The Stack Cake


I was nine years old that summer of 1902, and I will always remember it as the “summer of the stack cake.”

Moist, rich stack cakes are flavored with ginger and sweetened with molasses or sometimes sugar. In those long-ago days they were rare in our home. Sugar and molasses were dear then and used only sparingly. Mother dressed up wheat cakes with currants, and sometimes she made blackberry pie, but they could not compare with a stack cake.

That summer there were no cakes of any kind at our house. In May Mama had lost the baby she had been carrying for four months. Although she tried not to show it, I knew she still grieved about losing the baby. Her smile never touched her eyes now, and her walk was slower. When I tried to tend my two younger brothers and to take over Mama’s outside work, she thanked me with her soft voice. But it, too, was sort of sad and tired.

I thought and thought, trying to find a way to make her feel better. Finally I remembered the stack cake. We had not had one for quite some time. I had never made one before, but I had watched Mama as she had measured and mixed. I knew I could do it—I had to. Surely a stack cake would cheer her up.

All day I planned excitedly, checking to make sure we had everything I would need. There was even a little sugar, saved for a special occasion. This, I decided, was a special occasion.

I hurried through my chores the next morning. Mama looked at me questioningly, but just smiled. The boys followed her to the stream, so I was alone. Mama would be outside washing clothes all morning.

I gathered together all that I would need, trying to remember the order in which Mama had added the ingredients. The batter was stiff, almost too thick to stir. I hadn’t remembered Mama having so much trouble. But I reasoned that since she was stronger than I was, the mixing had looked easier. I had lighted the big stove earlier, so now I only had to pour the batter into the pan.

I didn’t mind the washing and cleaning up as I usually did. Somehow even that was special now. I peeked into the oven only once.

Finally it was time. I carefully lifted the cake out and loosened its edges from the pan as I had seen Mama do. It was hard to wait while it cooled. At last I set out our best dishes and placed a wedge of cake on each plate. It looked a little different from Mama’s. I finished just in time—Mama and the boys were coming in.

“Caroline—”

Mama stopped. She looked at the cake, then at me.

My words came in a rush. “It’s a stack cake, Mama. I made it myself.”

“Thank you, Caroline.”

Her voice had a catch in it.

I waited for Mama to take the first bite. Then I took one. I took another. The cake was heavy and dry, not light as it should have been.

“Oh, Mama, I wanted to make you smile again. But it’s terrible. And I’ve used the last of our sugar!” I couldn’t keep the tears back.

“Caroline, it’s the best stack cake I’ve ever tasted. Thank you.” Even though she was crying, I could see that her eyes were smiling.

Mama helped me make some icing from syrup to pour over the rest of the cake, and it tasted better then.

After that day Mama still looked sad sometimes but not as often. And whenever we had a stack cake, Mama and I would smile at each other, a smile that Papa and the boys didn’t understand. Later Mama taught me how to make a stack cake properly, and I knew we had shared more than a recipe.

[illustration] Illustrated by Shauna Mooney