A Sweet Thing From A Time of Pain
(by Maya Moravec)
“Well, that’s how they separated the head from the body. You have to be fast, with the chicken head and its claws; otherwise he would claw you all over. So you catch him by the head and you... [vigorous lasso motion]."
I was in such disbelief and disgust to hear the way my grandmother prepped for a meal. I was too young to consider that some living thing had to die for me to consume it, and that someone or something had to do the deed. My “meal prepping” could not look more different. It consisted of neat little Tupperware boxes with corresponding lids that were appropriate to “ideal” portions.
My sister and I were adopted as babies from separate families in Guatemala and were brought up in Chicago. We don’t fit traditional expectations. We speak hardly any Spanish, although we commonly get mistaken for being at least semi-fluent, and since my father is white and my mother is black, there were interesting moments of confusion as we passed through TSA lines. My parents didn’t force any Guatemalan traditions onto my sister and me—after all, who’s to say my birth family abided by Guatemalan cultural norms? (I recently learned that they don’t, when I came in contact with my birth family and filled in some blanks.) Our food-centered traditions include ordering sushi from our favorite restaurant after returning from a family vacation, making anything but turkey for Thanksgiving (why not explore cultural Chinese cuisine instead?), and not eating together at the same time. We tend to filter in and out of the kitchen casually around mealtimes and order in more than most families.
(Mom and me, reflected from a modern art museum piece)
My mother never cooks. I don’t know if cooking is in her repertoire of many skills
because she simply never does it. Most days since quarantine began, we can expect at least two doorbell rings—one from a UPS delivery man and one from GrubHub dropping off takeout food. My sister and I learned to cook on our own by pulling from social media posts and websites. We bring new ideas, flavors, and cultures into the kitchen while keeping old favorites around.
I went to visit my grandmother in Atlanta during my sophomore year of high school. We weren’t and still aren’t in much contact with my mother’s side of the family, so I hadn’t seen her since I was quite young. But I interviewed her for an English class project, and hearing her talk about killing chickens is a distinct memory for me. That story and her amazing, rich laugh that filled up entire rooms is how I best remember her. She died last summer, and my mom flew south to make the arrangements and bring a sense of style and beauty together with my grandmother’s final wishes. I joined my family in South Carolina where the funeral was set to take place. We drove out to a rural church near my grandmother’s childhood home. At the service and subsequent gatherings, I learned three things. First, my family was so much bigger than I ever imagined. Second, though I had not considered my mom’s side of the family to be my own, the spirit and personality of their traditions were amazing, particularly the “enlivening” ceremony filled with song and unbridled praise. Third, I kept hearing about my grandmother’s amazing cooking.
My mother and her sister had spent the past week cleaning out my grandmother's apartment and found several of her coveted recipes, although the pieces of paper looked more experimental than concrete instructions. My mom was on a special lookout for the lemon pound cake, which everyone seemed to rave about, and she showed me the page hoping that I would be able to transcribe it into a final polished recipe that we could send out to family and friends.
The paper had far more suggestions and half-baked ideas than I expected. In fact there were three other recipes on the page—for angel food cake, frosting, and what I think was cornbread. I tried to perfect it over the summer by looking at other recipes to fill in the gaps, but didn’t quite get it how we wanted. My mom was the one to perfect the recipe, which I think is very beautiful and fitting. It was a sweet thing to come out of a time of pain and grief, and many people got to share the recipe and try it for themselves.
A month later, my sister and I went to a pottery painting class, and I painted the recipe on a large plate, the perfect size for the pound cake to sit upon for my mother. The letters are in turquoise, which is my mom and her mom’s favorite color. Even though we don’t cook together, I could not be more happy that I was able to help my mom recreate this special recipe and keep more of her mom and her culinary legacy alive. I’m sure my grandmother would be happy to know her daughter, granddaughter, and even more people have gotten to try her special lemon pound cake.
Maya Moravec is an actress and filmmaker from Chicago who attends New York University. Some of her work can be found at IMDB.
Anna’s Lemon Pound Cake
(Note: You’ll need 4 or 5 large lemons for the cake, syrup, and glaze.)
3 c. all-purpose flour, spooned into measuring cup and leveled off with knife
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 c. sour cream
1/4 c. finely grated lemon zest, packed
2 T. fresh lemon juice
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3 egg yolks, at room temperature
2 sticks (1 c.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/4 c. granulated sugar
1 t. vanilla or bourbon vanilla extract
1 t. almond extract
pinch of mace
additional butter and flour for pan
dollop of love
1/4 c. water
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1 1/2 T. fresh lemon juice
1 /2 c. confectioners’ sugar
2 T. finely grated lemon zest
1 T. fresh lemon juice
Preheat oven to 325 F. and set oven rack in middle position.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In a separate medium bowl, whisk together sour cream, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together eggs and egg yolks until just blended.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar at medium speed for 5 minutes until light, almost white, and fluffy, stopping mixer once or twice to scrape contents down side of bowl.
Beat in eggs a tablespoon or two at a time, beating well after each addition. (It’s very important not to rush this step. Each egg should be thoroughly mixed into the butter mixture.)
Blend in vanilla extract, almond extract, and mace until just mixed.
With mixer on low speed, beat in 1/4 of flour mixture, then 1/3 of sour cream mixture.
Beat in another 1/4 of flour mixture, then another 1/3 of sour cream mixture.
Repeat with another 1/4 of flour mixture and remaining sour cream mixture.
Finally beat in remaining flour mixture.
Scrape down side of bowl once or twice while mixing.
(For a fluffy cake, it’s important not to overmix during this step, mixing only until ingredients are just blended together.
Thoroughly grease a 10-inch Bundt pan with butter, making sure entire surface, including crevices, is coated.
Thoroughly dust pan with flour.
Spoon batter into pan and smooth with spatula.
Bake for 60 – 75 minutes or unitl cake is golden and a toothpick or skewer comes out clean.
Set on a cooling rack.
Carefully run a table knife around the edges of the pan and around the center tube to loosen.
Cool for 10 minutes.
While cake is cooling, make syrup:
Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil.
Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice.
Invert cake into a rack.
Slip a large piece of parchment paper, aluminum foil, or paper towel underneath rack for easy clean-up.
Gradually brush the hot syrup over the cake, letting it soak in.
Allow cake to cool completely, about 1 hour.
When cake is cool, carefully transfer to a serving platter and make glaze.
In a medium bowl, whisk together confectioners’ sugar, lemon zest, and lemon juice.
Add more confectioners’ sugar or lemon juice as necessary to make a thick but pourable glaze. (It should be the consistency of honey.)
Spoon glaze over top of cake, letting it drip down the sides.
Add a dollop of love and serve.