Season of the Grandmother

A few years ago, I broke the top on my flour canister. Today, I compounded the error while making bread, having split the sugar canister’s lid as well. This may seem trivial, but the containers are pewter-colored metal and large enough to hold more than regular-sized containers each—the kind you can’t run to Home Goods or Belk and replace. More importantly, they belonged to my grandmother. I have had many of her belongings—figurines, a reupholstered couch, a couple of overstuffed and banged up chairs, a battered mahogany buffet that originally no one wanted and ended up at a cousin’s house in Oklahoma—but the canisters I use frequently, and they evoke her memory with each measured ingredient.

Mine is largely an untrained generation dependent on Martha White, Mrs. Birdseye, Sara Lee, and Oscar Meyer, those faceless purveyors of cryogenic entrées and canned dinners. My culinary mentor, however, suffered no such lapse. Like a secret goddess, my grandmother cloaked power behind ancient aprons, white hair, lilac talc, and cataract lenses. Thus disguised, she passed quietly through life, sweeping her sidewalks and pruning plants. Quietly, that is, until Thanksgiving through New Year’s, when frailty yielded to matriarchy in a time I call the season of the grandmother.

Muttering incantations over cake batter and egg whites, she became an epicurean high priestess, pulling secret ingredients from those canisters, which she stored higher than the tallest grandchild. Then, arms outstretched like a sleepwalker, she gently lowered the silver pans of bland lumps and pasty ooze onto the oven’s middle rack and noiselessly closed the door.

“Shush! It’s sleeping,” she whispered and marched us grandchildren—tip toe—across the cracking, aged linoleum flooring. When those same pans later yielded multi-colored treasures surpassing the professional baker’s wares, she beckoned us, her parishioners, to place our offerings of potato salad and oyster dressing on her mahogany altar and presided over familial rites.

Two years before she died, my grandmother began delegating holiday responsibilities; fruit ambrosia, two-day cornbread dressing, and copper pennies fell to younger hands, but not the baking. Thanksgiving—when I came home from college and before the fifteen other grandchildren arrived—I caught her, oxygen cannula askew, sitting on the kitchen stool and staring in defeat at the last two eggs she needed for her famous buttermilk pound cake.

“Just tell me what to do and when it’s right,” I told her.

She looked doubtful—I had always been the tomboy of the family—but nevertheless, she guided me through the mysterious exactitude of “a pinch,” “a dash,” and “to taste.” Putting the now-full pans in the oven, I looked at her for a sign. She assessed the oven temperature, shook her head and half-heartedly patted my arm as she and her oxygen tank wobbled back to her bedroom. Even though the resulting cake resembled Swiss cheese as if some invisible mouse had tunneled through (she said I had bruised the batter), by default, I became her acknowledged baker’s apprentice for all future family gatherings and the heir apparent after her funeral.

Only through baking the first time without her did I know how bittersweet “coming into your own” really is, how it seasoned otherwise happy occasions. Until then, I had suspected that my grandmother’s kitchen magic lay within the recipe notations, the experience of my grandmother’s hands. I believed more strongly in the power of the metal canisters sequestered in her butler’s pantry. However, the child in me, remembering that first taste of successful partnering with a master, the warm first flavor of a fresh November pound cake, can’t help but fear: now that the canister’s lids are broken, will their magic fade?

Buttermilk Pound Cake

PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees
Grease tube pan then cut waxed paper to fit the bottom of the pan. 
Place cut paper in bottom of pan
1 stick oleo
1 c. Crisco
5 eggs
2 ½ c. sugar
3 c. flour
½ t salt
1 c. buttermilk
½ t. soda
1 T boiling water
2. t lemon extract

½ stick oleo
1 ½  c sifted confectioners sugar
1 t almond extract

Cream together 1 stick oleo and 1 c Crisco. Add gradually 2 ½ c sugar. 
Cream after each addition.
Add eggs one at a time and mix well, continuing to cream as each egg is added.
Sift 3 cups flour with ½ t. salt.
With mixer on lowest speed, alternate adding flour and salt mixture with 1 c.  buttermilk
Dissolve ½ t soda in 1 T boiling water, then add to mixture.
Add 2 t. lemon extract to mixture.
Pour cake batter into greased and papered tube pan, then place pan in oven on middle rack.
(This batter does not bake well in layers). Bake for 1 hour.

Cream together ½ stick oleo with 1 ½ c sifted confectioners sugar.  
Add 1 t. almond extract.
Remove cake from tube pan and ice cake while it is still hot.

-Allison Chestnut


Allison Chestnut completed the MFA from Mississippi University for Women in 2018. As a Southern spinster with a Bible and a gun, she grew up reading Fannie Flagg, Jerry Clower, Florence King, and Lewis Grizzard. She has seen a squirrel get loose in a Baptist church. She has ridden a mule in Bonifay, Florida. Please do not hold her disdain for Faulkner against her. In high school she was nearly arrested for attempting to take a picture with Bruce the Shark on the movie set of Jaws II. She has read poetry and prose at meetings of SAMLA, SCMLA, and the Conference on Christianity and Literature. She holds the PhD from Louisiana State University and is currently professor of English at William Carey University.