I can pinpoint the moment I learned about my great-grandmother Violet’s beloved pineapple-coconut cake. Once my relatives started talking about it, the details flowed like juicy gossip. We were in my mother’s kitchen in Southern California; everyone started talking at once.
“It was her go-to birthday cake recipe!” my mother, Angela, recalled. “She’d make it for us every year.”
“That caramel frosting of hers, it just oozed everywhere,” my aunt Patrice said, her eyes lit up. “She often coated the interior with her thick homemade strawberry jam.”
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My grandmother, Ruth, would nod in remembrance, sipping her china cup brimming with coffee. “That was the one,” she’d say, the dish everyone anticipated.
I was surprised to hear all this. As a young girl, I remembered we did not bake from scratch. Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker were the names that infused my weekends with joy. My mom is a solid cook, and I envy how easily she makes others’ recipes her own. But in the early 1990s, when I still needed a step-stool to command the countertop, she and my father, both fresh from grad school, worked full-time and balanced busy lives with multiple children. Cake was rare. When it happened, its formation was brief and somewhat uneventful (I loved to crack the eggs into the already-sweet yellow cake mix), not a multi-step endeavor with stove-whipped frosting.
So in my late twenties, at this family gathering, when I learned that Violet Harris had a signature cake that apparently skipped a generation, I was stunned. Where was the recipe, I demanded, and why had I not been introduced to this classic before?
“I can cook, but I’m no baker,” my mother shrugged. I suspect, too, that the changing face of womanhood in the 1960s and 1970s had something to do with it.
Grandma Violet lived until she was 102; she died in 1992 when I was 10. The wife of a Methodist preacher with five kids on a small farm in Laurel, Mississippi, she knew her way around the kitchen. She eventually followed several of her children, including my grandmother, Ruth Rushen, to Los Angeles. My grandma had left a boring (and segregated) Department of Labor job in DC after WWII. Her move was one piece of the decades-long Great Migration that urged at least six million African Americans to forge new paths outside of the South and its post-Reconstruction indignities. California was no racial utopia, but my grandmother once told me she felt she could “just be.”
Her expanded sense of self manifested in her professional life. Ruth began as a social worker, advanced to the State Parole Board, and by 1980, was appointed the Director of Corrections for the state of California—a first for a woman and an African-American, and one of many “firsts” in her time. She brought humanity to a difficult, on-the-ground job that often confronts people at their worst. Though traveling between Sacramento and LA left little room for baking lessons, I believe Grandma just wasn’t that interested. In her downtime, she made space for festive, jovial house parties.
California was no racial utopia, but my grandmother felt she could 'just be.'
My aunt and mom recall tip-toeing down the hall to watch my grandparents' friends arrive "dressed," meaning, they looked sharp. The grown-ups listened to records, danced, drank good liquor in chic mid-century glassware, and played cards. Who are we kidding, that was the main event: spades, bridge, and bid whist, all games I’ve yet to learn. Athens was a middle-class, family-centric, predominantly black South Central Los Angeles neighborhood, and this was how my grandparents and their friends hung out. While the sense of community was important, the residential setting lent itself to the magic of unstructured conversation and leisurely buffet grazing. Visitors enjoyed Lipton sour cream and onion dip with chopped clams and Coca-Cola salad—a gelatinized mold of black cherries, walnuts, and soda, with a whipped cream topping.
Grandma’s card game spread didn’t include my great-grandmother’s cake, but I can’t help but conflate these spirited gatherings with Violet’s special dessert. It signifies community and history in ways I’m not sure Violet anticipated. At some point, Grandma got the recipe, either by asking Violet or one of her sisters. My grandmother recorded it in her right-hand loopy script, her natural lefty tendency having been nipped in the bud by early 20th-century schoolmarms. The write-up was direct and succinct, just like Grandma Violet.
Back in my mother’s So Cal kitchen, in a gathering with family and friends, most of whom knew my great-grandmother, I unearthed the handwritten recipe. I made the cake and brought it out for my family to taste. It was fruity and rich, flecked with dried coconut and dribbling with the wet, sweet frosting.
“That’s it,” my aunt Patrice said after taking a bite. “That’s the one.”
By the end of the night, the cake plate was empty, save for a few crumbs and dollops of frosting left to harden while laughter carried forth in another room.
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