Ho Cakes and Heritage

By Steve Orton

She can only be described as a character. We called her Aunt Luella even though technically she was not a blood relative. It is just that in the small Mormon community where I grew up, with its heritage of polygamy, everyone was related more or less somewhere on the genealogical tree. Moreover, the adult women of the town adopted the role of “defacto aunts” as they watched over each other’s children, monitoring their behavior regardless of bloodlines.

Aunt Luella was only a couple of generations removed from the pioneers that settled the community and from our vantage point we may have regarded her as old fashioned. She wore no makeup, except for a pinch of rouge on her cheeks, and she wore her graying hair in long braids coiled on top of her head.

I thought she was wondrous. Her kind, sweet face could light up a room. She was a pillar of the ward. She always sat on the same bench in Sacrament meeting and always bore her testimony first. It was a pattern that had developed over the years. Out of respect and courtesy no one bore their testimony before she did. Her testimonies were mini-sermons, and looking back on it, I think she spoke less to the adults than she did to us youth who occupied the rear benches and only half listened, the other half of our attention being devoted to more important things like who took whom to the Saturday night dance.

She and her husband, a kindly farmer with rough hands and sunburned checks who was an influential bishop in my youth, lived in a house made of adobe brick. Though made of ancient materials, it was a grand structure after the Victorian style with a large, round parlor on one corner, a front porch trimmed in fretwork, and a large country kitchen. The house sat on an in-town lot that occupied a quarter of a block and hosted a barn, pens for farm animals, and a large orchard.

Her lot was our playground. I remember summer afternoons playing cowboys and Indians in the barn or cops and robbers among the trees in the orchard. It was then we heard the clarion call from her back porch, “ho cakes.” My playmates and I would tumble out of barn or tree to heed the call. We piled into her large, warm kitchen knowing we were about to receive a gastronomic treat. To this day I don’t know the recipe for Aunt Luella’s ho cakes. I suspect they were nothing more than fried bread dough, a byproduct of her almost daily bread making routine. She pounded out the dough with her hands, each cake round and flat. But they puffed up as they sizzled in the butter in the bottom of a cast iron skillet and were served golden brown and hot. A dollop of homemade butter and a slather of honey completed the dish.

We all dug in eagerly oblivious to the butter and honey dripping off our chins and the fact that in a few hours we would be at our own dinner tables, our appetites already satiated, picking at less appealing fare. Aunt Luella was always in hot water with our mothers for spoiling our suppers but repentance on this score was not in her soul. She had a more lofty purpose that outweighed concern about our stomachs or our mothers’ wrath.

After the ho cakes, she would lead us into what might be considered her study, a large room filled from top to bottom with books, magazines, Improvement Eras, Church News, and various Church curricula. Here was accumulated a lifetime of Sunday School, Primary and Relief Society teaching materials. There were diagrams of the Plan of Salvation with circles for the degrees of glory and arrows for who went where. There were flannel board cutouts of all the Book of Mormon and Old Testament characters. We enjoyed sitting at her feet as she rehearsed these gospel stories. But what I remember most was a “lesson” she taught one day on what it meant to be a “peculiar people.”

At that young age I was only vaguely aware of what existed outside the mountain valley I called home. But she laid out the whole story of the Mormon pioneers and their flight across the plains. We were brought to these valleys, she said, as a place of refuge. We were a peculiar people, using the word as a synonym for “special” or “favored.” In fact we were no other than the seed of Abraham of old. I was riveted by this realization of my place in the long stream of history.

Aunt Luella was also widely regarded as the town historian, and she had in her study the pictures, biographies and genealogies of the Mormon pioneer founders of the town, my ancestors among them. They had built this place of refugee with their bare hands and had nurtured and sustained it through all their generations down to mine. I slowly began to see a grander vision for my life. I was part of a chain of noble people who had done a great thing–something of consequence that had meaning for the past, present, and future. I resolved then and there that I would not be the weakest link. As I leafed through the old photographs with their faces starring out at me I felt indebted to them. I felt I owed them. They had lived hardscrabble lives making the desert blossom as a rose and here I lived in comfort enjoying the fruits of their labors. Moreover, they had stayed true to the faith–as must I.

It was a defining moment for me, one that influences me to this day. While the ho cakes may have fed my body, Aunt Luella fed my soul–as was her intention all along.


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