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Home Is Where the 7 Up Cake Is

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Photo by Loveis Wise

In the summer of 2000, a few months before I turned 18, I went to visit my Grandma Lennye at her home in Detroit for the last time. She would move to Las Vegas the following year and I would start college back home in Tampa, Florida. But before everything changed, we spent one final, sweet summer vacation together.

First order of business: a Coney Island hot dog, which I’d wolf down in the car while Grandma Lennye watched in quiet bemusement. The famous Detroit-style beef frankfurter, with its tangy strips of mustard and pungent pile of chopped onions, would be one of many I’d eat during my two-week stay. And then there were the lazy afternoons when my grandmother would sit down at the kitchen table to watch her “stories” (soap operas) on the 13-inch black-and-white television. We’d sit across from each other and exchange meaningful glances over dreamy Victor Newman, back when he was much younger and actually restless. Sometime during one of the commercial breaks, Grandma Lennye would cut herself a slice of pound cake and offer me one. Our last summer together, the answer was yes, but it was not always that way.

The first time I tried it, I was around 13. She rose from her seat at the kitchen table, shuffled to the refrigerator in her slippers, and asked: “Do you want a slice of 7 Up cake?”

I thought I misheard her. “7 the soda?”

“Yes, 7 Up, like the pop.” My grandmother’s lips curved upward. A drawl in her voice softly stretched her vowels like taffy. Decades spent in the Midwest meant she subconsciously changed the word “soda” to “pop.”

I smiled, but hesitated to try a dessert named after a fizzy lemon-lime drink—one I considered inferior to Sprite, at that. No one back home in central Florida made pound cakes with Orange Crush. And if a Detroit woman was going to make a soda pop dessert, why not choose Vernor’s, the hometown favorite? Who made cakes with sodas, anyway?!

Dyed-in-the-wool Southern women, apparently. My grandmother had moved to Detroit from Gadsden, Alabama, as a young mother and war widow in the late 1950s. She was one of six million Black Americans who fled racial discrimination in the South during the Great Migration, bringing bits of the South with them. When I got older, I found the cake mostly on food blogs from recipe writers who consider themselves Southern women. Baking with soft drinks became popular in the South in the 1950s, and some experts speculate the 7 Up cake took off because of the innovative way it substituted carbonation for a leavening agent. Grandma Lennye’s typewritten 7 Up cake recipe survived the Migration, decades of harsh Detroit winters, four years in Las Vegas, and a move to Houston, Texas, when she became too ill with Parkinson’s to live alone, and moved in with my father and stepmother. It is one of only two written family recipes I own.

My annual summer trip reversed the traditional path of children packed off to see their grandparents back South. Both of my own parents had been raised in Detroit, but left once they became adults. They divorced when I was two years old, but my mother’s lasting affection for Grandma Lennye guaranteed our relationship would remain safe despite the split.

I grew up literally 1,000 miles away from my father in Houston, my grandmother connected us. The three of us shared the same broad, sloping forehead, similar smiles, our love for fresh, buttery popcorn, and a fondness for 7 Up pound cake. Dad would help us eat the cake when he’d come to Detroit during my summer visits. My grandmother’s kitchen table felt like home to us both when we didn’t know how to be at home with each other.

Because I only knew Grandma Lennye as a woman who lived in Detroit, I often forgot about her Alabama roots. However, she brought the taste of the South to the Midwest in ways I did not recognize when I was a child. When I stayed with her once for New Year’s Eve, she stood with arms akimbo until I relented and put a tiny amount of hated black-eyed peas on my plate for good luck. The flavorful broth, flecked with smoky pieces of ham and bacon, almost helped me ignore the mush of peas. I remember waking up mid-morning occasionally to the faint seaside smell of her frying salmon croquettes. A stack of crisp, golden-brown patties cooled on a plate next to the stove. The silvery halo of her afro bloomed behind her like a full moon and her eyes would sparkle when she turned to greet me.

My grandmother seemed larger-than-life to me, possibly because at my 4 feet 10 inches, I never stood taller than her. I looked up to her in all ways. When I stumbled into adolescence wearing XXL shirts and baggy pants, she represented a feminine grace that fascinated me. You could never catch Grandma Lennye outside without her costume jewelry: looping strands of faux pearl necklaces, a sun pendant with her zodiac sign (Cancer), a brassy elephant brooch. She kept a standing appointment with her nail technician that meant her long, elegant fingernails were often painted the mauve color she favored. And her afro was always flawlessly picked fluffy. She wore independence like her favorite perfume; it touched everything she did, from taking cruises around the world alone or hiking or moving to the desert to play slots. As the eldest child helping raise 12 siblings on their Gadsden farm, she was characteristically gentle, but could fire off a fusillade of reprimands when piqued. When my grandmother narrowed her almond eyes into slits, I knew to shut my piehole.

7 Up Cake
7 Up Cake

Knowing this, I held my tongue about my doubts when she first offered me a hunk of 7 Up cake on a dessert plate. I gulped. How was I going to eat all of this cake if I didn’t like it? I took a bite and instantly realized I had nothing to fear. It was so decadently moist that I closed my eyes. The 7 Up cake was a mellower cousin to the lemon pound cake I was used to. It surprised me that 7 Up cake didn't taste just like its namesake, but made something new and familiar all at once. The tangy-sweet glaze covering just enough of the wedge made me hum with delight. Cake baked with pop, huh? I ate the whole slice (and many more throughout my teenage years).

I forgot that 7 Up cake was not just something my grandmother invented for a long time, but recently found that the cake made a cameo in the 2008 film The Secret Life of Bees: according to the legend, the boy who ate the cake would be compelled to kiss the girl who baked it. I can't personally vouch for that magical effect—maybe you can, with the recipe below. But I can say there is something special about it. A 7 Up pound cake will always remind me of summers as languid as Grandma Lennye’s accent. It drops a sunburst of bright flavor on my tongue that transports me back to that little kitchen table with daylight streaming over us through the curtains.

7 Up Cake

7 Up Cake

Dara Mathis Dara Mathis
Makes 1 9-inch loaf
  • 3 sticks butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup 7 Up (room temperature is best)
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon lemon extract
  • Juice and zest of one lemon, minus 2 tablespoons (optional)
  • 1/2 cup confectionary sugar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon or orange juice
Go to Recipe
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Tags: Southern, Cake, Culture, Essay, Black History, My Family Recipe