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Helping My Mother Taste Freedom

(by Francesca Costanzo)

I was that sensory-sensitive kid, easily awakened just by the sound of my mother opening her tin recipe box. At least, that’s what she always told me.

I came from a long lineage of excellent bakers. My mother’s father was a professional baker from a hill town in the Abruzzo area of Italy and, according to her stories, was the best baker in the region.

“Shepherds would trek through the hills just to eat his bread,” she would tell me.

“Again with this story?” I would yell back.

But when I visited the town as an adult, I was shocked to find residents who remembered him from when they were children. Mother beamed with pride when I told her. After all, it was she who inherited Pop-Pop’s prolific baking gene, not her sister. And I seem to have inherited it from her, tin recipe box and all.

As luck would have it, I also inherited my mother’s giant hands, which I think contributed a lot to her baking. They were large enough for kneading bread or catching rabbits—not that the latter was a skill required in South Philadelphia, where her parents emigrated in the late 1920s. South Philly born and raised, she was hailed as the “most beautiful girl on Passyunk Avenue” by men and women alike, a title she carried through her 82 years. She looked like an Italian movie star, and devoted herself to dressing and acting the part. For her, a little innocent flirting could go a long way, like getting good deals on lunch meat at the local market. And as for her hands, her motto was “larger rings for larger hands.” She had cocktail rings to rival Liz Taylor’s. And they remained on her hands whenever she baked.

(me, a few aunts, and Mother)

Every year, my mother would ask, “What do you want for your birthday?” and I’d tell her,

“Aunt Kate’s Cake,” a recipe handed down from my mother’s Aunt Catherine, and never made on any other occasion. On October 4th, I would be greeted with the same sing-songy tune: “It’s a beautiful day, just like the day you were born”—even if it was pouring rain, adding, “Come early so you can lick the beaters.” Licking the beaters, as she knew, is arguably the best part of baking.

The cake would cool (for what seemed like two weeks) on our maple kitchen table, shoved into the corner of the small kitchen so there was more space for me to stand on a stool and watch. It was perfect, with a moist, buttery crumb. Maybe there was a secret ingredient that only she remembered. Maybe it really was her giant hands. Maybe the simple joy she felt in connecting with her only daughter every time she baked it. Some girls wanted jewelry or clothes, but that early morning greeting and Aunt Kate’s Cake were the only things I ever needed to make my birthday complete.

If I asked, “Why are you beating the batter with a spoon?” she’d reply, “I’m pretending it’s your father.” My parents had what I thought of as Frank Sinatra/Ava Gardner fights. A gorgeous couple with so much unearthed passion that they didn’t know what to do with it. She put hers into baking and cooking. He put his into fighting with her. And fight they did, about the dumbest things, like which of their mothers had the better doctor, or which one made the best meatballs (hands down, it was her mother, not his). The truth was, my father was always jealous of the way people reacted to her charm and good looks. He hated it. And I hated the fighting.

So when she was 71 years old, I arranged for her to go live with her childhood sweetheart, Frankie, whom she knew since they were 14. I had discovered he was the brother of my co-worker, and he stayed in touch with me over the years just to check in on her. Whenever the phone rang and I heard his voice, my reply was always the same: “Yes, Frank, she’s still alive but still married to my father.”

She had married at 19 and was a mother at 20. I wanted her to taste freedom. So I bought her an open-ended ticket to Tucson and Frankie. I helped pack her bags and drove her to the airport. For all Daddy knew, she was in Arizona visiting a cousin, which was partially true.

Two weeks later, she called.

“I want to come home,” she said. “I’m certainly not going to leave one asshole to go live with another one.”

It was October, the month of the births of her two children. And although we were fully

grown, she insisted on making our special birthday cakes—Aunt Kate’s for me and a

butterscotch ice box for my brother. Poor Frankie. He just couldn’t grasp the concept of

her having to bake birthday cakes for her adult kids. So she left him and came back to

live with me for a while. She met with a divorce lawyer, had a few sessions with my therapist, and got a taste of the good life, socializing with my friends, eating dinner with my clients, living the life she had always wanted. It was going well until she realized she missed “her things”—her arts and crafts room and materials, her baking arsenal, her 85 cookbooks, and her own kitchen.

At 78, Daddy couldn’t afford a divorce, so they decided she would return home and they would live together as friends. Friends who fought. But this time, she had her own bedroom as an escape hatch. They lived this way for ten years, until her death. I got her a cell phone so she could call Frankie whenever she wanted. They, too, remained friends and spoke almost daily. She was happy. And at my mother’s burial, I put my phone on speaker so Frankie could listen from Arizona. I told Daddy it was her cousin, of course. My dad came to live with me for nine years afterwards. He never spoke of my mother after she died.

I haven’t tasted Aunt Kate’s Cake in the ten years since Mother’s been gone. I miss her and it a lot. One of my girlfriends surprised me with her very own version last year, but it just wasn’t the same. For such a simple cake—a little of this, a little of that—I’ve never been able to perfect it, although my results have been consistent: Brutta ma Buona. Ugly but good. It’s an Italian sign of respect for the person who made the food.

Recently I decided to organize Mother’s recipe collection, and there in her handwriting on a worn-out index card was Aunt Kate’s Cake, ending with “Happy Baking & Good Luck.” On the flip side of the card was more handwriting, that of a 12-year-old girl watching as her mother baked. It said:

Aunt Kate’s Cake is delicious.

I love to make it, too.

I love to eat it.

I love to lick the beaters.



Francesca Costanzo is a semi-retired multimedia artist living and working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with her wife and their three cats. She still bakes on a regular basis. Just not Aunt Kate’s Cake. Some of her work can be found on YouTube.

Aunt Kate’s Cake

For the cake:

1/2 lb. softened butter, with extra for greasing pan

2 c. sugar

4 eggs

2 t. vanilla extract

pinch of salt

4 c. all-purpose flour

1 1/2 c. milk

4 t. baking powder

For the icing:

1/4 lb. butter, melted

1 lb. confectioners’ sugar

approximately 1/2 c. milk

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Grease and flour a tube or Bundt pan.

Cream butter and sugar together.

Beat in eggs, one at a time.

Add vanilla and salt.

In a separate bowl, alternate mixing flour with milk, starting and ending with the flour.

Add baking powder.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture.

Bake in the middle of the oven for about 1 hour or until tester comes clean.

For the icing, combine melted butter with confectioners’ sugar and add milk, stirring until smooth. The consistency should be sort of runny.

Dribble onto the cake.

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