Sunday, May 13, 2001

Granny's pound cake rich in memories

        I'm not sure why I avoided making my grandmother's pound cake for so long. Maybe I never tried until recently because I didn't want to believe anyone else — even me — could make that cake the way I remembered it.

        Her name was Lessie Missouri Smith, one of 10 children born in the scrubby oak woods of central South Carolina around the turn of the last century. She was a single mother long before anyone called it that, surviving the Great Depression and raising three children after her husband died.

Granny Lessie's Pound Cake
  1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  3 cups sugar
  Scant 1/8 teaspoon salt
  6 eggs, room temperature
  3 cups cake flour
  8 ounces sour cream
  1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  1 teaspoon vanilla

  Preheat oven to 315 degrees. Cream butter, sugar and salt in mixer bowl. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add sour cream and baking soda. With mixer running, gradually add flour and then vanilla. Mix and scrape sides of bowl until no lumps appear.
  Pour batter into a greased bundt or tube pan; pound bottom of pan on counter several times to settle batter. Bake 65 to 75 minutes, until toothpick comes out dry. Let cake cool 10 minutes before removing pan. Allow to cool on rack before slicing.

        With the help of her sons and neighbors, she built a house after World War II and stitched uniforms and hospital linens while working full-time at an Army base.

        But before and after her paying job, she always labored to grow things — planting mustard greens, hoeing tomatoes, pulling peanuts. For her, gardening wasn't a hobby — it was duty.

        My granny was never a prissy belle. Stout and short, her long-handled purse nearly touched the ground when she ambled in her almost bow-legged gait, caused by arthritic knees. Her brown-dyed hair showed gray in between “dos,” and her cat-eye glasses slid down her long nose when she stooped to dig and trowel.

        When engaged in conversation — and that was often — she usually talked the loudest. Her belly laugh could rattle china in the cabinet. Disagree with her way of doing things, and she might turn spitting mad — even utter an occasional curse away from fellow Methodists.

        In some ways, my grandmother epitomized her pound cake: plain with a few cracks on the outside, but rich and full of character.

        All those years, I only remember her breaking emotionally twice — once, when she heard the news that her 32-year-old daughter — my mother — died. And again when the doctor told her he couldn't do anything to cure her heart disease.

No kitchen dabbler

        Looking back, I don't think my grandmother would claim to be a great cook. Her best efforts were tart fried apple turnovers, hearty chicken 'n dumplings and that sour cream pound cake that baked long and low. She made passable fried chicken and pot roast, and — inexplicably — baked biscuits from a can.

        She had no time for dabbling in fancy cooking. Aside from proper Sunday dinners, food was to be cooked fast with few frills. To her, a meal was fuel for work.

        Still, often in spite of my young, unappreciative self, she taught me much about food. I watched her whack the heads off hens that had grown too old to lay, and funnel tomato, corn and okra soup into steaming jars. She showed me how to find sweet potatoes buried in sandy soil and pluck sticky figs from a swaying tree. She practically force-fed me homegrown butter beans — an incredible texture and flavor I can only dream of today.

        In the end, my grandmother didn't surrender to her disease. Unable to live on her own and work in the garden, it was as if she decided to leave us before her body and spirit withered further. At age 70, she died 21 years ago this July.

Rush of memories

        When I finally pulled out that recipe card to make the pound cake, the kitchen memories rushed in like a Carolina thunderstorm: the way she angled a wooden spoon inside the turning bowl to direct batter into the whirring mixer; the way she smacked the bottom of the filled cake pan on the counter to “knock out air bubbles;” the way I would butter and broil cake slices for special treats.

        The recipe is so simple and time-tested, I wasn't surprised when my first pound cake turned out well — buttery and dense, its golden insides covered with a brown and chewy candy-sweet crust. The way I remembered it.

        Lessie Missouri might have called it “pretty-near perfect.” Then, she would have let loose with one of those big, china-rattling laughs.

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