Grandma Essie’s Vanilla Pound Cake

Nonfiction by Debra J. Stone

I was six years old. Summer was here, and every Sunday after dinner we drove to visit Grandma Essie and Grandpa Joe. Interstate 94 hadn’t arrived yet and University Avenue connected our Northside Minneapolis home to Saint Paul, Minnesota, on the other side of the Mississippi River. On a hill was Grandma and Grandpa’s old-fashioned Victorian house on Rondo Avenue: the heart of the Saint Paul Negro community. We still called ourselves Negroes.

The smell of vanilla floated through the air as we entered the front door and scurried into the kitchen. Perched on the wooden counter was a vanilla pound cake, still warm. To this day, I can smell and taste that vanilla pound cake melting on my tongue. It wasn’t sugary sweet but caressed the inside of my mouth like a rose brushing against my cheek from Grandma’s garden. Sometimes Grandma Essie would drizzle a white frosting on the pound cake. In a small bowl, she’d use a handle-less coffee cup of white powdered sugar, a half stick of butter, stirring in enough milk to make the frosting smooth and runny, and then drizzle it on the pound cake letting it puddle around the cake placed on the platter. Then the bowl and three spoons were given to us to scrape it clean.

Now, when I open a bottle of vanilla extract adding it to my own vanilla pound cake, the aroma is weak, bland; it’s not the same. I’m sure Grandma didn’t cut corners; she used the pure vanilla bean.

. . .

The vanilla bean narrative was like in my own: the African slave trade played a role. Of course, we, the descendants of slaves, must piece together the missing narratives through the oral stories passed down from the generations, to help us solve the puzzle of our many contributions to the world in which we have been purposely deleted.

A twelve-year-old African slave boy, Edmond Albius, worked for his French master on a Bourbon Island plantation. In 1841 he discovered by accident how to pollinate the vanilla plant with a blade of grass or by using his thumb. Before this, pollination was done by bees.

Learning about this process, I thought this would make vanilla cheaper. But vanilla beans used for flavoring are still expensive because the vanilla plants are pollinated by hand to this day.

Ultimately, it was Edmond Albius who paid the price for progress. He died a pauper as a freed slave with the credit for pollination given to a white French botanist, Jean Claude Richard.

. . .

Like the slave boy Albius, Grandpa Joe was not given credit for a chemical disinfectant he helped create. I overheard this from Grandma Essie, who said, “I’m mad enough to spit in their lying white faces!” in a conversation in the kitchen with mama. Now I understand the reason for her anger, again erasure from the narrative of the contributions African American people made to this state and to the world.

My grandparents never spoke about slavery, the missing narrative in the ancestral oral history. I think the horror was too close. I discovered in the 1870 census, Grandma Essie’s great grandfather, Juber Lay, was born into slavery in 1800 and his son, Stephen Jordan, in 1855. They worked a tobacco plantation in Kentucky. The owner of the plantation, Stephen E. Lay, later transported them to Chariton County, Missouri, to work the tobacco. Their wives and mothers’ names were lost to us.  

. . .

Slavery is the link between vanilla, Grandma Essie, and me. We are the descendants of the women who baked pound cake for the white mistresses.

. . .

The slave women ancestors in my family baked and cooked without the knowledge of weights and measurements. Teaching a slave how to read and write was against the law. African slaves who knew how to read concealed their ability or faced ghastly torture if caught.

Yet, these consequences didn’t stop all slaves from learning to read and write. I know my third great grandfather Stephen Jordan Lay was listed in the 1900 census as knowing how to read and write. Somewhere in his long life he learned. I was proud, yet the moment made me catch my breath—my stomach turned to think if he’d been caught Grandma Essie and an entire generation of family would have been wiped out.

. . .

So, the white mistress of the house measured flour, sugar, eggs, and butter—four pounds each; this was the recipe for pound cake. It wasn’t a complicated recipe and it was easy to bake.

During those hard times of slavery, black women would risk punishment and even death to “steal” from the master; flour, sugar, eggs, butter and maybe a vanilla bean in order to make a pound cake for a special celebration. I’d like to think my African women ancestors would be those crafty women. Otherwise, how could they have survived?

. . .

Before African slaves were taught to bake pound cakes, Europeans were baking their own versions.  One of the earliest cook books, Hannah’s Art of Cooking, published in 1747, had an almond flavored recipe.

The humble pound cake began to take on new flavors, new textures. Maybe by accident or boredom the pound cake became like a musical instrument. The cooks and bakers of the world began creating their own melodies, rhythms, and songs for their pound cakes. Maybe the grandmothers of the world decided to bring their own culture and regional flavors. Putting in the batter a couple of pinches of baking powder or soda to make the pound cake less dense. Or, adding a splash of rose water, almond extract, or chopping dates and nuts. Maybe some honey, lemon, and a dash of nutmeg. In Scotland and England, a bit of brandy. Or, like Grandma Essie, adding those scraped vanilla beans and then, because it was the Depression, improvising with some sour cream. Butter was more expensive. Sour cream gave the pound cake a moist, tangy taste, and everyone loved it. I enjoy good food. And like the women using the flavors of their cultures for pound cake, I play my food similar to the improvisation of a jazz musician, often making substitutions to create my own signature dishes. I understand cooking by smell and taste, and watching the food, even when following recipes. For instance, if a recipe calls for garlic, I always add more to satisfy my taste. Then to underscore my time in the kitchen I put on my favorite CDs and play them as loud as I want. I’m not much of a singer but when I cook there’s no one but me and I can do my best impression of Beyoncé.

. . .

Grandma Essie called us in for dessert. My brother, sister, and I were playing king of the hill with the neighborhood children on Rondo Avenue. We played hard, leaving grass stains on pants and dresses defying Mama’s warning. “Don’t let me catch you rolling down that hill,” she said. We knew Grandma Essie would say, “Oh, let them play, I’ll wash those clothes later.” She never did.  

The pocket doors to the dining room were closed but I heard the grown-ups talking.

“We know it’s gonna be hard but we’ll help you find a new place. There’s a couple of houses I saw over on Igelhart,” said Mama.

“It’s just a shame they’re tearing down everything. I don’t understand how they can just come and take, this eminent domain shit!”

“Joseph, the kids!” said Grandma.

When we entered the dining room, the adults stopped their conversation; there was a sadness mixed with something ominous in the room. The adults did not discuss what was happening to Rondo Avenue where we had just as many friends to play with as we had on Russell Avenue; the Northside neighborhood where my parents had bought their first home. And children never inquired about adult business.

Besides, at that moment, all I wanted was dessert: vanilla pound cake. The saliva in my mouth made me swallow as the vanilla pound cake was cut. Grandma used her heirloom silver cake knife and served the cake on delicate white china dessert plates with pink rose buds and gold trimmed edges. The dessert dishes were Grandma’s pride and joy. They were wedding gifts given to her by her mother. She considered Sunday dessert a special time. I remember wanting those dessert plates, telling Grandma to save them for me when I got big.  And she would have, but all were broken or lost by the time I moved into my first apartment.

. . .

Later that summer, I was losing my friends who played with us on Rondo Avenue. The girls I played Double Dutch with and the boys who played Dodge Ball had left the neighborhood. No one knew where they went. Their houses were boarded up.

. . .

One by one the Rondo Avenue houses and businesses were boarded and disappeared, leaving empty lots and weeds in their place. The barber shop where Uncle Joe got a shave and haircut, the dentist who pulled my stubborn baby teeth, the hair dresser where Aunt Rosalie had her hair done, the corner grocery store where I bought bread and milk or other things when Grandma ran out, the penny candy store where we bought our Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum, Tootsie Rolls, and Red Vine Licorice, the liquor store where Grandpa bought his Grain Belt Beer and cigars and Sunday paper, the Elks Club where people could drink and listen to music, one day it too disappeared. And the elementary school playground where we played basketball with the rusted-out chain hoop. The tar playground ripped up into chunks.

. . .

Maybe it was trauma that made me forget when Grandma Essie and Grandpa Joe’s house was boarded up and the wrecking ball tore through the white wooden Victorian with the wrap around porch, the parlor with the green velvet chairs and the thick purple damask curtains with the gold tassels wrapped around the middle. The room we children were forbidden from entering except on Christmas and Easter. An upright piano stood between two ancestral photographs where Grandpa Joe played like he did for the barn dances back on the ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska.

Rondo Avenue was gone.

. . .

Black people forced to move again. Losing our stories and cultural markers, churches, homes, schools, stores, the doctor and dentist offices, all of those things that make a community. Black people struggling again against white racism. Forced into other neighborhoods where we were not welcome. Black home owners did not receive fair compensation, and realtors as well as banks practiced discrimination so there was little chance to replace their homes close to the old Rondo neighborhood. Businesses, too, faced the same prejudices. Grandma and Grandpa were one of the few who bought another home. A Jewish family sold them their home on Iglehart and they remained close to Rondo. However, witnessing the destruction of Rondo Avenue, watching the loss of friends’ homes and business properties made the black community distrust the government and the white community more. I heard Grandpa Joe lament about the days when black people owned land and property. And I understood what he meant.

On Rondo Avenue, I don’t recall seeing a white face. I felt safe.

. . .

The engineers and state highway planners went ahead with their plans and earth movers

bulldozed black communities and they disappeared:

Bronzeville—Milwaukee, Wisconsin

North Minneapolis, North Washington Avenue, Phyllis Wheatly Settlement House— Minnesota

Camden, New Jersey

Overtown—North Miami, Florida

Birmingham, Alabama

North Nashville, Tennessee

Overton Park—Memphis, Tennessee

Detroit, Michigan

Robert Taylor Homes—Chicago, Illinois

North Omaha, Nebraska

San Mateo, California

The poor and marginalized, black and brown people paid the price for progress.

. . .

Estimated measurements from the Family Reunion of the Price/Dyer Family Unity Cook book 1999. Grandma Essie’s Contribution:

Sour Cream Vanilla Pound Cake

3 cups flour sifted

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 cup butter, softened

3 cups sugar

6 eggs

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla (1 large vanilla bean) or lemon extract

Sift flour and soda together; twice and set aside. Cream butter; add sugar slowly, beating constantly. Cream well. Add eggs one at a time beating well after each. Stir in sour cream. Add flour mixture, ½ at a time; beating constantly. Stir in flavoring. Pour batter into a well-greased and floured tube pan. Bake in preheated 325-degree oven for 1 ½ hours or until cake leaves no batter on tooth pick. Cake is done. Let set in pan for 5 minutes and loosen from pan and let completely cool on wire rack. Cake can be frozen.

. . .

Once I had a dream right after Grandma Essie died that she and her brothers and sisters, mother and father and all of our ancestors even those from the slave days I didn’t know were living in a vanilla pound cake house. It had a chocolate roof that dripped on the sides and strawberries were growing out of the windows.

I woke up crying.

. . .

I wanted it all back.  I wanted Grandma Essie back. Her hugging and kissing me leaving her mark of red lips on my cheeks and the sweet buttery smell of vanilla. I wanted her house back on Rondo Avenue with her in the kitchen with the vanilla pound cake, warm on the wooden counter. I wanted Grandpa Joe’s garden with tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, peas, corn, apple and peach trees back, his barbeque barrel with the smoking ribs mixed with cigar smell because Grandma Essie wouldn’t let him smoke in the house. I wanted the hill on the side of the house where we rolled down, the world spinning around us.

In the dream, I was paddling a canoe in a river of deep brown vanilla. Grandma Essie said, “Before you go, baby.” She broke off a piece of sweet buttery vanilla pound cake. “Take this piece with you.”


Debra J. Stone lives in Minnesota and attended Carleton College. Her poetry has been published in About Place, Wild Age Press, Home Sweet Home Exhibit, and in the chapbook Bringing Gifts, Bringing News, The Saint Paul Almanac; her short stories appear in Rigorous, Random Sample Review, Tidal Basin, Black Magnolia Literary Journal, and other literary journals. Recently, Debra won The Loft Mentorship Fellows 2018-19 in Creative Nonfiction. She has received residencies at New York Mills, The Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Study, The Vermont Studio Center, Callaloo, and was a participant in The Givens Black Writers Retreat. She has received a Beyond the Pure Fellowship grant from Intermedia Arts. Currently, Debra serves as Board Member and Engagement Committee Chair for the non-profit independent publisher Graywolf Press. Debra is writing a collection of short stories.

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