my grandmother died when I was two years old before I could form lasting memories of her. I’ve always felt that knowing my grandmother better would help me understand my father more fully. Meeting someone’s parents reveals much about the formative influences of a person.

Over Friday night dinner, my aunt and uncle reflected on family dinners and food served by Elizabeth Law Cole. Grandmother Cole made many roasted meats but could be absent-minded about other parts of dinner she prepared for a meal. After everyone started eating, she often jumped from her seat, headed to the kitchen, and returned with a forgotten broccoli and cheese casserole or some other side dish from the oven.

Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim fondly remembered her vanilla muffins – sometimes called Peabody Muffins – as a frequent family favorite.

After hearing these details over dinner, I thumbed through a few old Memphis cookbooks in search of recipes for vanilla muffins. Gracious Goodness: The Taste of Memphis (1989) recorded a recipe for Peabody Muffins along with a description of the central role that the grand hotel of the same name played in the Midsouth:

From the days of the old Peabody tearoom, muffins that were everyone’s favorite. They are still being served today in this wonderfully restored hotel, now on the National Register of Historic Places. For many, they bring back memories of downtown shopping excursions and lunches with mothers and grandmothers, of the Peabody as a favorite luncheon spot for Memphis businessmen and visitors from the Delta and other places, and of the unforgettable wartime years of the forties when officers and enlisted men frequently filled the room. Corrine Hughes, tearoom hostess during the war years, remembers that customers were always called guests and that, upon arrival, they were offered hors d’oeuvres from a silver tray and later, mints and French pastries; that the room’s antique mantel would be banked with magnolias, their fragrance filling the room; that the wonderful old lobby was a favorite place for many for reading newspapers and nodding a bit; that the music of the big bands of the time drifted from the adjacent Venetian Dining room where the bands played at noon, playing in the Skyway at night; and that the most expensive lunch cost eighty-five cents.

The above description of Downtown Memphis and the Peabody Hotel reminded me of stories my father shared of shopping and dining with his mother and grandmother Alma Law in the 1940s. He fondly remembered eating lunch at the original Jim’s Place restaurant, a steak house which moved eastward more than once in the decades to come. After they passed, my father remembered his mother and grandmother dining together at the original Jim’s Place when eating at new locations off Summer Avenue and later on Perkins Road.

Merrill Ann and Sam Cole in the Peabody Hotel Lobby, Christmas 2017.

Vanilla muffins served at the Peabody Hotel tearoom surely played a part in my father’s trips into town with his mother since she also made them at home for her family.

The Peabody Muffin recipe makes 36 muffins – a number suitable for serving the public. The Junior League of Memphis’s 1952 edition of The Memphis Cook Book contains another recipe yielding 24 vanilla muffins – a smaller batch closer to what my grandmother likely made at home.

Not long after reading those cookbooks and going to bed, my brother David called from the nursing home caring for our father. After dinner, David’s gut instinct led him to return to dad’s bedside again.

My father, Samuel Francis Cole, Jr., died peacefully before 11 PM that night. My family and I saw his end coming. But the reality of his death stung my heart even though gradual decline prepared my mind for the eventuality of his death. I cried myself to sleep.

The next morning I baked a batch of vanilla muffins as a memorial to my father and his mother. As I sifted the flour, baking powder and salt and beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract together, I thought about a mother making muffins for her young son who would grow up to become a man, an airman in the Air Force, a husband, an attorney, a father of three boys, a scoutmaster, and a grandfather. My father became more complicated and mysterious to me than any of the above roles could possibly define later in life. But as I mixed the batter and greased the muffin pan, I felt an intimate connection to him, his mother, and the generations of Coles before me.

I miss you and love you Dad.

Recipe Notes: I relied heavily on the Junior League recipe for my first attempt at baking vanilla muffins. For my muffin tin, the recipe made a dozen medium size muffins leaving about 1/3 cup of batter unused. I shared my muffins with Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim who reported that my batch reminded them of their mother’s muffins in appearance. At this writing, I await their verdict on how they taste, but Paul and I enjoyed them.

I slightly modified the vanilla muffin recipe I found in the Junior League cook book which called for milk and lemon juice. I substituted buttermilk from an open bottle in my refrigerator since milk and lemon juice can often combine to replace buttermilk in recipes. A reverse substitution seemed sound to me. Milk soured with lemon juice tastes similar to buttermilk.

Homemade Vanilla Muffins

  • Servings: 12 muffins
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 3 eggs separated
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp table salt

Directions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375F.
  2. Use an electric hand mixer to cream butter and sugar well in a large bowl without over-mixing to prevent separation of butter.
  3. Add beaten egg yolks, buttermilk, and vanilla extract to butter mixture.
  4. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt and then fold into egg yolk and butter mixture.
  5. Beat egg whites into soft peaks with a hand or stand mixer. Gently fold egg whites into batter without completely beating out lumps to keep the batter light and fluffy.
  6. Pre-grease muffin pan with butter and fill halfway with muffin batter. Place in oven for 15-20 minutes.
  7. Remove immediately from pan when out of the oven. Slather with butter while still warm.

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