The Cake Through Which I Came To Know My Grandmother

cake art
Grandmother's cake recipe is still popular. (Julia Ewan for The Washington Post)
By Debra Bruno
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

One of my most cherished possessions is my grandmother's 1942 edition of "The American Woman's Cook Book." It's a sorry-looking thing: spineless with yellowed, speckled pages. Yet, it offers me a window into her long life and the times in which she lived.

It admonishes: "Skim milk may be used in cooking, but the fact must be remembered that the fat removed has carried with it important vitamins which must be returned as butter and cream."

Even more than the glimpse of a world in which the midday meal called for china and table linens, what I cherish are her notations scribbled in the margins. There is a detailed record of her cooking triumphs: 18 markings of "excellent," 19 with "swell," four "delicious," one "good," and one "very very good," painstakingly written, along with month, day and year, from 1946 to 1979, first in fountain pen, later in pencil or ballpoint pen, and shakier as her hand tremors worsened. Edna Van Valkenburg, in her reliable Dutch way, kept track of things.

And so I glimpse fragments of family history -- a whipped cream cake baked on March 10, 1946, my mother's 15th birthday ("Excellent"); a sour cream cake on July 23, 1946, the day before her own birthday (another "excellent"); and crullers ("swell") almost exactly two weeks before my birth in 1957.

In 1946, the year she received the cookbook as a gift from a neighbor in upstate New York, she made nine cakes, two puddings and three pies -- four desserts in July alone -- in a postwar celebration of sugar and eggs.

Those are just the ones on record. The book keeps some mysteries hidden: why there is no marking on the page for Boston baked beans, for instance, even though she was famous for hers. Or what disaster befell the custard pie she baked on Nov. 26, 1946, undoubtedly a hurried Thanksgiving morning. In the book, she wrote and underlined, "Use large pan."

These cryptic notations offer me a portrait, however shadowy, of a woman I didn't know well at all, except as my grandmother. What I know is limited, of course, to our relationship. On the occasion of my first haircut, my aunt remembers my grandmother fretting over my lost curls. Hence the unmarked white envelope found much later, tucked away in a box of old photographs, and filled with auburn rounds of baby hair.

I crave a fuller picture. I want to imagine her lifetime of feeding and caring for family and friends. Inside the front cover of her cookbook I find a clipping of the "Crosbys' Christmas Venison," a newspaper recipe that calls for larding 10 pounds of venison with salt pork, marinating it in white wine and olive oil for at least three days, and then roasting it for hours, basting every 20 minutes. My grandfather, a frugal man who stockpiled five-pound bags of sugar throughout his life, loved to hunt and fish. Was this her Christmas surprise? Was she wrestling with a deer carcass as the holidays approached?

I also have her collection of handwritten recipes on index cards. Here I can get a picture of her as a young bride, carefully printing with a fountain pen -- in the most delicate handwriting I've ever seen -- a recipe for dinner chowder: a dull medley of potatoes, onion and celery. The index card collection offers up a kind of miniature family album, with Cousin Cora's coffeecake, her sister Rometta's Million Dollar Fudge and Aunt Jennie's pickles. My mother, aunt and one dutiful cousin also figure heavily in the pound cakes, sugar cookies and hot cross buns.

But it's the cookbook's flour-dusted pages that bring my grandmother into the best focus. I can picture her leafing through the pages, deciding which dessert would please her family. I'm almost there in the kitchen when, on March 16, 1949, she makes the "True Sponge Cake" and pronounces it "swell." This is my version of time travel: a granddaughter years away from being born, hovering like some ghost of the future in her sunny kitchen. There are five egg whites in one bowl, five yolks in another. A lemon is cut in half; its citrus smell fills the room. It's nearly spring, and Petey the parakeet chirps away in his cage by the window.

Debra Bruno is a freelance writer in Washington. She made the whipped cream cake for her daughter's 15th birthday.

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