Why Family Tradition Makes Food Taste Better

By Jenn Rose Smith
Jennifer Cumberbatch

Family recipes pack a certain transportive power — when you bite into that same cookie that grandma used to make, you’re suddenly a kid again standing in the middle of her kitchen. The aromas and tastes are directly tied to the memory centers of our brains, and one bite can unlock a lost world of familiarity. But what if we could take those recipes a step further, to find ourselves standing in the middle of our great great grandmother’s kitchens? That’s just what Jennifer Cumberbatch did with her company, Cumberbatch’s Sweet Tater Torte. The Austinite and longtime baker reinvented her Great Aunt’s recipe for sweet potato soufflé in a way that honors her ancestors’ journey from Africa to the American South. “The American sweet potato (with black eyed peas) comprised a large portion of slaves’ rations for sustenance and have continued to serve as a conduit to nutrition, delight and fellowship,” explains Jennifer. Turns out the tortes she’s been baking for years are one of the best ways to share that history with friends and younger family members. “Perhaps it’s that cultural practice of celebrating the small things — adapting something ordinary into something extraordinary and investing in relationships — that resonates with me and has inspired my culinary and customary traditions. I love extending good food as an offering to those in my circle of influence.” Read on to discover how Jennifer used her heritage to inspire a unique recipe and found her own thriving small business.

photographed by hakeem adewumi

What is your approach to cooking and how is it inspired by your heritage?

My general approach to cooking keeps in mind flavor, efficiency, nutritional and health value, elegance and economy. I love combining the basics of a standard recipe with my eclectic mix and match of ingredients. Having four children and being the eldest of five siblings, cooking masterful dishes in a minimal amount of time, while maintaining a wow factor is important.

What does good food mean to you?

Good food engenders a pleasurable sensory experience, feeds the body nutritionally, and is a springboard for solitary musing or communal fellowship. Good food leaves one wanting another taste.

Tell us a bit about your company: when did you found it and why?

Cumberbatch Confections sprang from a personal love for cooking, baking and celebrating with family and friends around a shared table.  The company ethos aligns with what writer Alice Walker calls “Our mother’s gardens.” My sweet tater torte is memory of fresh produce from my mother’s, grandmothers’ and grandfather’s gardens.  The simplicity of food made from scratch rolled, pressed, sauté, simmered and baked to perfection by love hands and generous hearts. My torte is the memory of a people who worked on plantations and cultivated other’s gardens, while carving a sweet and fragrant life for themselves, their children and their children’s children from the rations of those they served. It embodies beauty from scraps and elegance from leftovers. Cumberbatch Sweet Tater Torte is a nod to universal Folk Food, a monument to the specific food of the soul derived from the African American experience.

So, what exactly is a “sweet tater torte”?

A Cumberbatch’s Sweet Tater Torte is a sweet potato confection with a top and bottom buttery, sweet crust encasing a delicate, airy whipped sweet potato soufflé.  It is the upper crust of sweet potato desserts, the evolution of the sweet potato pie.

And how long have you been making them?

I have been making  Cumberbatch’s Sweet Tater Torte for 29 years. I started making this dessert a little bit before my oldest daughter was born. Back in the day I would make the tortes in the kitchen of Hyde Park Bar and Grill, made available to me by the generosity of the owner, Bick Brown, in exchange for pies he sold in the restaurant.  I would go in the kitchen during their off hours, at 12 midnight, bake pies until 6 am, go home to nurse my daughter and check on my son, see my husband off to work and then deliver the pies.

When did you first start cooking?

I first started cooking at about 7 or 8 years old.  My mother was my primary teacher, though I paid close attention to my grandmothers, as they cooked.  My mother was very patient with me and let me experiment and was gracious enough to let me make mistakes and experience successes.  I remember one experience wherein the icing recipe called for 2 tablespoons of hot milk or water. I was incredulous as to how so little liquid could make a bowl full of icing.  I insisted that the recipe was mistaken and meant to call for 2 cups of water.  My mother gently tried to convince me otherwise and ultimately relented saying “OK, Jenny, try it your way.”  Needless to say, we had cake and sweet soup.  I was the designated dessert concoctor in my growing up.  My siblings would ask me to take whatever ingredients we had in the house: (lemonade oatmeal and sugar) and say “Jenny make us a treat.”  We dined on the most delicious concoction known to humankind for which there were not names, but many compliments.

Can you share one or two favorite traditions or memories that have been passed down through your family?

My most wonderful memories associated with food extend back to childhood and move forward to my life with my husband and children. My paternal grandfather, a descendent of slaves, former farmer and landowner from Andalusia, Alabama taught my mother how to garden. When I was a little girl, he guided my mother through tilling the land and planting a garden in the back of our house on Owasso Street in Cincinnati Ohio. During one of his daily garden check-ins (unbeknownst to him or my mother) he planted black-eye peas over her planted green beans.  My mother harvested and cooked the produce on several occasions.  One day my mother, on the front porch, snapping, what she thought were green beans, lamented to her visiting Aunt, how tough her green beans were.  My great Aunt looked over at the what my mother thought were green beans.  And, said, “Sister, those are not green beans, they are vines from black eye peas that need to be shucked and cooked not snapped.”  This story epitomizes the passing on of vital knowledge and tradition from one generation to the next that has come to rest with my children.  My mother fed us from a two area garden, started by my aunt in Kokomo, Indiana. When we moved to an upscale neighborhood in Washington, D.C.  she sustained us from a backyard garden.  These gardens lead me to memories of frozen and canned produce turned to pies, condiments and good eating in winter.  

The knowledge of good food and cooking supported my mother’s maternal Aunts catering business that put her sibling through college to become librarians, pharmacists, semi-professional athletes and educators.  This same great aunt started the tradition of Christmas family dinners crowded with family and extended family and our traditional menu of macaroni and cheese, collard greens, turkey, ham, sweet potato soufflé, lemon coconut cake and pie.  Those family dinners inspired my present family’s gathering at Thanksgiving where we along with lifelong friends, would host upwards of 30-40 people with the same family menu with the centerpiece dessert being my Cumberbatch Sweet Tater Torte. Thanksgiving dinners on Shoal Creek, Green Lanes or at our friend house off of 2222, our spouses, parents, their 4 boys and my 4 children, sometimes siblings, and faces of a host of friends have inspired this recent incarnation of the Sweet Tater Torte — sweet memories, indeed!

What makes family recipes so special?

My Sweet Tater Torte is a unique incarnation of my family’s sweet potato soufflé passed down from my Great Aunt Lu’s catering company through my maternal grandfather. I cannot imagine a holiday without this dish. I’ve combined this traditional dish with a recipe passed to me from my former pastors, indigenous to the Louisiana Cajun tradition. I am so enamored with embodying memory, history, culture and family tradition into this confection that I have passed the recipe and making of the pie to my children. This torte is my legacy to help sustain my family on the sweet memories of their ancestors and inspire ingenuity, hard work and solvency from the work of their hands and heart for the future.  

Do you ever put your own spin on a recipe that’s been handed down? Or do you always do your best to preserve the exact historical recipe?

This February, for Valentine’s my youngest daughter, a baking natural from 6 years old, will debut her spin on my classic Cumberbatch Sweet Tater Torte by adding her special chocolate-maple-caramel twist to the confection. I still make my tortes with fresh ingredients and roll each top and bottom crust by hand. Each pie is a unique and homemade offering to my customers.

Is it important to honor the same cooking methods and use the same tools that your ancestors did?

Historically based cookbooks, baking and cooking classes are great sources for discovering recipes and ingredients from one’s heritage. Four years ago, my production company, JR Cumberbatch Productions (funded in part by sales from Cumberbatch Confections) produced and staged “Having Our Say, the Delaney Sisters First One Hundred Years.” The Delaney Sisters were two incredible African American women born one decade after the end of slavery and lived to be 103 and 105 dying during the Reagan era. The entire play takes place between the kitchen and the living room of the Delaney’s, while they are actually cooking and preparing the elegance table setting for their deceased father’s birthday celebration. The American History and celebration of food, life and nutrition is an excellent source for those that didn’t have the opportunity to help their elders in the kitchen.  

How have you researched your family tree? 

We believe my paternal family lineage was started by two white brothers who migrated from France to Louisiana, one of them then “started a family” with my great, great, grandmother. It explains the red hair and green eyes that run through my family, but also is a testament to the multicultural nature of many black families.

If someone didn’t necessarily grow up helping mom or grandma in the kitchen, what are some good ways they might discover recipes and ingredients from their own heritage?

My friend Toni Tipton Martin a former Austin food enthusiast, author and food culture provocateur has written a book, the James Beard Awarded book, called “The Jemima Code” extolling the history and culinary legacy of great African American cooks and chefs, like Edna Lewis. This book is an invaluable addition to our understanding of American cuisine from which expert and novice cooks and bakers can glean. When my husband and I (who incidentally, along with my son is an expert amateur chef) got married we were gifted with two cookbooks that have grounded our family culinary legacy namely, “The Good Housekeeping Cookbook” and “The Original Boston Cooking School Cookbook”, 1896.  “Cooking Light” and Martha Stewart’s “Living” Magazine in tandem with these cookbooks and the recipes from my elders formed the bedrock for my expertise. Magazines, ever popular food blogs and cooking shows, classes, consultations with restaurant chefs and wait staff, farmers markets and potlucks/recipe swaps are fantastic sources for discovering new ingredients, recipes in cultural/heritage infused context.

Where (and when) can we order one of your sweet tater tortes?

I am so blessed by the generous people at HeyCupcake! Austin to say that you can order Cumberbatch Sweet Tater Torte direct from our website and pick up next day at HeyCupcake! on Burnet Road. Shortly after an order is placed, I head to the kitchen to bake you your own torte with my own hands and heart of love.