Aunt Helen’s 30-Day Cake

30 day cake pic

Desiree Cooper

Desiree Cooper

Today’s piece is by veteran journalist Desiree Cooper, who describes herself on her “Detroit Snob” website this way: “As the editor of the alternative newsweekly, the Metro Times, and a columnist with the Detroit Free Press for 11 years, Cooper was well-regarded as a compassionate writer who gave voice to the city’s everyday heroes. ​In 2009, she reinvented herself as a blogger, author and content specialist for non-profit organizations.” (And she has the cutest grandson in the world!)

By way of full-disclosure, she says Aunt Helen has never shared her recipe for 30-Day Cake. Desiree put the recipe together after doing some online research, but she hasn’t tried it yet – after all, it takes 30 days to make!

They weren’t born relatives, but circumstances made them sisters: two African American Air Force brides on the small Japanese island of Kyushu in the late 1950’s.

Back then, Helen Jennings was already the mother of four boys. My mother, Barbara, had been struggling with infertility, but was finally expecting her first child (me!). For my mom, it was a gift from God to find a sister who could help her navigate new motherhood when she was so far away from home.

Even after our families left Japan, we remained close friends. Helen’s family settled outside of Baltimore, Maryland. My parents moved to the Virginia Beach area. All my life, “Aunt Helen” has been my godmother and prayer warrior. I was the little girl she never had, and she was my fairy godmother.

30-Day cake starts with fermented fruit. Photo by Mike Willis via Flickr Creative Commons.

30-Day Cake starts with fermented fruit. Photo by Mike Willis via Flickr Creative Commons.

Now 85, she’s never missed my birthday (all 55 of them). In between special occasions, a package from Aunt Helen would often appear on my doorstep with surprise finds at unbelievable prices (eventually she had five boys and became an expert at bargain-hunting).

Christmas brought the best gift

But the best gift came at Christmas. That’s when I’d receive one of Aunt Helen’s special “30-day” cakes chock full of coconut, walnuts, pineapples, raisins and so much love.

The cake was made from a starter that she reused over the years, linking each Christmas to the one before. The outcome was a moist, gourmet cousin of the fruitcake–except Aunt Helen’s cakes never lasted long enough to be re-gifted.

Helen and Barbara’s friendship suffered after my mother’s slowly encroaching Alzheimer’s made it difficult to stay connected. These days, they rarely see each other. My mother has become isolated, and as both couples aged, the five-hour drive between their homes may as well have been 500.

Desiree's mom Barbara Cooper, and her "sister" Helen, together again.

Desiree’s mom Barbara Cooper, and her “sister” Helen, together again.

Aunt Helen and I continued to communicate when my mother couldn’t, me trying to fill my mother’s shoes as Aunt Helen’s “sister.”

A tragedy and a reunion

This year, Aunt Helen and her husband, Uncle Ollie, lost their home of nearly 60 years to a fire. Aunt Helen has survived cancer. My mother is slipping further into dementia, making it hard to even stay in contact by phone. So my god-brothers and I decided it was time to bring the sisters together again.

On the day of their surprise reunion in Maryland, Aunt Helen’s mouth flew open and the tears flowed as my mother knelt before her and put her head on her sister’s lap. They’d held hands through young womanhood and through mid-life. Now they were back together to support each other through life’s last journey.

Aunt Helen hopes that she’ll be able to move into her new home in February. I check on her now and then, worried that she will sink into despair while she waits. How do you overcome losing your family home, along with all of your treasures, so late in life?

But that’s not my Aunt Helen. She has taught me so much about faith and sisterhood. Even without the convenience of her own kitchen, Aunt Helen baked and sent us our 30-Day cakes in time for Christmas!

Freedom Smells Like My Mother’s Kitchen

Desiree Cooper

Desiree Cooper

A Note from your host Bobbie Lewis: Today we welcome Desiree Cooper, who describes herself on her “Detroit Snob” website this way: “As the editor of the alternative newsweekly, the Metro Times, and a columnist with the Detroit Free Press for 11 years, Cooper was well-regarded as a compassionate writer who gave voice to the city’s everyday heroes. ​In 2009, she reinvented herself as a blogger, author and content specialist for non-profit organizations.” (And she has the cutest grandson in the world!)

By DESIREE COOPER

My mother’s mind is quickly slipping away. At 80, she’s often agitated and confused. She has problems executing simple tasks like showering and getting dressed in the morning. Her conversation is limited to a few repetitive topics, and now it’s dappled with confounding non-sequitors.

But there are moments when I can still glimpse the amazing woman she used to be. The memories that come spilling out as she looks at old photos. The smell of her perfume. The glint of the earrings she is never seen without. The way she lights up around her great-grandson.

And when she takes over the kitchen to bake her sweet potato pies.

A sacred ritual

For my mother—and now for me—cooking is a sacred ritual, a nod to our heritage, a practice of love. Her greens, skillet corn cakes, butter beans and fried chicken were staples of my childhood. Now those recipes feel like what tethers us to each other, to our history and to the generations yet to come.

Soul Food at Powell's Place by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo via Wikimedia Commons

Soul Food at Powell’s Place by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo via Wikimedia Commons

My parents were so good at providing a wonderful home that I sometimes forget that, for them, “home” was not always a place of sanctity. In their day, black women cooked “high on the hog” for their employers but served scraps to their children. Black men swallowed the shame of not being able to protect their wives and children in their own living rooms. Black children were robbed of their dreams as they slept in their own beds.

But if there was one thing that spoke of prosperity, hope and human dignity, it was the smell of food wafting from a warm kitchen. It was the sound of pots clanking and catfish frying. It was the ancient scents of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was the African worship of the yam.

A fight for peace in the home

I risk simplifying one of history’s seminal movements by saying it was all about a pie browning in the oven. But I will stand by this contention: The Civil Rights Movement was not only a fight for equality in public spaces, it also was about the ability to live peacefully at home. And nothing symbolizes the sanctity of home more than sharing a prayer and a meal around the dinner table.

It is said that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite dessert was pecan pie. But there are stories on the Internet about the role that the sweet potato pie played in sustaining him during the struggle.  His sister-in-law claims to have baked him a sweet potato pie to speed his convalescence after he was stabbed in Harlem in 1958. A family friend had purportedly prepared King a soul food dinner including a sweet potato pie for the evening of April 4, 1968—the day he was assassinated.

This Martin Luther King Day, I will remember the courage of all of those who fought for my human dignity. And I will taste the gratitude in each delectable bite of my mother’s sweet potato pie.