A note from Curator Rozanne Gold: In this beautiful story about a memorable lemon cake (and Brunswick stew), Kelly shares her experience as both a pastry chef and as a devoted member of a tight-knit family. Kelly’s love of food led her to drop out of graduate school where she was pursuing a Master of Fine Arts to study baking (a girl after my own heart, I also dropped out of grad school long ago to pursue a career in New York’s food world. I later went back to get an MFA — who knows — so might Kelly). After ten years as pastry chef, Kelly now works at a specialty coffee roaster and coffee bar in Memphis, Tennessee, while she researches and writes about the history of baking and pastry in the south. Southern food ways are so in vogue that I await her gorgeous prose.
In the South, our relatives are our people.
My people come from North Carolina. They were farmers and owners of a general store. They lived in Northampton County, almost at the border of Virginia, where the pine trees were just as much a commodity as the peanuts and cotton.
My grandmother, Elizabeth Braswell Spivey, was born in Northampton County in 1925. She lived on a farm very far out in the country.
On the property was a long, rectangular cook-house and an adjoining family room with a fireplace, couches, and games. The cook-house had a large wood-fired brick oven that housed two large cast iron pots, and a cast iron, gas-fueled fryer that only was used for cornbread.
Starting somewhere in the ‘30s or ‘40s, my family has held a Brunswick Stew every year in the Fall. We would wake up early for an hour drive to my grandparents’ house, usually arriving around seven. The men hauled firewood to the brick oven and lit the fire. The women gathered in the cookhouse family room to peel pounds and pounds potatoes, and to empty huge cans of tomatoes into the cast iron pots.
Generally, the men did all the stirring with wooden paddles the size of boat oars, but as a defiant teenage girl, I refused to peel potatoes and insisted on stirring instead. I would sit on top of the warm bricks, next to the cast iron pots, and stir for hours. After three hours it was time to “take up the stew” and fry the cornbread.
I loved how we all came together and took hands as we gathered in a large circle. The head of the family (my grandfather and after he passed, my father), would lead us in giving thanks and each joined hand would gently squeeze the other before letting go.
Finally, we could reap the rewards for our work. Plates were filled with Brunswick stew, pulled pork, slaw, and fried cornbread. Then they filled again with brownies, pig pickin' cake, lemon pound cake, thick slices of pie, and occasionally, ice cream.
We made between 200 - 250 quarts of stew each year, to be shared with family and friends. It was kept in the freezer and sustained us all winter.
After my grandmother's death in 2013, I received boxes of her cookbooks and recipes jotted down on envelopes or advertisements for fertilizer. Some were just newspaper clippings. I received all of this during a time when, as a pastry chef, I was beginning to delve into my own history and re-create the desserts of my people.
The earlier recipes are written in cursive so neat you can almost see the lines of the grade school primer it was practiced in. The later recipes become smaller, cramped, and more hurried, making them illegible to the untrained eye. Sometimes there were just notes denoting "good" recipes.
As I worked my way through the scraps of paper and fragile books, I put the ingredients together in my head, tasting every dessert on the sideboard at Christmas and every contribution from my aunts at the annual Brunswick stew. But it was my grandmother’s lemon pound cake that was in evidence at every gathering.
The first bite was so good — the tart-sugary glaze on the pillowy, yellow-tasting cake. The second bite was to make sure that yes, you can taste yellow. To this day, it is the only cake my brother will eat.
My assumption that this cake was a made-from-scratch triumph was quickly shattered when I asked my mother for her copy of the recipe and saw that a box of Duncan Hines yellow cake mix and instant yellow pudding were two of the key ingredients. I wanted to make the legendary cake for my brother's birthday. This was years before my grandmother had passed and I was at the very beginning of my pastry career. (I’m now 33).
I tried to reverse-engineer it — omitting the instant pudding and cake mix (the horror!) and adding in real lemon zest and juice — but the results were never as good. Some things are best left alone. My grandmother understood, after all, that a cake is just a reason to gather together.
Lemon Pound Cake
Note: Kelly says that she often uses a Kitchen Aid with the paddle attachment and beats the batter for 8 minutes. Her grandmother did it by hand for 10. Pour the batter into a large loaf pan that has been brushed with oil and lightly floured. Although the handwritten recipe does not include instructions for icing, Kelly prepares a thin glaze made from 1 cup of sifted powdered sugar and 2 to 4 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice.
1 box Duncan Hines yellow cake mix
1 box instant lemon pudding
2/3 cups water
1/2 cup Mazola oil
Lemon flavoring to taste
Put in mixing bowl and beat for 10 min.
Preheat oven at 325. Cook for 1 hour
Does better if you do not open the oven door until the hour is up.
Makes 1 cake
Kelly Spivey (left) and her grandmother, Elizabeth Braswell Spivey (above)