I believe in chocolate cake. And in my grandmother, the woman of ordinary magic who created it.
Grandma and Grandpa were both just 20 when they married. Of course, they weren’t Grandma and Grandpa then, just young Iris and George Ullrich, with just the average dreams: love, family, building a life. When the stock market crashed in 1929, only six months after their wedding, they didn’t notice it much because as farmers, they never had any money anyway. Grandpa and Grandma did notice the weather, however, which rebelled against them. They struggled throughout the Depression in various places as sharecroppers, laboring to bring food from the drought-stricken earth. They failed. Grandpa raised crops that withered and died before they really got started; Grandma raised children and chickens and eggs. “We tried to sell our eggs for five cents a dozen,” she said, “but hardly anyone had five cents to buy them.”
Grandma was resourceful, so those unsold eggs were handy on Sundays for making chocolate cake. Using only ingredients common in tenant farmer cupboards—cheap, storable, unlikely to spoil—Grandma transformed flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and eggs into the world’s best cake. This was frosted with the world’s trickiest, tastiest frosting: milk, sugar, and cocoa, simmered until a spoonful of the dark syrup, when plopped into a china cup of cold water, formed a roundish blob in its water bath. Years later, when I was a five-year-old standing on a stepstool to “help,” I watched Grandma’s index finger, crooked with arthritis, coaxing that almost-frosting into a warm, soft ball. She immediately coated the cake with the liquid chocolate—perfectly cooked only for that instant and the next, maybe, thirty seconds—before it hardened into a thin candy shell: dessert holding off despair. “I don’t know how many of these cakes I’ve made over the years,” Grandma said, and I always imagined that the number must be quite high indeed, because she made one every single time I saw her. And I always believed she’d done it just for me.
Sundays, birthdays, heartbreak-balm days, Grandma’s cake fed generations of Ullriches. Still, on one of those long-ago Dustbowl days, Grandma nearly broke. As yet another dry storm tore at the land, life looked hopeless: unpayable bills, failed crops, children to feed and clothe, a premature newborn, my dad, fussy and sick, and always the long-unanswered prayers for rain. They could barely see in the dirt-whipped daylight, even with their kerosene lamps lighted. But the storm finally subsided, and Grandma walked outside, sat on a rock, and cried. Then she said, “Well, if I can get through this, I can get through anything.” And later, “I’ll probably live to be an old, old lady!” She was 75 when she told me that story. We chatted in her kitchen, the 23-year-old me still “helping,”—a lifetime of licked spoons—Depression bride and postmodern granddaughter, old woman and young, preparing the chocolate cake that I still believe can heal every hurt and bind any wound.
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