Depression Cake Sundays, part one

My grandmother was a saver of paper things—checks stubs from fifty years ago, Christmas cards with notes attached, and programs from every play she ever attended were just a few of the items her storage boxes held. One sunny afternoon, as my children were playing outside, I sifted through boxes of her papers. Thesounds of my girls’ laughter mingled with the creaking of their swing sets. Suddenly a little yellowed slip of paper floated to the floor. The blue ink was a little smudged in places, but it was still legible and in my grandmother’s unmistakable neat printing—it was a recipe for Depression cake.

As I read over the recipe, I realized that the cake I had been eating on Sunday afternoons at her house—and at all of the family gatherings—had a name. And an interesting name at that.

When my grandmother moved in across the street, Mom considered it a victory of sorts. Gram had always hated mobile homes, thought that only “gypsies” and “riff-raff” lived in them. I don’t know where her gypsy ideas came from, but she also called my sister and I “little gypsies” when we finally were allowed to pierce our ears. Gram and Grandpap purchased the land across the street from us and one day, their big mobile home came traveling down the gravelly Fish Pot Road, where it sat for about 30 years, next to my greatgrandmother’s mobile home, which was surrounded by climbing red roses.

During Sunday afternoons, I liked sitting on stool at my grandmother’s kitchen counter. It was a high stool with gold and brown flecked plastic covering. The wicker fish she hung above her window sill danced in the breeze, either from the window, or from the stir she created moving back and forth in her tiny kitchen. I sat at the counter eating a sandwich—usually pimento cheese, or ham salad on white bread, while she made a Depression cake. When I was a little older I helped her, I poured in the raisins, or the flour, but she really preferred to do it as I sat at the counter.

It was so much her cake to us that we came to call it the Irene cake. She brought it to every family function, usually doused with a maple icing she created. As children, we loved it and could not get enough of the sweet icing. As we grew older, we grew to hate it and were reluctant to tell her because she took such pride in it and we didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

I loved the way that earthy cake smelled as it baked and to this day when I catch the scent of a Depression-like spicy cake I think of long Sundays with my grandmother.

Please note that the recipe on this little piece of paper does not work—or at least it doesn’t work for me. I have yet to try the chocolate cake recipe on the same paper. Old recipes, especially for baked goods, are often  a challenge. Have you ever tried to make an old recipe you found?

10 thoughts on “Depression Cake Sundays, part one

  1. William says:

    What a great story, MCB! I try most, if not all of the hand-written recipes I find in cookbooks found at tag sales & antique stores…they are sometimes the most valuable; these quickly written, scrawled notes & formulas…part of our past for sure! I’m looking forward to trying the Depression Cake to see how it jives, thanks for posting & writing about it! xo

  2. Cortney Skinner says:

    Wonderful story, Mollie! – Interesting to see “lard” in the recipe which makes me wonder how old the recipe may be. Crisco, that trans-fat-loaded, cottonseed-derived shortening was put on the market in 1911, and before that animal fat/lard was used for shortening, so I wonder if your grandmother’s recipe was passed down, possibly from your great-grandmother? It’s great to see your image of the actual artifact… Thanks!
    I was curious as to the reason why you & your siblings grew to hate the cake as you grew older?…The changing tastes of older kids?
    My mom’s chopped chicken liver spread was our family’s favorite holiday cracker-snack, and an old recipe card saved by my sister preserved the formula.

  3. Mollie Cox Bryan says:

    Thanks, Will. I keep wondering about the quality and type of flour she used. Five cups of flour? I’ve made it by cutting that down–and it still seems like too much flour.

  4. Mollie Cox Bryan says:

    Thanks for posting, Cort. Yes–the recipe could possibly from my greatgrandmother. As I mentioned in my response to Will, I wondered about what kind of flour she used. I also wonder about the lard. That may be the reason I’m not able to replicate the cake exactly.I try not to use animal products.
    The reason we grew to hate the cake is because of overkill. I grew to prefer the cake without the maple icing. I think it was the maple. Maple overkill. A little maple, for me, goes a long way.

  5. Ben Wood says:

    Glad to see I’m not the only one who’s eyes tripped over the word “lard.” great story, you little gypsy.

  6. Eileen @ Passions to Pastry says:

    What a wonderful story. I have a book of handwritten recipes from my aunt that I cherish. She was quite a baker. Most of them, however, are just a list of ingredients. I suppose my aunt knew what she needed to do and didn’t see any point in writing instructions, or oven temperatures.

  7. Bitterbiscuit says:

    maybe the “cup” is a tea cup she used for flour – although they do tend to mostly be one cup. Also, the lard might very well be leaf lard, such as what is used in pie crust. It is the white fat from around the kidneys, and doesn’t have the porky flavor of regular lard. I know of an old recipe where “lard” referred to shortening.

  8. Mollie Cox Bryan says:

    Yeah, you know, the lard could have been anything, including whatever left over fat she was “collecting” from her own cooking. I don’t EVEN want to think about that. lol. Thanks for posting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *