Happy Birthday, Grandma
Last Saturday would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday. She’s been gone for a quarter century now, but I think of her often. I wrote about Grandma last fall, so maybe you’re already somewhat familiar with her. It seemed fitting to celebrate with a cake.
This is what you need to know about Grandma: she was born in Canton, China, 100 years ago, where she lived until she was 13 (her father was a teacher there). Then she, along with her parents and brothers and sisters, sailed on the Empress of Russia back home to the United States. Grandma was disappointed when they sailed through the Golden Gate—she’d been expecting a swinging golden gate. The bridge, of course, wasn’t even there yet.
She was came of age during the 1920’s. I imagine her head full of dreams, her life ahead full of nothing but possibility. She went to college, and worked one summer in Carmel (where she fell in love with my grandfather) carving cameo rings. The Depression and real life (hers was full of disappointment) would have knocked those dreams away for many people.
But Grandma just worked through it. After raising four sons (her only daughter died at birth), she went back to school, worked some more, and then finally retired. Finally, she had time to travel.
When I was little, Grandma visited often, bearing gifts from her travels: Struwwelpeter, a terrifying German book of cautionary tales for children, a clay whistle from Peru, fancy ink and brushes from China. And we visited her—I especially loved playing in her basement, where there was a built-in captain’s bed, complete with curtains and a porthole window, with a picture of a ship on the sea behind it.
She took her first trip back to China as soon as travel there was possible. Reading over her notes about the trip, it’s a bit of a miracle she went.
Grandma was, well, stubborn. The tour company required a physical for travelers over 65. She would have none of it. “Just because I was over 65 didn’t mean I was decrepit. I could still stand on my head— so I told them if everyone has to get a statement I will but not otherwise.” And she didn’t. And she went to China.
The Persian Love Cake, FinallySo what cake would Grandma like? If you’ve read that last story about Grandma (about mincemeat and my great-grandmother) you know she wasn’t much interested in food. Probably even less interested in cakes. Luckily, one of the cakes I need to be making for my 10 cakes in 2010 is Persian Love Cake. The name of the cake surely would have appealed to her adventurous side.
The chiffon cake is flavored with lemon and whole cardamom seeds (not pods!), and the whipped cream frosting is scented with rosewater and saffron. Candied rose petals decorate the cake. But I might change the name to Persian Dream Cake or Persian Adventure Cake for Grandma.
It would have been convenient if Grandma had been born a few weeks later; there would have been more roses to pick from for candying. But I made do with one Joseph’s Coat (from a bush my grandfather gave me), one Hansa rose, and one Madame Alfred Carrière. Turned out they were enough.
I first came across the recipe for the Persian Love Cake five years ago, in Bon Appetit magazine. I made it then, with help from my mother, for Grace’s high school graduation. Then it seemed like a cake full of promised adventure. In the intervening five years, Grace has lived in the Dominican Republic, and gone to college in the Netherlands. I think Grandma would have approved.
I have a book of poetry Grandma wrote when she was young. Her love poetry is heartbreaking, with lines sadly echoing her life:
For love can live but a day,I prefer lines from another poem, happily echoing her life:
And there will be years before me
When love has gone his way
‘Tis great to feel the winds that blow from all the ends o’ the earth,
And visit all the lands you’ve wanted most.Just trail the winds from east to west,From northpole to the south,Just grubbing along in a cheery wayLiving from hand to mouth.For what’s a body’s comfort if your soul cries to be freeTo trail the winds from north to south, from mountains to the sea.