Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Poor Man's Cake

by Lisa

It’s early June of 2003, and I find myself standing alone in my grandmother’s kitchen in rural South Dakota on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, leisurely flipping through recipe cards in a dusty cabinet drawer. Each time I travel from my current home in Milwaukee to the farm where I grew up, I am drawn to walk the gravel road to my grandmother’s house as if called on a pilgrimage.The house has been uninhabited for almost twelve years at this point. My grandparents—my father’s parents—lived on the same farm as my parents, so this kitchen is as familiar to me as my own. As I walk through the front porch and hear the screen door whap shut behind me, I can still smell fresh bread and cinnamon rolls and cakes and cookies. The memories greet me like friendly ghosts, swirling just beyond my reach, triggering simultaneous Proustian joy and longing.

I’m not sure what I’m looking for as I finger the jumble of recipe cards. Some are handwritten. Some are typed. Some are written in my grandmother’s young, steady hand, others in her older, shakier script. I also recognize my mother’s handwriting, an aunt’s, my maternal grandmother’s, a neighbor’s.

Mixed among the recipes are envelopes yellowed with age and carefully slit along the sides. I take them to the Formica kitchen table and sit on one of the red-cushioned chrome chairs. Inside the envelopes are more handwritten recipes. These must have been requested by my grandmother at various family gatherings and then mailed to her when the relatives had returned home.

Most of the letters include a brief greeting or suggestion for adapting the recipe, but some are just recipes, with no signatures, no introductions. One for Poor Man’s Cake, written in the handwriting of one of my aunts on my mother’s side, ends with a personal note:
Poor Man’s Cake

Into an 8x8x2 inch pan, or use a bowl, sift 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 3 Tablespoons cocoa, 1 teaspoon soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add 1 cup cold water, 6 Tablespoons oleo [butter], Tablespoon vinegar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Mix ‘till smooth and bake for 20-25 minutes at 325 degrees to 350 degrees.  Makes 1 small cake.

“This is an ideal recipe when eggs are scarce and milk, too. Your family needn’t go without the all-time favorite, chocolate cake. I substitute carob powder for cocoa, and it works fine.”

Poor Man's Cake, 2011

These voices are telling me something.

This particular visit is in honor of a wedding reception for my father, who at age 72 has re-married. Our extended family is strewn around the country—from Wyoming to Florida, Arizona to Wisconsin—and this is one of the few times when most of us have been in one place at the same time. I especially enjoy the presence of my aunts, my father’s sisters, whom I haven’t seen together in many years.

One morning I listen to the two of them reminisce over morning coffee about how, when they were young, coffee or tea was never served without something small to eat--cookies or cake or some other homemade dessert. They say that, even today, they like to keep cookies on hand in the event a guest pops for a visit.

For them, coffee was more than just coffee. Coffee was an excuse to serve, to share, and to connect. For my generation, coffee is an expensive gourmet roast to be slurped from a disposable paper cup while we keep one hand on the steering wheel.

I am a mother and wife but also a writer and teacher and volunteer who, like almost all of my friends, struggles to juggle several responsibilities and interests. The busier I get, the stronger my need to feel grounded and connected in some way to the women whose lives gave rise to and shaped my own.

Of course, my life is quite different from that of my grandmothers. They had little choice as to how much or whether they baked or cooked. Their day-to-day lives were filled to the brim with the not so simple task of putting food on the table. They baked bread because it was expected of them, to save money, and because home baked bread was better than the single brand of soft white bread available at the grocery store. When I bake bread, it is a luxury, a choice, a way to relax and forget about deadlines and details. I know that the quality of breads from local bakeries probably surpasses that of my own and that I can choose to buy rather than bake whenever I want.

Yet the very availability and variety of year-round produce and excellent baked goods and deli items can lead to a disconnection from food’s significance and from the role that food plays in human relationships. True scarcity is, thankfully, not something most of us must deal with. We struggle instead with abundance, even in our current economic climate. Rather than find a way to serve the family favorite chocolate cake without eggs or milk—imagine what a treat that cake must have been!—we must plan for ways to come together for meals, to appreciate what we have, to stop long enough to taste our cake before we’re off and running to the next appointment.
I return to Milwaukee with the recipes in hand, listening for what they have to tell me.

Notes: A version of this post was first published in Outpost's Exchange food and wellness magazine and later reprinted in Country magazine. I am now revising it for use in a book about family diaries. The secret to fluffiness when making Poor Man's Cake is not to skip the sifting, even if you use pre-sifted flour. Melt the butter and add it to the cold water, vinegar, and vanilla before combining liquid ingredients with the sifted dry ingredients. The baking time that works best for me is 25-30 minutes (test carefully with a toothpick to avoid cake collapse). Cool for a few minutes before slicing with a very sharp knife.


  1. Lisa, there is so much I love about this essay. And on a day where we have just run out of milk and I'm groaning about taking the kids out again today, I'm tempted to just make this cake and pull together whatever I can to have a nice lunch of random love.

  2. Love the recipes written in different handwriting and we want to make the Poor Man's Cake!

  3. I love thinking about the role food plays in our relationships. What a beautiful essay. And, I have a similar recipe. My mother-in-law calls it "Depression Cake," and it's a perfect dessert when I need a quick egg-free cake.