Photo by Meng He.

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The Monumental Cakes of Frankye Davis Mayes

“Lord in Heaven,” my father said as my mother entered the dining room with her coconut cake aloft. She gently lowered it onto the table. Fluffy and white, sprinkled with coconut, the huge cake was too big to fit any plate we had, so it was iced on a piece of cardboard covered in foil, with white paper doilies fitted around the bottom, as though the cake sat on snowflakes. In early spring, she ringed it with pink camellias; in summer, a wreath of orange and yellow nasturtiums; and during the winter holidays, tiny pine cones spray-painted gold.

My job in the preparation was to sit in the driveway with four coconuts, a bowl, an icepick, and a hammer. I smacked the icepick into the eyes of the coconut, drained out the milk, then smashed open the shells. Getting the “meat” out wasn’t easy, and then the brown rind must be picked away and the hunks shredded. I didn’t like to cook, but I liked to watch my mother creaming the cup of butter with the three cups of sugar, separating the entire carton of twelve eggs and beating the whites into the butter and sugar. She saved the yolks in a bowl that she covered with a plastic, elasticized thing like a miniature shower cap. She then stirred into the batter a cup of milk, a splash of vanilla, and then—gradually—five cups of flour that she’d sifted with two teaspoons of baking powder. Sometimes she baked the cake in three round pans, but usually she liked two oblong pans because of the nice square slices from a rectangular cake.

The glory, of course, is the icing. All that fresh coconut! She cooked four cups of sugar and a cup of water to what she called “a long thread.” When it cooled a bit, she folded in four stiffly beaten egg whites. Then she stirred in almost all of the coconut and spread the first layer all over with the smooth frosting. After she finished the top layer, she sprinkled over it the rest of the coconut.

Resplendent on the dining room table, the cake seemed more than just a cake. It was the cake of cakes. Or so we thought until my mother brought forth in a week or so the next regal edifice, her lemon cheese cake, my father’s favorite. It was not a cheese cake as we know them now: the tangy lemon curd filling must have reminded someone of curdy cheese. Looking at the recipe, I see a plain cake magically transformed by the divine, creamy filling and finished with Great-Aunt Besta’s white icing. I have no talent with white icing myself, no matter whose recipe I use. In fact, I suffer from fear of white icing. But my mother had the gift of frothy, glistening icings. Among her recipes, I find three, each of which I probably could reduce to a limp and useless syrup. The citrus filling is simple. She melted a half a stick of butter in a small saucepan, added the grated rind and juice of two plump lemons, added three beaten eggs, a tiny pinch of salt, and three quarters of a cup of sugar. She cooked it on a medium burner until, as the recipes instructs, it “falls in flakes.”

That is the only instruction on the yellowed paper, and that’s true of all her recipes. I suppose she didn’t bother to write procedures that she knew how to do. She might note, “cook to syrup,” or “mix and BEAT,” “soft ball stage,” or “hard crack.” Without such sure instincts, I’ve floundered when I’ve tried some of her recipes—one leaden Lane cake into the trash—but I can re-create perfectly my favorite of her repertoire, the splendid, rich caramel cake, as monumental as any stone soldier on a horse in a courthouse square. I’ve served this every Thanksgiving of my grown-up life. This grandiose caramel cake (and please never say kar-mel, because that middle “a” must be pronounced to give the word it’s silky richness) contains, with filling and frosting, eight cups of sugar. That’s why I limit it to Thanksgiving, when everything is over the top anyway. The toil is long; the results are sublime. Everyone wants to fall on the floor in a swoon, except for when I served it in Italy to friends who pushed it around on their plates, all finally admitting, troppo zucchero, too much sugar! I don’t know—maybe you have to be Southern, maybe it’s one of those things like the flat and bitter chestnut cake that I push around on my plate in Italy. For them it was a childhood treat and so remains, while I’m left to ponder cultural preferences.

At the table, wherever I am, I like to speculate: what is this food saying? I wonder how it reveals place, time, people, dynamics. Looking back at the pomp and ceremony of our sumptuous Southern desserts, I glimpse my mother, Frankye, who loved grand gestures and what the Italians call la bella figura, slipping the cake server under a large piece and passing it to me, my father, my sisters, grandparents, and guests. In such a small town, in a time folded way back into memory, there I sit, already plotting a second piece later in the afternoon, not at all knowing that for my whole life, here’s her gift: I always will be waiting for something spectacular.