The Thanksgiving Cake by Sharon Johnson O’Donnell


There are other signs of getting older that don’t have to do with wrinkles, weight, or age spots. As a woman ages, her priorities somehow change, too. With mothers, this usually means something involving her kids. This first became obvious to me on Thanksgiving about eight years ago. My father’s side of the family always meets in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a city about an hour away from my home, on Thanksgiving for a family get-together. He comes from a family of 12 children so you can imagine how many people are there.
This is the one time a year that I see all these relatives, so I’ve always tried to make a good impression. I usually wear a new sweater and I even attempt to style my hair so it won’t frizz so much. I noticed the relatives of my generation made this same effort to look their best for this annual ‘scrutiny of the relatives’. Except for an easy casserole, my cousins and I left the cooking to the older generation – our moms. They are the ones who baked the homemade from-scratch cakes and added secret ingredients to the delicious potato salad.
But that year, I decided to make a homemade carrot cake with cream cheese frosting just like my mother made a few times before. But she hadn’t made it in years, and I missed it. So the night before Thanksgiving, I grated carrot after carrot, realizing I never thanked Mama nearly enough for all the stuff she’d cooked over the years. I eventually got all three layers out of the cake pans with only one of them sticking, ripping out a chunk of cake. I pieced it back together like a jigsaw puzzle and discovered if I positioned the cake just right, nobody could tell.
By the time I was ready to make the frosting, it was past eleven. I plodded on, determined. The frosting, however, did not cooperate, looking too thin and runny. The cake looked nowhere near like Mama’s. Or for that matter like any other cake I’d ever seen. I decided the only thing to do was to get up the next morning and make a second recipe of frosting.
The next day, I began my baking in earnest once more. The second recipe did the trick, covering the three layers with thick, swirled frosting. I still had to chop the nuts and put them on the top and sides of the cake. I checked my watch. We were running late. If we were going to get to Fayetteville on time, then I knew I had to make a choice: I could either spend the time getting myself ready or perfecting my cake. And this is where I knew I was getting older – I chose the cake. Instead of putting on a nice outfit and getting jewelry to accessorize – instead of using a curling iron on my hair — I threw on an old pair of jeans and got my cake ready to go. A new generation had arrived. The torch had been passed. I was now one of the women at the Thanksgiving dinner who cared more about how their food was accepted than what anyone thought about the way they looked. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who suggested perhaps this new perspective means we’re now more comfortable with ourselves – more confident in who we are – and that we don’t base our identity so much on how we look. And indeed this might be part of it. But the other part is, of course, as we get older, we see ourselves in different roles.
No, it’s not about who makes the best pies or cakes; it’s about creating heartwarming memories of family gatherings – times to be recalled fondly by our children years from now, so vividly they can remember how the sweet potato pie tasted or the wonderful aroma of turkey filling the house.
The carrot cake was quite a success with only a few crumbs left on the plate. As a cousin complimented me on it and asked for the recipe, I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and lied through my teeth: “Oh, it’s pretty easy to make.” I’ve taken the cake to the get-together every year since then and make it for a few other holidays too. My sons all like it, so I feel that it’s something special I can make that they truly appreciate. I like to make this cake every now and then when my oldest son Billy comes home from college for a weekend bringing a bag of dirty laundry and textbooks with him. It feels good for him to be home. And then I say, “There’s a carrot cake on the counter,” and I hope that shows him how much I love him and that home is even more special to him.
So, as all of you ladies do your baking this Thanksgiving, remember it’s more than about following a recipe but the memories you are making for your kids. Remembering that makes all the measuring, grating, stirring, and chopping worth it.