Duty Calls--and So Does Banana Bread

HAPPY EATER 4

September 25, 1991|By ROB KASPER

I enjoy telling my kids what a good boy I used to be.

One my favorite tales is how on bitter mornings I would struggle through fierce Midwestern weather to get to the corner of 27th and Mitchell Avenue. That was where I was a patrol boy. It was my responsibility to make sure my fellow students made it safely across Mitchell Avenue as they walked to St. Francis Xavier grade school in St. Joseph, Mo.

The snow would blow, the rain would fall, tornadoes would threaten, but duty kept me at my post.

At least that is what I tell my kids. What really kept me there was the banana bread from Jerre Anne's Cafeteria. This family-run cafeteria sat on very same corner where I served as patrol boy. Its ovens turned out the greatest-smelling banana desserts known to mankind.

In addition to the banana bread, there was banana nut bread, banana cake and banana cream pie. In warm weather there was the fruit salad pie which was made with refrigerated filling and sliced bananas. I swear as I stood on the corner, I could smell the bananas being sliced.

When the aromas emerged from the Jerre Anne kitchen, neither rain, nor wind, nor snow could cause me to leave my appointed intersection,

And so the other day when a package carrying "Heartland Baking" (Dell, $12), a cookbook from the Jerre Anne Cafeteria, arrived in the mail, I immediately began sniffing the contents. I found some peanut butter cookies and some oatmeal cookies. The cookies were clever ways to call attention to fact that the cookbook will be in bookstores this November.

But, alas, there was no banana bread.

So I called the author of the cookbook, Charla Lawhon, and hinted heavily about how much I miss the aroma of my youth.

Ms. Lawhon now resides in New York, where she is managing editor of Metropolitan Home magazine. But she grew up in St. Joe where she, along with her sister, brother and cousins, used ** to work at Jerre Anne after school. They wrapped napkins around the silverware, cleared dishes off the tables and vacuumed the cafeteria carpet.

Ms. Lawhon's Grandmother Frances and Great Aunt Agee started the cafeteria back in 1930. Her mother Geraldine and her Aunt Jean now preside over its operation.

She told me that Jerre Anne's corner was once the spot the trolley car route ended. As the trolley turned around to head back downtown, the conductor would scoot into Jerre Anne for cup of coffee and a piece of pie.

The mention of pie led to a discussion of Jerre Anne's baking schedule. The bakers come in at 5 a.m. to start making the pies, cakes, breads and rolls. Even though the cafeteria doesn't open for lunch until 11 a.m., regulars know you can get a cinnamon roll fresh from the oven at about 7:30 a.m. if you buy carryout.

In the 12 years I lived in St. Joe, I had never taken a seat in the cafeteria. I just grabbed some carryout baked goods and hurried home. When an item was sold out, its listing was taken down from a black felt board that told customers what was cooking that day. The mention of the board brought back a bitter memory.

I recalled one cold Saturday when my dad and I stopped by Jerre Anne at about 8:30 in the morning to buy banana bread, only to see that the bread was off the board. It was sold out in one hour.

This was especially disappointing to me because it was rare that I could convince my dad to buy something. Mom was an easier sell. She appreciated the texture of the butter cream frosting on a Jerre Anne cake, or the consistency of the filling in their coconut cream pie. But a plea to dad to stop the car and buy baked goods at the Jerre Anne would usually result in his short reply to the kids in the back seat: "We can get that at home."

This idea that everybody bakes is familiar to Ms. Lawhon. In fact, it was one of the obstacles in writing "Heartland Baking." When she first mentioned the idea of gathering the recipes of Jerre Anne together in a book, her mother and the cooks at Jerre Anne wondered why she would want to do that. They thought that "everybody cooks this way," Ms. Lawhon said. They thought that everyone baked pies and cooked ham-stuffed peppers and pork chops topped with Jonathan apples.

Maybe folks who live in St. Joe still cook like that. But they don't cook like that when they move to the big city. And they miss it.

One of the things that convinced Ms. Lawhon to write "Heartland Baking" was that whenever her friends in New York got word that she was going back to St. Joe for a visit, they besieged her with requests for Jerre Anne desserts.

After several years of lugging pies in her luggage back from St. Joe to Gotham, Ms Lawhon decided it was time to share the secrets of Jerre Anne with wider world.

She wrote the 160-page cookbook. I'm glad she did. For, as we urban-dwellers know, you can sniff out excitement and culture in many corners of the city.

8, But a good banana bread is hard to find.

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