When I was eleven, going on twelve, I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. In the hospital for a week, I cried a number of times over this diagnosis—usually when my family members had gone home and I was alone in the sterile room. I didn’t cry over what probably should have given me pause—that diabetes is a life-threatening illness with frequent gruesome complications like blindness, gangrene and subsequent amputation, heart disease, and kidney failure. All of that had not sunk in yet.
I cried for two reasons—I was going to have to take shots every day, and the doctors and nurses had told me that I’d never be able to eat sweets again. That this last was not really true never occurred to me. The medical staff said it, so I believed it.
If you’re not part of the Southern culture, it may be hard to understand how embedded sweets are in expressions of love in that culture, particularly familial love. Both of my grandmothers, and later my step-grandmother, as well, were famous cooks. Sweets were an ineluctable part of every holiday celebration. Giving up sweets in this culture was as hard as an alcoholic giving up booze.
Ironically, I had only just reached an age where two of the main products of my grandmothers’ cooking appealed to me. As a younger child, I’d been averse to the tickly, chewy texture of coconut and so I had not loved the high white coconut cake with divinity icing made by my Grandmother Meek every year or the more unusual jam spice cake with nut-, raisin-, and coconut-studded yellow frosting (known as amalgamation cake) that Grandmother Roney made.
These two cakes were as finicky as I was, and every year there was breath-holding over whether or not they would turn out “just right.” The divinity icing had to be made under just the right climactic conditions, and my grandmother beat it by hand with a wire whip on an oval, white platter for what seemed like hours on end. She would not use an electric mixer because it wouldn’t give her just the right feel for the texture. The cake layers themselves would grow dry if not moistened with just the right amount of coconut juice. The amalgamation cake was every bit as complicated. The thick, jam-imbued layers would fall if any sudden vibration hit the oven at the wrong time, and the icing had to be boiled to just the right consistency. No one but my Grandmother Roney knew all of the secret ingredients. Only years and many failed attempts on my father’s part later, did she confess to him that he should include some oil of cinnamon and oil of clove in the batter.
I myself preferred what seemed like the simpler offerings: dried apple stack cake and prune cake with caramel icing. (Later retitled “caramel plum cake,” the latter became much more popular.) These were also family recipes, but my mother had taken on the baking of them. The prune cake batter made a simple Bundt-style cake, and usually the hand-made caramel icing was the only difficulty. I would watch my mother melt the butter in a cast-iron skillet, add the corn syrup and buttermilk, and stir the foam constantly until it browned. It was hard to get the texture just right, so that it would pour, but not pour right off the sides of the cake. I will still swear that that homemade caramel icing is one of the best things in the world, hands down.
Dried apple stack cake was an East Tennessee tradition, from my Grandmother Meek’s background. But she and my grandfather had established their adult lives in West Tennessee, where dried apples of the right variety were hard to get. So my mother would go to the downtown Knoxville farmer’s market in the fall to get the right kind of apples. These had to be dried outside—by the sun—not in some dehydrator. This was the only thing that would give them the deep maroon color and deep flavor best for the cake. Usually they were sold by little, old country ladies as wizened as the apples themselves, ladies who said, “You’uns’ll like them apples,” and who would count out change with their gnarled brown fingers. On our way home from the farmer’s market, my mother always had that air of deep satisfaction, as though she had everything she needed. My mother had also perfected the recipe by making the tea cake layers thinner and thinner, until instead of five or six layers her cake had twelve. It had become a torte. It would melt in your mouth.
Because the stack cake was already made from a naturally sweet fruit that I was “allowed” to have in modest quantities, and because the tea cakes weren’t very sweet to begin with, it was the easiest one to be adapted for my new diabetic needs. My mother took to cutting back the sugar in the tea cakes even further and stirring artificial sweetener instead of sugar into the apples as they simmered in the big pot on the stove. The result was almost as good as the real thing, and a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream made it a real treat.
And this is what can bring tears to my eyes now—thinking about how all of these women, inculcated and habituated as they were in sugar-as-love, took to adapting things for me and making me special treats for the holidays that I was “allowed” to have.
My Grandmother Roney, a complete sugar addict herself, felt most sorry for me. On top of my mother altering the stack cake recipe, Grandmother Roney adapted cookie recipes and made me Chex mix every year (back before it was available in bags at the grocery store). She took to making spiced pecans, too. My Grandmother Meek took to brewing a pitcher of her famous iced tea “unsweet.” Even my step-grandmother, Billie, took to making me sugar-free boiled custard every holiday we visited . It was made with gelatin and rather lumpy, but its artificially sweet creamy flavor made me feel included when everyone was sipping cups of the real thing.
This, too, was also a Southern characteristic: determination to adapt to circumstances. My grandmothers had it in spades, and my mother and step-grandmother still do. And they gave some of that to me, too, along with all their sugar love and their all-important sugar-free love.
The photo of the apple stack cake is compliments of www.TheBittenWord.com, a food blog that’s also listed in my links. And I’ve also linked to some authentic recipes that approximate the ones I’m talking about. But I’m not giving out the secret family ones! That would be heresy.