© 2022 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: The Cake

By Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Buffalo, NY – When you begin dating, no one ever tells you about the cake. It just doesn't come up. His mother doesn't talk about it. His sister doesn't talk about it. No one in his family talks about the cake.

Then Christmas comes. It's late December. You're visiting his family over the holidays. And there it is. The Pineapple Cake. It's over on the dryer, with all the other goodies that Grandma brought, the centerpiece of an altar to Grandma's Goodies. Tucked in among folded apricot pastries and foil-wrapped banana breads, it seems to almost glow. Your boyfriend's favorite cake, this cake that Grandma bakes especially for him each Christmas and every other time she visits. In its gooey yellow glory, this cake makes your boyfriend giddy. You try a piece. You don't understand why she makes this cake. It's not your kind of cake; it's too thick, too heavy. Your boyfriend, relieved that he doesn't have to share, eats the whole thing, all twenty pounds of it, in two days.

You don't think much about this, but watch curiously each Christmas as he eats the whole cake and feels sick afterward. Not until three years later, at your wedding shower, do you begin to suspect. After opening two sets of towels and a cappuccino maker that you will use three times, there it is. A gift from Grandma. It's a huge 10x15 glass baking dish. A bag of powdered sugar. A can of crushed pineapple. A recipe. "How sweet," you think. And then you get it. "They want me...the women at this shower expect me...to make that cake."

But you have time. Grandma is still alive, and she will keep making the pineapple cake every Christmas. Even as her eyesight fails and she needs her recipe reprinted into inch-high letters, she will make the cake. You won't understand why or how. It's not an easy cake to make, this cake your fiancee loves. Its baker must stir and let rise a yeast batter, scald milk, make filling, blend a crumb topping, and mix frosting. The baker of this cake must set aside a whole morning for 150 square inches of pineapple and egg yolk bliss. It's a real Grandma cake, and a morning of struggling to see to read and measure is a real Grandma gift. She will do this for seven years of your marriage, until cancer stops her.

And then one day in late December, you'll find yourself making the cake. At first, you will resist, complaining to everyone who will listen. "You've gotta hear how many steps this pineapple cake takes and I don't even LIKE it!" You will lose the recipe many times, over many years, unsure of whether you've lost it on purpose or by accident. You'll call your mother-in-law each Christmas to ask her once more, "Will you please read me that Pineapple Cake recipe over the phone?" You'll wish that your husband's Grandmother was the kind of woman who made Rice Krispy Treats. And you'll watch. Watch to see him eat it. You'll hope. Hope that it's as good as hers. You'll laugh. Laugh because once again, even though neither you nor your kids like it, the cake is gone in two days.

Once you've made Pineapple Cake several times, it won't feel so difficult and you won't feel alone when you make it. Again, your hands will separate eggs and melt gobs of butter. Only this time, you will feel as if she is in your kitchen with you. Grandma. As you mix and bake, your husband's Grandma's hands will invisibly guide yours. For this cake, her cake, her love and gift to a little boy grandson - the father of your children and your husband - is part of both of you. At last you understand.

Listener-Commentator Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writing teacher who lives in Holland.