August 2018
Homeplace & Community

Still Cooking

 

Joe Smith’s smile says his New York-style cheesecake came out of the oven just like he hoped.

Dallas County’s Joe Smith shows how the golden years can stay sweet.

Aging has a way of bringing out the best or worst in some people, but that doesn’t include Joe Smith, who has been quietly counting the years with grace and dignity as they tick down.

His mornings usually start at the Selma-Dallas County YMCA swimming pool where he joins a large group of senior citizens for water aerobics classes.

Occasionally, he can be seen entering the Y wearing a bright-red T-shirt inscribed with wide white letters informing curious visitors that "I’m Slow But I’m Not Lazy. I’m 84."

A niece made the T-shirt as a way of honoring a man who won’t allow the years to slow him down. He just sees them as more challenges to surmount.

He encourages people, especially after swim class, to try and stay young as much as possible and to focus on fun things to do. His preferences include baking cookies, cakes and other delicious creations.

Smith sells some of his homemade delicacies to help pay for the ingredients, but much of his time is involved in community fundraisers where he’s busy at his oven, making mouth-watering fried chicken and what’s become known as "Joe’s Monstrous Cookies" and "Smitty’s Pound Cake."

Joe’s flashy T-shirt gets laughs when he wears it to the Selma YMCA.

 
   

His culinary piece de resistance is his New York-style cheesecake. Those who have eaten a slice rave about it for good reason. According to a friend, it can produce a sweet sensation that lingers long after it’s been consumed.

His cheesecakes weigh around 8 pounds, take three hours to make and rarely leave any crumbs behind as slices quickly vanish.

Ingredients include lots of cream cheese, of course, brown graham crackers for the crust, crushed pineapple, melted butter, white sugar, jumbo eggs, coconut, crushed almonds, whipping cream and, to top it all off, a cherry on top.

"I always put cherries on my cakes because it’s a nice touch to something I’m proud to have made," Smith explained.

Smith loved cheesecake while he lived in New York. After one of his daughters ordered one that cost $50, all he could say when he arrived at the house was, "Heck, I can make one myself, and it’ll be just as good … if not better."

While living in New York, he spent time enjoying piled-high Jewish corned beef sandwiches on rye bread. He also fell in love with Cuban food when he lived in Miami.

He takes personal pride not only in the way he handles his kitchen but also adheres to a life worthy of emulation. He doesn’t smoke or drink, is a regular churchgoer, spent six years in the Air Force and supports the military whenever he has an opportunity.

He also does his own chores around the house, cuts the grass and volunteers to help those who need transportation assistance.

 

Joe, left, and Anthony Bonner weigh Joe’s New York-style cheesecake at Joe’s house. It came in at nearly eight pounds.

Remaining active is a way for him to pay tribute to the love of his life. He and Brenda had planned to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary two years ago, but she passed away after a lingering illness.

Cookies are among his many kitchen creations, but he’s no stranger to barbecues. He’s helped to raise thousands of dollars for the church and other worthy causes.

Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Selma benefited from one of his projects that once netted $1,200 and helped the church to obtain a much-needed air conditioner.

Julia Lane, one of "The Ladies" in the water aerobics class, is one of his biggest fans and quick to praise him for his ecumenical efforts.

"He’s a good human being, and you can’t say more than that about everybody," Lane said as she finished her swim for the day. "He helps people who need it the most, and that’s commendable."

Smith’s good deeds emanated from childhood when he’d watch adults help neighbors in need. He did it without having to be asked. It was a lesson in life that’s been a big part of who he is.

He once received a Volunteer Award, but that isn’t why he pitches in to help others. It is just something he enjoys doing. His rewards are in the smiles greeting him when he contributes something positive to his state.

The Depression may have been in its waning period in the late 1930s, but it was still a negative economic factor as Smith watched Dallas County’s jobless families try to survive. He can still remember what it was like as he entered his teenage years.

Raised in rural Dallas County where his grandparents taught him the importance of hard work and responsibility, he tried to copy them, especially when sharecropping season was at hand, along with worries about the weather.

"I can still remember what it was like plowing behind our mule named Bill," he recalled. "He helped us to complete our crops and I’d think about him a lot in the fields when I’d be in the hot sun chopping cotton and whatever else was needed."

Smith could have made the Air Force a career, but decided to see what the rest of the world offered and it was on to other ventures. He found them in New York and Florida, picking up recipes along the way.

His successes in the kitchen have earned him a following in parts of Alabama. If someone asks him about his latest recipe, he’ll be happy to share it with his fans – without being overly specific, of course.

He knows there is always room for improvement in any venture and he doesn’t mind mentioning the time one of his early coconut banana cream pies failed to pass muster.

To put it mildly, it just about blew up on the culinary "launch pad," but Smith made the needed corrections and got it into proper orbit.

Asked recently how he’d grade himself when it came to cooking, baking and sharecropping, he broke into a big smile.

"I’d give myself a seven or eight, but then, nobody’s perfect," he answered.

He must have been thinking about that coconut banana cream pie.

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.