Henry James, who lived in New England where they have four distinct seasons and the highest temperature they ever get is around 80 degrees, once said, “Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."
Obviously, Henry James never had pound cake.
I cannot say — or type — “pound cake” without seeing a rolling montage of Thanksgiving dinners, baby showers, .birthday parties, funeral meals and class reunions at all of which the lowly pound cake reigned over every other delicacy of whatever kind. Dense and slightly sweet, and, if baked correctly, golden brown with narrow fissures breaking across its domed top, pound cake is the quintessential Southern dessert. It may well be the metric by which a Southern cook is measured.
Many years ago, Katherine and I convinced Grannie to let us enter her pound cake in the Homemaking Exhibit at the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair. After numerous protestations that her cake couldn’t win any contests, that it probably “wouldn’t be fittin’ to eat,”, and that she was only agreeing to do it because she loved us so much, she made the cake and, in keeping with the fair rules, wrote out the recipe she knew by heart on a 3"x5" index card.
Katherine and I delivered the cake and recipe card to the Homemaking Pavilion on Sunday afternoon and on Monday night we could hardly wait to get to the fairground where we found a shiny blue ribbon hanging over Grannie’s cake. That year for Christmas we had the blue ribbon and the recipe card framed. It hung on Grannie’s kitchen wall until Alzheimer’s took away her ability to live alone.
After Grannie died and her daughters were going through her things, Aunt Linda called to tell me that the blue ribbon was mine. I hung it on my own kitchen wall and looked at it daily, remembering the veiny hands and knotted fingers as they moved slowly over that index card.
One Saturday morning I decided to make Grannie’s pound cake. I’d never made one (But then, I’d never made much of anything else at that point.) and I couldn’t say with any certainty what possessed me to try that day. I took the recipe down and gathered from my pantry and refrigerator all the necessary ingredients, noting the special instructions about adding the eggs one at a time and alternating wet and dry ingredients to make the batter.
It was at that moment that I realized the rest of the recipe was on the back of the card and, of course, invisible. The panic was quick and thick. I imagined myself pouring out the batter and never mentioning to a living soul that I had attempted such an arduous task.
But then I had a thought: Aunt Linda would know what came next. So, I called. No one answered. Fortunately, Aunt Cookie did. She walked me slowly through the pan preparation and the batter pouring and the actual baking of the pound cake and I felt that I would die from gratitude.
I took a big chunk of pound cake to church the next morning, a gift to Cookie for coming through for me. I left it in the car and the aluminum foil was warm when I handed it over to her. “Please,” I urged, “let me know what you think about it.”
A few hours later she called, proclaiming, “It was delicious!” I was simultaneously relieved and proud. And, then, she added, “It tasted just like Mama’s.”
The five most beautiful words in the English language.