Readers, friends remember Democrat columnist
The slightly worn and faded page of a 2004 newspaper clipping featuring Christina Hall’s recipe for coconut cake always brings back fond memories for Pete Cantu.
The Natchez resident has made the recipe an annual Easter tradition for nearly a decade, but this year’s cake will be special.
“I always kept that paper with me with her picture on it in this old book with all my favorite recipes, and every Easter I would take it out and think about how good the cake was going to be,” Cantu said. “When I heard she passed away, I knew all the ones I make from now on are going to mean more and be really special because she’s not with us anymore.”
Since 1999, Hall’s columns, recipes and stories were printed on the pages of The Natchez Democrat and offered insight into the life of a Natchez resident full of personality and compassion, said former Democrat Editor Stacy Graning.
“She loved food, entertaining, but most of all, she loved stories because she was a natural storyteller and liked to find out about people and what made them interesting,” Graning said. “She wasn’t sure if people would read her column at first, but she had a real passion for getting things right and doing a good job, so she studied and learned about her craft until she found her voice.”
That voice came to grace the pages of this newspaper following a phone call Graning made to Hall to apologize about something in her own column.
“She took me to task, and rightfully so, for something I had written, but by the end of the conversation we were laughing, realizing we had more in common than we realized,” Graning said. “As we talked, I said, ‘Why don’t you help us?’
“She jokingly said, ‘I think I could do a better job,’ and it went back and forth like that for a while until I talked her into writing for us.”
While Hall told Graning she worried her lack of knowledge of journalism would impact her work, Graning said it was one of her greatest attributes.
“She was a reader first and foremost, and she was the ‘everyman’ we were writing and working for,” Graning said. “So when she would come into the newsroom and sit on the other side of the computer screen, she was able to be very candid and frank about what we were doing right and what we need to do better.”
After a stint as Lifestyle editor, Hall stayed on staff as a contributing writer, allowing her readers to follow along with the stories of her family and the recipes she shared on the newspaper’s pages.
There are few recipes Hall published over the years reader Hattie Poole didn’t like and many she has saved, Poole said.
A Baton Rouge native, Poole has lived in Natchez for 31 years and every Wednesday looked forward to the columns Hall wrote, whether it was about her children or just sharing a few of her favorite recipes.
“I would always tell my son to cut them out and save them,” Poole said.
Poole especially loved the many recipes Hall shared during special occasions.
“You could always look in the paper during the holidays and find something special,” Poole said.
Of the many recipes Poole has kept, caramel cake may be one of her favorites.
“I have made it so many times, I have lost count,” Poole said.
Hall shared with readers two recipes for caramel cake in 2010 when her oldest daughter, Holly, wanted to make a caramel cake for her husband. The first recipe included a yellow cake mix in its ingredients. The second recipe was for a pound cake made from scratch.
“But it is the caramel icing that makes it,” Poole said. “Either way, you can’t lose.”
“She always said, ‘Try it. You may mess up the first time, but you will get good at it, if you keep trying.’”
The coconut cake recipe Cantu uses each year must be followed exactly how Hall wrote on Wednesday, March 31, 2004.
“I follow it exactly, or it won’t be right,” Cantu said. “I’ve tried a lot of her recipes, but this is the main one that’s stuck with me.”
Longtime friend Marla Farmer said her family shared Thanksgiving dinner with Hall for the better part of the last decade, and Hall’s prowess in the kitchen — and her personality outside it — marked the occasion.
“For my son, when we are dividing up who will bring what, it is always a battle of who would do what, but he always wanted his nanny and Mrs. Christina to be in charge of the difficult things,” Farmer said.
“She was so funny, so crazy and so dedicated and passionate about everything she did.”
Hall was also a tailgater who never missed an Ole Miss home game, but those who knew her said Hall’s dedication to Ole Miss football was about much more than school spirit.
Her husband David and son Matthew had made it a tradition to attend Ole Miss games, friend Cindy Meng said. When David died 13 years ago, Christina became Mom and Dad — including with football.
“She knew that tradition had to continue,” Meng said. “Matthew played football in junior high and when he went to Cathedral School, it did not matter where the game was or what time the game was over, at that point on Friday night, if there was an Ole Miss home game, they loaded up that Expedition with what they needed to head to The Grove.”
It was a tradition Meng said Hall eventually shared with all three of her children — including daughters Holly and Emily — and illustrated not only her dedication to family but her openness to others.
“She set up the tent, she provided everything for them to have The Grove experience, and welcomed everybody to their tent,” Meng said. “She was a widow at the age of 39 with three children to educate, but there was never any, ‘Woe is me,’ she just moved forward, and she did a lot of good for a lot of people.”
It was a sentiment about Hall many can repeat.
“When David passed away, I have never seen anyone who has so graciously stepped up to the plate to do such an amazing job to raise the three amazing young adults she now has,” Farmer said.
A registered nurse, Hall was health services administrator for the Adams County Correctional Center and a respected member of the health care community. A past member of the Natchez Garden Club and active in the Pilgrimage Garden Club, Hall was known for her participation in the area’s pilgrimage events and her help with the Historic Natchez Tableaux.
She was a Mardi Gras queen — the Krewe of Phoenix’s Queen Rosalie XXII — and helped found a women’s krewe, the Divine Dixie Divas.
Hall’s friend Maria Smilo characterized her as a woman with a sense of humor and a drive that was tempered with real wisdom and compassion — characteristics that extended beyond her family and friends and into her professional life.
“She was one of those people who, if you had a problem and you needed advice, she was always wise, intelligent and would always have a fix for you,” Smilo said. “She was always the kind of person that could listen to your problem or be in a situation and not be afraid to make the right call and follow through with it, and I think that is what made her a good nurse, too, because she could make decisions quickly, logically and for the best interest of the people involved.”
Farmer said Hall was the kind of person who was willing to do anything for anyone.
“She was just one of those people who loved to share whatever gift she had to share at that time,” Farmer said. “A lot of people may not have realized what a huge heart she had and how funny a companion she was, but we could not have asked for a better, more loyal friend.
“She is going to be impossible to replace.”
Coconut Cake (as published in the March 31, 2004, edition of The Natchez Democrat)
1 large egg plus 5 egg whites
3/4 cup crem of coconut
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon coconut extract
2 1/4 cups plain cake flour, sifted
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter cut in pieces, room temp
2 cups packed sweetened shredded coconut
4 large egg whites
1 cup sugar
4 sticks unsalted butter, cut into chunks, softened
1/4 cup cream of coconut
1 teaspoon coconut extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 325 and grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.
In a small bowl, beat the egg whites and whole egg with a fork until combined. Add the cream of coconut, water and flavorings.
In a mixing bowl combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix on lowest speed for 30 seconds. Then with the mixer running add the butter one 1 small chuck at a time until the mixture resembles coarse corn meal, 2 to 2/12 minutes.
With the mixer still running add 1 cup of the liquid in a slow and steady stream. Beat until light and fluffy, about 45 seconds. Then add the remaining cup of liquid in a steady stream.
Stop the mixer. Scrape down the sides and then beat at medium speed to combine, about 15 seconds; this is a thick batter.
Divide the batter between your cake pans and bake for 30 minutes or until the cakes pull away from the sides. (Don’t turn off your oven.)
Cool the cakes in the pan for 10 minutes and then cool on racks.
While the cakes are cooling, spread the shredded coconut on the baking sheet and toast in oven until the shreds are a mix of golden brown and white. I stir mine two or three times during the 15 to 20 minutes that it takes. Set aside to cool.
Make the frosting. Combine the egg whites, sugar and salt in the bowl of your mixer and set it over a pan with just a few inches of barely simmering water. Whisk constantly until this mixture is cloudy and warm to the touch, about 2 minutes. Put your bowl on the mixer and beat the whites on high speed until the whites are barely warm and whites are glossy and sticky, about 7 minutes.
Reduce speed to medium-high and beat in butter 1 piece at a time. Beat in flavorings and the cream of coconut. Stop the mixer once and scrape down the sides And beat for about one more minute.
Cut each cake layer in half and frost in between each layer, top and the sides with buttercream. Then cover with coconut, pressing it lightly into frosting.
Caramel pound cake (as published in the Oct. 20, 2010, edition of The Natchez Democrat)
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 sticks butter, soft
6 large eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
Preheat oven to 325 degrees and grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl and set aside. In another large mixing bowl, cream together the two sugars and butter with the mixer and then add the eggs one at a time, beating after each one until well blended. Then alternately, add the flour mixture and milk to the creamed mixture and beat until well blended and smooth. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a knife inserted in the center comes out almost clean, about one hour. Do not overbake. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes and then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.
1 stick butter
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups of powdered sugar, sifted
Melt the butter in a large heavy saucepan over low heat and then add the brown sugar and milk stirring until the mixture is almost to a boil. Remove from the heat and let cool. Stir in the vanilla and then gradually stir in the powdered sugar and until blended and smooth.
Transfer the cake to a plate and ice the top and sides; let the cake stand for 2 hours before serving.