Heirloom Recipes

The Carrot Cake We Smuggled to Grandma in the Nursing Home

February  8, 2017

My Mom Mom was beautiful. Beautiful in the way women born in the ‘20s were. She was always well-groomed and impeccably dressed while she buzzed about tending to and caring for someone or something. She was the daughter of a rural eastern North Carolina homemaker and farmer and a sister to nine brothers and sisters. Eventually, she met my Pop Pop and became a war-wife and, soon after, a mother. That's half of the story of how I came to be.

In all these stages, as far as I know, she was a God-fearing woman. She sat in the same spot every Sunday at church where her name was inscribed in the hymnals that rested in the pew in front of her. She never missed a Sunday at church, or a Wednesday, or a Friday for that matter.

Before any church bazaar (as we call church fundraisers in the South), she would hole up in her kitchen and make hundreds of cheese straws and a dozen of her famous carrot cakes. She was a one-woman operation who’d mix and bake up confections for months before an event. And her hard work paid off when people literally lined up for one of these beauties. It won a blue ribbon at the North Carolina State Fair one year and graced church cookbooks as "Neva Tee's Carrot Cake." In a life she gave so generously to others, it was, undeniably, hers.

The original recipe card.

I never got to taste a cake that she baked herself because I didn’t touch carrot cake when I was a kid. Like every child, I couldn’t really conceptualize carrots in a sweet cake. I inherited her original recipe card before I got married and now, the cake is one of my absolute favorites.

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My Mom Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when I was seven. The evolution of that despicable disease started with a complete sea change of her being. Stage one, she turned from the sweetest, gentlest, most loving and giving woman to an agitated, fidgety shell of herself. Stage two, she began heating Tupperware containers on the stovetop and my family had no choice but to house her in an assisted living facility.

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Top Comment:
“What a beautiful and loving tribute to your grandmother -- and through association, to all the readers' loved ones whose memories we hold dear. Just beautiful. You should think of submitting this piece to some other publication so that others beyond this site have the opportunity to read this piece. It is so beautifully written and so poignant!! It clearly resonates for many. Thank you. I will most definitely try this recipe! ”
— Carren S.

She lived there for a brief time as her memory continued to slip—though I remember it more as a slide. Each visit, she resembled my Mom Mom less and less. After she fell and broke her hip, she was admitted into a nursing home where she lived out her days in a shared bedroom, curled up in a feeble, withering ball, watching fuzzy television and living in a world none of those who loved her knew.

Photo by Mary Catherine Tee

Towards the final stage of this evolution, her sweet spirit prevailed. She beamed when you walked into her room, even though she didn’t know who you were. You could tell she loved you by the smile on her face and the notable energy she released into the unknown world around her. It was a light that brightened even more when she tasted her very own carrot cake, which we, her family, smuggled into the nursing home on more than one occasion.

Though I've never eaten a slice of carrot cake she prepared, I feel a strong sense of nostalgia when I bake this cake. Is it her recognizable handwriting on the recipe card? Is it knowing she followed these exact same steps that I follow today? Is it because I watched her make it before?

Photo by Mary Catherine Tee

I don’t know if anyone has ever hypothesized or written about the correlation between nostalgia and a haunting, but I would bet that the two are synonymous, or at least closely connected. A haunting is uninvited. So maybe that means nostalgia is when we invite the ghost into ourselves.

In any case, we’ll call this a happy haunting, tied to memories and experiences with my grandmother that I didn’t know existed in my subconscious. I like to think my Mom Mom and I are sharing a moment together in my kitchen each time I bake Neva Tee's Carrot Cake.

What recipe connects you with family members who've passed away? Share with us in the comments below.

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  • Stan
  • gail
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    Carren Stika
  • Belaine
  • Serena Boschi
    Serena Boschi
I’m an old soul. My favorite Saturday morning activity is watching birds on the feeder while drinking strong, black coffee out of my favorite hand-thrown mug. My favorite place to kill time is in antique stores. The less organized the better. I like full-bodied red wines and bitter IPAs. I live for feeling the warmth of sunshine and hearing the stillness of freshly fallen snow. I can thank my stint in Alaska for that. I have salt water in my veins, having grown up in Eastern NC, and (shhh…don’t tell any of my Mainer friends this about me) I prefer blue crab over lobster.


Stan October 27, 2021
I've heard it said that real cooks cook by feel. After reading this I'm filled with memories of my Oma who passed away over 25 years ago. I'm making this cake tonight.
gail September 1, 2017
This is one of the sweetest posts I've ever read.. Thankyou so much for sharing....
Carren S. September 1, 2017
What a beautiful and loving tribute to your grandmother -- and through association, to all the readers' loved ones whose memories we hold dear. Just beautiful. You should think of submitting this piece to some other publication so that others beyond this site have the opportunity to read this piece. It is so beautifully written and so poignant!! It clearly resonates for many. Thank you. I will most definitely try this recipe!
Belaine September 1, 2017
I write this with tears in my eyes remembering my Nanna's Carrot Pudding she made for Christmas and Thanksgivings. She and mom saved coffee cans to steam them in. She made a sauce to cover it as well heated of course. I too am blessed with her recipe card. Nanna suffered Alzheimer's as well. I remember talking to her on the phone once and she said, oh dear I must go my phone is ringing! Long before cell phones. Thanks for memories.
Serena B. September 1, 2017
Lovely story, it brought me to tears. As a lover of carrot cake, I will definitely try your grandma's recipe, and will think about her story as an extra dose of sweetness and warmth. Thank you for sharing.
Carolyn T. March 11, 2017
What a very sweet story about your Mom Mom. Brought tears to my eyes. I sent this post to a friend of mine, who has been baking another carrot cake recipe (9x13 pan, heavy type). I never thought she'd even try another recipe, but the story got her going. She made it, she and friends all thought it was the BEST carrot cake ever - and will be replacing her decades-old version. She made it again a few days ago (and I got to have some) and I agree. What a cake, and what a sweet story. Thank you!
Author Comment
Mary C. March 11, 2017
Carolyn, thank you so much for the kind words and for sharing the story and recipe with your friend. It makes my heart swell knowing this cake is being enjoyed among friends!
pam February 28, 2017
My Mom's Irish bread recipe: so huge it required a special loaf pan, much longer than a traditional bread pan. A simple recipe that she'd gotten from a neighbor who was Irish- but she made it so often I think of it as hers.
A beautiful tribute to your Mom Mom, by the way. The special name you referred to her as is the same as my daughter-in-law's grandmother, a woman she loves deeply who has just passed away. Thank you for your memories...
Author Comment
Mary C. March 11, 2017
Thank you, Pam. Memory is a beautiful and powerful thing, and for those reasons, it's tragic when it's lost. Thank goodness for recipes and stories!
Sue D. February 13, 2017
My Grandmother cooked from what she had and never used a recipe. It's my favorite way to cook but, the drawback is, you rarely have the same thing twice which is my husby's biggest gripe. My Grandmother-in-law has numerous hand written recipe cards I found in a box over 30 years ago. Not a baker myself, I've never make any of them. Your story makes me want to go home bake! Thank you. Such a sweet story and thank you for sharing it.
Author Comment
Mary C. March 11, 2017
Aw, I'm so happy this inspires you to go home and bake. I don't have much of a sweet tooth nor am I much of a baker, but there are exceptions--this recipe being one. I hope you find a new favorite among the handwritten cards!
Mary M. February 12, 2017
What a wonderful tribute to your beloved grandmother. My grandmother was a marvelous "country" cook from central Texas, and being a widow with three children during the Depression, she was most resourceful...making her own jellies and pickles from things grown in her garden or picked in the wild. She died suddenly when I was in high school, and one of my biggest regrets is that I did not pay super close attention when she was cooking; however, I often feel like she is looking over my shoulder when I cook. I have managed to replicate her fried chicken and cream gravy, peach cobbler, banana fritters, rum cake and other family favorites. I have papayas growing in my yard (she never did), and I made papaya jam for the first time last month, and it was great. As soon as figs come back in season, I will attempt her fig preserves, which are about as close to heaven as you can get. My uncle referred to her kitchen as "the fattening pen" for good reason. No one EVER went away hungry.
Saffron3 February 12, 2017
Very lovely image story. Thank you for being and for your Mom Mom.
For me, many foods carry memory. I particularly like my Mother's Sloppy Joe, and also chilled pickled beets with onions and boiled eggs.
And last, this is beautiful writing. Folks can ponder over such finery.
"I don’t know if anyone has ever hypothesized or written about the correlation between nostalgia and a haunting, but I would bet that the two are synonymous, or at least closely connected. A haunting is uninvited. So maybe that means nostalgia is when we invite the ghost into ourselves."
Bill S. February 12, 2017
Thanks for your beautiful story. I was missing my Mom today, and dragged out her hand-written "Family Recipes" book. Making Chicken Casserole- a real throwback to the '60's as the recipe calls for a can of cream of chicken soup, Hellman's mayonnaise, water chestnuts, a can of crescent rolls, and CANNED sliced mushrooms! Ha! I just had to update it a little, but looking forward to enjoying it and having some good memories of her. 💕
Author Comment
Mary C. March 11, 2017
I LOVE any variation of the casserole you speak of--canned mushrooms and all! I do hope eating it brought back good memories of your mom!
Caz W. February 12, 2017
Shed a tear over this, lovely story. My father passed with Alzheimer’s disease and it's a terrible disease which literally takes the soul of your loved ones. I love Carrot Cake so will have to try this out.
Author Comment
Mary C. March 11, 2017
Alzheimer's absolutely takes the soul of your loved ones. I'm so sorry you lost your father to it. If you do try the carrot cake, I hope it brings you happiness.
Patty February 12, 2017
What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing your Mom Mom with us.
Author Comment
Mary C. March 11, 2017
You're welcome, Patty. Thank you for taking the time to comment.
cm February 12, 2017
Mary Catherine Tee:

I've seen places that will take a hand written recipe and copy it on a plaque or even a dish towel. In the exact handwriting! I'm not selling these or anything, however I am going to have my mother in laws split pea soup recipe on a plaque. She also had Alzheimer's.

Google it or look on Etsy for custom recipe plaques or dish towels. Price is usually around $50. It's a lovely keepsake to display in your kitchen. Since I'm not the seller, I was hesitant to attach a link, but Etsy have several people who do this.
Author Comment
Mary C. March 11, 2017
Thank you so much for telling me about this. I just looked it up on Etsy--I've never seen them before, and I'm totally going to get some made. They'll make perfect gifts for my family, too!

Food52, that might be a good addition to your own store!
Lea February 12, 2017
This is such a beautiful story, well written. Thank you for sharing it! Can't wait to try this recipe!
Author Comment
Mary C. March 11, 2017
Thank you, Lea. I hope you enjoy it when you do try it!
osmr February 12, 2017
This is my recipe exactly! I wonder about the journey this recipe has made. It's such a good cake. Your Mom Mom must have been the best!
Author Comment
Mary C. March 11, 2017
No telling what journey it's made. It's the best, isn't it?! I'm not a huge sweets person, but this is an exception.
Katharine M. February 11, 2017
We make Grandma's Sausage and Egg Casserole for Christmas breakfast every year.
Carolyn K. February 9, 2017
My Mom's strudel, complete with lovingly hand stretched dough. My paternal Oma's Linzer Torte and Almond crescents. All are obligatory for any and all family gatherings/simchas
Doug R. February 9, 2017
If you ask anyone in my family old enough to remember, it's my grandmother's cinnamon rolls. She baked all her own bread every week for years, and the cinnamon rolls always got made at the same time. Unfortunately, I never got her cinnamon roll recipe.

Flash forward to when grandpa died 20 years after grandma. When we cleaned out the house, my sisters grabbed grandma's old, beat-up, first edition (first printing, even!) Betty Crocker cookbook. As I started leafing through it, I got to the egg noodle recipe...it was the same one I had on a recipe card from grandma! And the dumplings, and...and...could it be?

I knew I was right when my wife made a batch of cinnamon rolls from that cookbook from my dad. The smile on his face and the nod said it all.
Renee G. February 9, 2017
I took my mother's Pecan Pie to her in the nursing home 2 wks before she died. I never saw anyone attack something with such joy and gust. So glad I took it.
Author Comment
Mary C. February 9, 2017
Attacking anything with joy and gust is all anyone can ever hope and dream for, no?! Pecan pie definitely warrants both. :-)