When I was a little girl, making May baskets and delivering them to the doorsteps of neighbors was one of my favorite activities. While my mother fixed meals, I would be at the kitchen table cutting pieces of wall paper to the right shape. I folded them and glued the sides. My mother would help me attach a paper handle to each basket. I filled them with violets and lilies of the valley from our yard before taking them to homes nearby.
May baskets were meant to celebrate friendships and the coming of spring. In later years, there have been friends who were very deserving, though I had outgrown the tradition. One was Myrtle Brooks, who lived up the road from us in the early 1950s when Robert and I were farming south of Farragut. I wrote about her and her famous banana cake in a 1989 column.
In addition to being my friend, Myrtle was the communication center of our community. Fourteen houses, including hers, were connected on our single rural telephone line. A call to any home caused the phones in every house to ring. Each family had its own distinctive number of rings, but anybody on the line could pick up a receiver and listen in. Myrtle often did.
If someone rang our number and we were not at home, Myrtle would come on the line and tell the caller where we had gone. If someone on our party line called out to tell the operator at the telephone office in Farragut to summon a doctor, minister, or even an undertaker, Myrtle would soon spread the word to acquaintances who would rally to the assistance of whoever was in need.
Today that might seem like an invasion of privacy, but at the time we considered Myrtle the important guardian of information about local activities. She was more up to date than the newspaper and more accurate than the radio newscasters.
Myrtle was also a member of the Friendly Fairview Community Club to which I belonged. Whenever it was her turn to entertain, she baked a delicious banana cake for refreshments. I always asked if she would share the recipe with me. She always declined, telling me her secret recipe was one of her trademarks.
One evening our telephone rang two longs and a short, our number of rings. When I answered, it was a Shenandoah reader wanting a dinner roll recipe I had printed in my newspaper column.
"I really liked them but I lost my copy of the paper after I made those rolls," she told me. "My aunt is coming tomorrow and I want to bake them for her. Can you give me the recipe over the phone?"
Just then, Myrtle’s voice came over the party line. "Wait a minute, Evelyn. I was taking a bath when the phone rang, and I need to put some clothes on."
My Shenandoah caller and I chatted until Myrtle came back on the line and told us she was now dressed and had a pencil and paper in hand, ready to copy the recipe.
The next morning, Myrtle called to thank me. Before hanging up, she concluded, "By the way, I’ve decided to give you my banana cake recipe. I’ll bring it to church Sunday."
The first day of May is a lovely time to think back about wonderful friends we have had in the past. Perhaps it is also a good time to make May baskets to share with friends of the present, or at least to call them on our modern cell phones and remind them how much we appreciate them.
Here is the recipe Myrtle guarded so carefully. It is as good today as it was when she used to bake it herself.
Myrtle Brook’s Banana Cake
1 ¾ cup sugar
½ cup butter
2 beaten eggs
½ cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon soda
1 cup mashed bananas
2 ¼ cups sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring
Cream together the sugar and butter. When light and fluffy, add the eggs and continue beating until smooth. Dissolve the soda in the buttermilk and stir into batter. Add bananas, cake flour, and flavoring. Mix well and pour into greased and floured cake pan. This makes two 8-inch layers or one large 13-by-9 inch cake. Bake about 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
Myrtle always frosted her cake with the following:
3 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons cream
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Heat sugar, butter and cream together over low heat, stirring, until well blended and sugar is dissolved. Stir in remaining ingredients. When smooth and creamy, frost the cake. Enjoy!