Summer Food: Mother Knows Best As summer winds down, so, too, does our series on summer foods. This week's final installment focuses on moms — and their singular cooking techniques. We hear about Chinese barbecue sauce and "wacky cake."
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Summer Food: Mother Knows Best

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Summer Food: Mother Knows Best

Summer Food: Mother Knows Best

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED theme)

NORRIS: This summer, we've been hearing your stories about food. And this week, it's all about technique.

Wanda Wong's favorite summer food is her mother's barbecue sauce. It's made with Heinz ketchup, garlic and salted brown beans - a Chinese staple - plus some other ingredients. It's sweet and savory, mellow and pungent, a bit different than your standard barbecue sauce.

Wanda wanted to learn how to cook like her mother and that endeavor was a bit of a challenge.

Ms. WANDA WONG: My mother immigrated to the U.S. in 1948 and she had to teach herself how to cook, and she always trusted her own instincts and her own sense of taste. And she had this way of measuring all the food. She'd use like her fingers and she's telling me. She'd say something like, you use a finger of garlic. And I wonder, well, which finger? And she never wrote any of her recipes down. And if she had, they would've been in Chinese anyway, which I can't read. But that's how she cooked.

In one summer, after my mom died, my husband and I went to a friend's house for an intimate potluck barbecue. We brought the ribs and I made my mom's sauce. But I was worried that my friends wouldn't like it. It turns out I had nothing to worry about at all because they loved it. And then they were asking me for a recipe. And I said, well, have you got a pen?

So, what you do is, you start out with a fingerful of garlic, and then we go from there.

NORRIS: Hmm. No need to get a pen. You can go to our Web site and find that recipe.

But first, preparation is key to our next summer food that comes to us from Mary Carole Battle of St. Petersburg, Florida, who by the way celebrates her birthday this Friday.

Ms. MARY CAROLE BATTLE: Growing up, my best friend and I celebrated many of our birthdays together. When it came time to sing "Happy Birthday," her mother always placed a huge, beautifully decorated store-bought cake in front of her, while my mother placed a wacky cake in front of me. Looks might count for something, but everyone always came back to the wacky cake for seconds.

NORRIS: Mary Carole Battle is with us now. Mary, I am intrigued. What makes this cake so wacky?

Ms. BATTLE: Well, I had to ask my mother. It's just the pure simplicity of it. It's why it's called wacky cake, it's just all poured into one pan, mixed up, and thrown in the oven.

NORRIS: What are the ingredients?

Ms. BATTLE: I have the recipe right here. One and half cups flour, one cup sugar, a half-teaspoon salt, a quarter cup cocoa, and one teaspoon baking soda. You sift that and mix it up and make three holes. In the first hole, you put a teaspoon vanilla; in the second hole, a tablespoon of white vinegar; and in the third hole, six tablespoons of cooking oil or salad oil.

NORRIS: Vinegar?

Ms. BATTLE: Yeah.

NORRIS: Okay. I'm sorry. That one stopped me, but you should keep going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BATTLE: Then you pour a cup of cold water over the whole thing and just stir it up. And if it's in the pan that you're going to bake it in, just pop it in the oven at 350 degrees for about half an hour.

NORRIS: And what does it look like?

Ms. BATTLE: Oh, it's chocolate cake to die for.

NORRIS: Really? Frosting or no frosting?

Ms. BATTLE: Well, we always use the seven-minute frosting, which is actually harder to make than the cake, but it's a delicious kind of marshmallowy, sugary topping that just is wonderful.

NORRIS: You know, I'm stuck on the vinegar. Why that ingredient? What does that do?

Ms. BATTLE: I don't know, but...

NORRIS: Is that the secret to this?

Ms. BATTLE: I don't know. But it's just, I guess, a slight tang, but it's still really good and chocolaty.

NORRIS: Now, when I heard you do your reading and you described your friend and her mother, I could imagine what that store-bought cake look like with...

Ms. BATTLE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes. Yeah.

NORRIS: ...little rosettes (unintelligible), and probably some sort of technicolor frosting.

Ms. BATTLE: Oh, yes.

NORRIS: But what I've heard from you was a real expression of pride...

Ms. BATTLE: Oh, yes.

NORRIS: ...for your mother's wacky cake.

Ms. BATTLE: Yeah. They're just always delicious, and I hope she makes me one for my birthday.

NORRIS: Well, Mary Carole, thank you very much for introducing us to the wacky cake.

Ms. BATTLE: You're very welcome.

NORRIS: That was Mary Carole Battle of St. Petersburg, Florida, talking about wacky cakes. That recipe and the recipe for the seven-minute frosting that she talked about is at our Web site,

And we want to say thank you for all the folks who took the time to share their summer food stories. And summer is not over, so go for it and eat well.

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