Grandma Flency’s Perfect Pound Cake

Houstonville's Augustine Houston, known to many as Grandma Flency, worked and played hard, and loved her family big.

Above The Houston family headed to church at the Twin Beech AME Zion Church circa 1965. 

Back in the early 1980s, Clarice Hall Black was a young girl sitting in the kitchen of her grandmother’s house off Twin Beech Road in Fairhope, in a community called Houstonville. She was crying because she wasn’t allowed to go in the living room that day. Her grandmother was hosting the Royal Sixteen Social Club for dinner, and Clarice needed to stay out of the way.

The club voted in its membership, only 16 ladies at a time, who rotated hosting duties each month. The ladies came decked in their Sunday best, with heels and hats on. “It was like seeing real royalty,” remembers Hall Black. Her grandmother Augustine Houston, known to the family as Grandma Flency, had made her famous gumbo for the luncheon, and set out all the best china and silver. Eventually, Clarice cried so much that the ladies let her set up a little card table in the corner of the room if she promised not to interrupt the luncheon. “I was mesmerized.”

The house where Flency entertained was a source of pride, and the Houstons worked hard to get it. Her husband RJ Houston was in the Navy, and while Flency stayed home to work and raise the children, RJ sent $5 home from every paycheck. The couple worked and saved and built that house. “They were the first Black family in their area to have a bathroom in their home,” Hall Black remembers. “My mom would tell me how the kids in the neighborhood would come over just to test it out.” 

 During those days, all the roads in Houstonville were red clay dirt. Samuel Jenkins, Baldwin County’s first Black county commissioner, worked to get the roads paved, and Hall Black says it gave the residents a real sense of accomplishment. “They ran the sewer for the Grand Hotel and put the pump station practically in our backyard, but the Black community was not able to tap on to the lines.” Times were not easy, but the fabric of the community was strong and everyone looked out for each other.

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Flency taught her nine children, 47 grandchildren and 37-plus great-grandkids the importance of family. “Wherever I was in the world, if we had a relative there, I would contact them. That’s what she taught us to do. She said ‘If you don’t have anybody else, you have your family.’” 

Hall Black, who followed her grandpa’s footsteps into the military for the early part of her career, said she always came home for holidays when she could, and never missed a Valentine’s Day. The Twin Beech AME Zion Church hosted a Valentine’s Day luncheon, with prizes for who brought the most people or had someone travel the farthest. “I always came home so Grandma Flency would win. I flew in from Hawaii for Valentine’s one year and from Turkey for Mother’s Day another year, just so she could win.” She says that you did those types of things for Flency, because she had always been there for you. 

While family came first for the Houstons, everyone understood a paying job was important, too. It was a lesson Hall Black witnessed first-hand every holiday when she was young. Flency was a domestic worker at several of the larger houses on the Bay through the years, and every holiday she went to work, serving Christmas brunch or prepping Thanksgiving dinner for other families. Children who were not her own were eating her cakes, cobblers and side dishes while the Houston family waited at home. “We knew she’d be home at 5 o’clock and that’s when we’d do the holiday,” remembers Hall Black. “She always told us, ‘Someday I’ll be able to have Christmas here with you guys.’” 

Her culinary skills were well-known in both the Black and white communities of the Eastern Shore. She was a sought-after cook, and later catered parties, too. Even on those holidays when she didn’t get home until late, she had already cooked the majority of the food for her family. “She made us all handicapped!” laughs Hall Black. Every family group chipped in money for ingredients, and Grandma Flency cooked it all. As a result, very few of the younger generations can make a dish like she did.

Relatives say she could cook everything and anything. Hall Black remembers her succotash, with okra, tomatoes and lima beans straight out of the garden. She even made her own beer. “I have this big clay jar with a clay lid, and my mom says on hot summer nights when they were kids, it would start exploding in the heat because of the fermentation. Flency wasn’t scared to try her hand at anything; she was like a pioneer woman.”

She tried to teach Hall Black how to make her legendary gumbo, even supplying a grocery list, but the recipe came without measurements. “No need for perfection,” Flency said. “It’s all going in the pot!” She was quick with the knife and stirred things up by the pinch and dash. “She told me, ‘It’s not going to taste like mine, it’s going to be yours. If you want it to taste like mine, you’re going to need to cook this a whole bunch more. One time won’t perfect it.’” 

Flency played as hard as she worked, too. She loved to travel, dance and sing even though she would say, “I couldn’t carry a note if I had a bucket to put it in.” She was fun and games but she was also a disciplinarian. If you were headed down a questionable path or did something wrong in school, a sit down with Grandma Flency was sure to be in your future.

The Houstons and friends vacation in Mexico

Hall Black laughs when she remembers spending time with Flency. “She was always barefoot at home, and nine times out of 10, if you showed up unexpectedly, she would have on shorts with just her bra. I got used to it. They were those old-fashioned 1950s bras with a cone point and a million hooks on the back! And she would say, ‘If you don’t like it, you ain’t got to look at it.’ She sat by the door in her La-Z-Boy, and Grandpa sat across from her, and to get to the kitchen you had to walk between them. But the door was always open.”

Her house smelled like magnolia flowers and gardenias that she would put in a bowl of water. The breeze blew through and there was usually a pound cake cooling on the stove. “My uncles could get off work and know there was going to be food on the stove, coffee percolating, and it was home.”

Flency loved BB King, and she would play his records on the stereo outside in her carport on Saturdays when she had the day off work. “We could hear it all throughout the nearby woods,” remembers Hall Black . “When you’d get out of earshot, you knew you had gone too far from home.”

When Hall Black was stationed not too far away on the Florida panhandle, she and her husband James would come to Fairhope every weekend and go to church with Flency, who would send them home with a pound cake. When Hall Black married and started her own family, she realized she wanted her kids to have a childhood like hers. Freedom to run through the woods and ride bikes to the neighbors. Yards with no fences. Grandmas, aunts, uncles and cousins looking out for you. Delicious smells coming from the kitchen, with a pound cake cooling on the stove.

Flency’s Sour Cream Pound Cake

Grandma Flency’s Pound Cake

Serves 15

1/2 pound butter, room temperature
2 3/4 cups sugar
6 eggs, room temperature
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon lemon extract
1 cup finely chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan and set aside. Cream butter and sugar using in a large mixing bowl with electric mixer. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. 

2. In another bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Add them to the creamed mixture alternately with the sour cream. Mix well. Add flavorings and pecans. 

3. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 1 1/2 hours, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

*Cooks note: pound cake is best made a day ahead.

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