I began planning this cake -- in honor of the husband's 30th birthday --in a happy mood, but I finished it with a heavy heart.
My Uncle Dale has died. He was 79 years old and his health had been declining for several years, but his death was still unexpected. The news hit me like a cold wave and took my breath away.
When I was a kid, my Uncle Dale seemed like the toughest man alive. He seemed invincible and unafraid of anything and everything he might encounter. He was missing three fingers -- he lost them working in the coal mines -- and when he told me that they were gone because he bit them off, I believed him.
When I picture my Uncle Dale, I see him see him sitting on his lawn mower wearing blue jeans, a button down work shirt, and a baseball cap. Always a baseball cap. Or I see him eating a bowl of butter pecan ice cream after lunch. Or sitting in his recliner watching the Kentucky Wildcats or the Atlanta Braves. Or with dogs. Always with dogs. He loved them. In fact all of my dad's family does. I may be the first cat-person in generations. When I was little, it seemed that my Uncle Dale always had beagles. At least I think they were beagles. By the time I was in late elementary school, he had transitioned to boxers and his beloved boxer Doogie Hosier was the first dog my brother truly loved. After Doogie was hit by a car, my Uncle Dale moved on to a pair of toy poodles. Chica and Chico, I believe were their names. They were so tiny that my Uncle Dale use to carry them around in the front of his shirt. A juxtaposition if ever there was one. The secretaries at my dad's law office used to love when Uncle Dale would come to visit, this loud and teasing coal miner of man full jokes and sass with a tiny dog in the front pocket of his shirt.
My Uncle Dale was not a large a man. He was probably barely over 5'6", but something about his presence seemed to take up the whole room. He was also a deeply religious man who served as a deacon in his Southern Baptist church for many years.
When I think about his passing, I am particularly sad for my Aunt Nettie. It seems to me that there are very few times in my life that I have not said the names Uncle Dale and Aunt Nettie together in the same breath. They were just so inexplicably intertwined that the thought of one without the other seems unfathomable to me. My Aunt Nettie and Uncle Dale were married in 1953 at the tender ages of 17 and 14. They married against the wishes of my grandparents and after they married my Uncle Dale dropped out of high school, where he had been a basketball star who went by the nickname of Soapy (a play on our last name). They were parents to a son with one year of getting married and three more sons followed shortly after. My Uncle Dale worked many hard jobs over the years to support his family. He was a coal miner for most of his life, but he also owned a lumber yard for some time. My dad worked there during the summers when he was in high school and college and Uncle Dale always made sure that my dad got only the hardest of jobs. At least that's the way my dad tells it.
My Uncle Dale and Aunt Nettie kept me at various times of my life while my parents were working. Since my Uncle Dale worked nights, he was often around. One of my earlier memories is of being 3 years old and playing horsie, bouncing on my Uncle Dale's knee. The wind blew the door open and he told me it was ghost.
During late elementary school, my brother and I spent summers at my Uncle Dale and Aunt Nettie's house out in the country. I remember my Uncle Dale smoking meat in the barbecue pit he had built in his backyard and I remember Aunt Nettie and Uncle Dale's mutual fascination with the O.J. Simpson murders. His trial playing nonstop on CNN was the soundtrack of my summer 1995.
When I was a freshman in high school, I stayed with Aunt Nettie and Uncle Dale for a few weeks so that I could finish the school year after my parents moved to a different town. My Uncle Dale went out and bought a tv just for my room so that I wouldn't always have to watch tv with them. It was a small gesture, but in retrospect, exceptionally sweet.
When I think about it, I feel like I was an exceptionally lucky kid because I had two exceptionally wonderful uncles in my Uncle Dale and my Uncle Will. My Uncle Dale was so large and loud and funny, but ultimately kind. My Uncle Will was small and quiet and thoughtful. They were so different and the perfect counterbalance to one another. They were the real-life Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion of my childhood.
My Uncle Will passed away when I was in 9th grade and now that Uncle Dale is gone too, I like to think that, if there is an afterlife, they are both hanging out in it together. And that Aunt Peggy is there too to bake them cakes.
They say that no person is truly gone so long as there is someone left on Earth who remembers them and I know that I shall remember my Uncle Dale until the day that I too am gone. I'll think of him every time I eat butter pecan ice cream or barbecue or corn and tomatoes fresh from the garden. He loved his garden. I will think of him when I eat ketchup, as strange as it sounds. He loved ketchup so much that he poured it over his scrambled eggs. My Mamaw once told me that when he was kid, my Uncle Dale loved tomato soup so much that it was the only thing he wanted to eat for lunch for years. At the time, it seemed impossible to imagine my Uncle Dale as a kid and my grandmother as a young mother. I'll think about him each time I think about the coal mines, where so many men work so hard for such long a time, or when I see a toy poodle. I'll think about him when I tell my some-day kids that I once had the best uncle there ever was.
I suppose I shouldn't approach this cake with a heavy heart. I should be happy because happiness is the one thing Uncle Dale would have ever wanted for me.
If anything, his death should be a reminder of how important birthday cake is. A reminder of how important it is to celebrate each new day we are given and to have fun and to cherish each moment because truthfully we never know when it might end.
Adapted from The Taste of Country Cooking by Miss Edna Lewis
For the cake:
5 T butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/4 t salt
2 cups flour, sifted
2/3 cup milk
2 pure vanilla extract
1 t fresh lemon juice
4 t baking powder
(1) Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees and butter and flour two 9-inch pans.
(2) Beat the butter in the bowl of a mixing stand until it starts to look shiny. Add the sugar and salt and beat until fluffy.
(3) Add the eggs one at a time, stirring between additions (Ms. Lewis says to stir the mixture only counter-clockwise, using a wooden spoon).
(4) Add 1/2 cup flour and stir, then add 1/4 cup milk and stir. Continue alternating adding flour and milk until you get down to the last 1/2 cup flour.
(5) Before adding the last 1/2 cup flour, stir the vanilla and lemon juice into the cake batter. Then combine the baking powder with the last 1/2 cup flour and add to batter.
(6) Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake for approximately 25 minutes. Ms. Lewis writes "Test to see if done by noticing if the cake has shrunk from the sides of the pan. Also listen for any quiet noises from the cake. If there are none, that's a sign it is done." (The Taste of Country Cooking, pg 129)
(7) When the cake is done, quickly remove the layers from their pans and put on a wire rack to cook. Ms. Lewis advises letting the cakes cool for about 5 minutes, then covering with a clean dish cloth until ready to ice.
For the Icing:
1 cup heavy cream
2 1/4 cups light brown sugar, packed
2 T butter
2 t pure vanilla extract
(1) Place the cream in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Do not allow it to come to a boil.
(2) When the cream is hot, but not boiling, stir in the brown sugar and mix well. Continue heating and stirring frequently until the mixture starts to thicken. This may take some time, but be patient. You want the mix to get to what Ms. Lewis calls the "soft stage." You will know it is ready when a drop of the mix will solidify when dropped into a cup of cold water.
(3) Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla.
(4) Ice the cake right away. If you notice the icing starts to harden, stir a few drops of cream in it until is softens. Ms. Lewis advises against refrigerating this cake.