Food for ThoughtDec/Jan 2014 Issue

Seasoned with Love: Allergies, Apple-Spice Cake and Mom's Touch

[Updated May 15, 2015]

For years, the newspaper recipe for apple-spice cake has been taped by the oven in my mother’s kitchen. It’s now a copy of a copy, made when the original clipping began disintegrating from use. I must have been 14 when she first served the cake. This came after years of dry rice flour blends. Cooking in the ’90s without dairy, eggs or soy produced something barely cake-like, something that no one else wanted to eat.

This recipe, bound with applesauce and rich with golden raisins and walnuts, changed all that. She’d set out the ingredients while I sat on the stool next to her. Sometimes I’d help fold in the flour, taking care not to slop it over the sides of the bowl with my wooden spoon. When we pulled the cake out of the oven, I’d be ready to dig in but she was the voice of reason. It’ll be even better tomorrow, she’d say.

She baked the cake in a Bundt pan for my birthday. She divvied the batter into muffin cups for long trips. At family gatherings when the dessert table was crowded with pie, cookies and ice cream, there it was, holding its own. I counted each relative who tried it as a personal victory, proof my way of life was just as tasty as theirs. We’d cut a few slices on Christmas Eve, wrap the remainder with foil and nibble it again on Christmas morning.

When I went to college, dining halls were no place for allergies. I ate lots of baked cod and boiled lima beans. Breakfast? Corn Pops. Dessert? Nada. So my mother sent batches of apple-spice cake, packed into a Tupperware rectangle that fit into a flat-rate FedEx box, always with a cheerful card that had a $20 bill folded inside.

One December, deep in the crunch of exams, a care-package Tupperware was resting on top of the microwave in my dorm room. My friend popped the lid, looked inside and sniffed loudly. “Is that fruitcake?” he asked.

I winced. I’d never thought of it as “fruitcake,” that go-to symbol of holiday lameness. But when I stopped to think about it—nuts, raisins—the joke was on me. Foolish girl, thinking you’d know what real dessert tastes like.

Looking at the moist half-moons where each mini-cake pressed against the lid, my stomach turned. I put off touching them until they were dusted with mold, then threw them away. When I went home and my mom offered to mix up the batter for New Year’s, I said the taste wouldn’t go with champagne.

From then on, I avoided anything beyond that first, obligatory slice. Around that time, I found a line of store-bought pies that I could eat, in flavors like apple cobbler and “razzleberry.” These became my go-to treat: sweet, neat, consistent.

Which is why, after a few years, I couldn’t stand them anymore. I was tired of generic berry syrup and prepackaged crumble. Where was the surprise in how it came out of the oven? The pleasure of tasting one day, then the next, the complex flavor evolving?

“Could you make the apple-spice cake?” I asked my mom one Christmas. “Please?” And she did. When it was done, she cut two wedges and we sat down in the living room of the house I grew up in, by the twinkling pine tree heavy with ornaments. I tucked my feet up under me like I was 14 again and we ate as we talked about the year. The cake was just as good—as spicy, crumbly, chewy—as I remembered.

“It’ll be even better tomorrow,” my mother said.

How profoundly lucky I am, that she is around to make apple-spice cake, from scratch, in the kitchen of my childhood.

Every family of an allergic child experiments with recipes. We tend to judge them on how “normal” they taste, for better or for worse, forgetting sometimes the gesture of love and protection they embody. You can’t overcook or under-season that. You can only enjoy.  

Sandra Beasley is the author of two collections of poetry and Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. She lives in Washington, DC.

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