Red Velvet Cake
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons red food coloring
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon white cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4-5 cups confectioner’s sugar
12 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Double if company’s coming!
Grease two 9-inch round cake pans. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a glass measuring cup, combine buttermilk, color, salt, and vinegar. Set soda aside. In a large bowl, mix cocoa and sugar. Add oil, and beat in eggs one at a time. Mix soda into buttermilk. Alternately add buttermilk mixture and flour to the batter, mixing very little.
Pour into prepared pans. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool layers completely on racks before frosting.
To make the frosting, cook milk and flour over medium heat until mixture leaves the sides of the pan in a ball. Combine with sugar and vanilla. Add the butter in small pieces. Whip until it reaches spreading consistency, adding milk or sugar as needed. Don’t worry about lumps!
Split cakes to yield four thin layers. Smooth frosting between layers to seal, coating the outside for best effect. Refrigerate until served.
* * *
In the family recipe scratched on notebook paper that Catherine fingered, the first two lines spelled trouble. Cocoa, specifically, and red food coloring, the absolute basics in the traditional Southern dessert. Born a baker, to a line of women who had made the cake for many a christening and anniversary, Catherine worried that freckles of her ancestors’ batter, dried over the script on the page, hid something crucial.
Anything not within plain sight atop her pocked kitchen table vexed, disappointed, or just wore her out. At 70 years old, she had outlived a husband and son, three fancy cake plates her in-laws had stacked and tied with a silver bow hiding crocheted baby booties, and the Currier and Ives pastry server her own daddy had stolen, and was stolen back off the gift table at Herbie and Catherine’s wedding reception fifty five years before. Who would have thought, a little after Easter dawned on the Lord’s 2009, that the widow Gower had outlived cocoa and color?
Her hands printed sweat on the oak table at the paper’s dog-ears, so she caressed the sugar and flour canisters set out with the fixings. She wiped the middle front of the housedress she wore minus undergarments, wetting the plaid like she’d had an accident. She wound stray curls of pewter hair back from the pulse beating at each temple; her plain wedding band scratched an ear, shrunken to a sulfured apple slice. She spread her fuzzy slippers as far apart on the plank floor as her shoulder knobs would allow, ignored the black coffee she had percolated until it got cold in “The World’s Best Gram!” mug, and faced the unpleasantness.
Corey and Collin, her twin great-grandsons, had turned up their noses at the hot drink she had made from scratch the last time her granddaughter dragged them by. What she had poured down the sink left one shooter marble of cocoa, grayed not so edibly, in the box that Catherine rattled. Good enough, meaning not just the chocolate. The kids’ C-named dad went to jail for cooking, how was that?, and the granddaughter had moved in with a Dave, leaving Catherine shed of the whole lot. She ground the bittersweet taw into sugar.
Dye was the second lack, drunk up for the most part in home-boiled hummingbird nectar summers past. She shook the little glass bottle, holding it upside down with the cap on. By crook pink traces inside ran together. She smacked the plastic garnet top once on the table, but settled on smooth arcs, tamping the mercury inside a pretend glass thermometer.
“Mus,” she said, “we’re riding the hind leg of bad luck.” She aimed her voice to the swag near the radiator where her little rat terrier had slept, cached bones, and ultimately died. Mustard was his Christian name, his fur the yellow-brown color of bottle-fed calf scours. Mus spoiled rotten in her flour-puffed cotton lap, the two keeping cozy in the kitchen.
Catherine, muzzy, felt her mind wander. The dog’s rough coat she missed picking for burrs, the arthritis fully awake in a thumb, a blister of dye she’d splatted by the hardest into the buttermilk. She knuckle-walked her writing hand along the window ledge, feeling for the sewing needle she used for mending when the light shafted in. Picking it up by dry-rotted thread through the eye, she swung the miniature witching stick. When it braked of inertia, shine twinkled on the pad of her left ring finger.
God, she was of a sudden freezing, but she whorled that hand. She squeezed a fist, slapped the veins over top where the bones spoked finest, milked the finger underneath the gold band. Many strokes later, the member resurrected, tinting in turn from butter bean to eggplant to overripe bell pepper. Holding juice in the tip with the other fingers, Catherine stuck. The needle stood up on its own. Nothing much came, the flesh too mummified. She stretched coffee-stained lips over front teeth that were still her own, and blew a stagnant breath. She bit out the lancet. Blood began to well, first in a tense bead, then a rivulet. Crimson ferned the white-spotted nail.
In the end, there was a God’s plenty. She preheated, mixed the recipe’s paste before it clotted, stirred and spooned without falter. Bent on what she had to do, the written directions were useless, teats on a boar hog. Bitty meat turnovers Mus craved had been a job, all that rolling. But two simple layers, a breeze.
“I still got it,” she bragged, her wooden spoon pulling a dollop of the slime from the middle of each cake pan. They would rise level. If not, champs like herself knew, bottoms up. She spaced the pans on the corroded rack in the middle of the oven, and kicked the door shut with a foot.
* * *
Red velvet cakes Catherine had made were a glory. Steady nerve had seen her beyond scorched rims, cracks where a cream cheese fluff, if she was feeling rich, should have peaked, and near-substitutions of salt for sugar. Her mommy had taught her the receipt, what the important parts meant. For example, alternating flour and buttermilk tells you it’s flour first and last, see, f for flour, you can’t forget. And from Mama Gower, though it made her nervous to be in that woman’s kitchen: double if company’s coming.
Yes, Velvet, as precious as Shirley Temple in that movie. It was her favorite sweet, the assembled confection multiplying what bready crumbs and pinkie-finger licks of frosting portended. That much she had sampled. Architects of good food in southwest Virginia ate last. Starched elders forever held out china in palsied hands at a couple’s 50th anniversary party, or teenagers at a retirement picnic for someone’s gramps flapped paper towels across strong fingers stained with barbecue sauce. This cake had been her legacy, her own, the only after-dinner treat worth a snort.
Catherine tallied every slab that went out to a supplicant. She had blushed at the compliments when it had been second nature to sculpt one of the heavy beauties. “Whip, flip, and wash,” Mommy had said, and the last as fundamental as the sugar and vanilla, because everything was scarce as the crank-handle sifter and cut-glass pedestal. As late as Christmas season, Catherine promised to slip the recipe into the next holiday or get-well card she put a stamp on. She didn’t.
* * *
Easter marked months since the old lady had baked, and she was rusty. Measure precisely, stab a spoon and court the range, the chicken scratch on the paper hard to see around cataracts. And she hadn’t slept the night before. Holy Saturday, that explained it, when Jesus lay a corpse. She scooched her chair from the window to alongside her personal kiln, stretched purple ankles toward anywhere three hundred fifty degrees might leak out, and dropped her chin on her sunken chest.
She snored as beasts must, rolled up in their humid dens or caves, but her visions were purely mortal. Dust sifted auburn on her church shoes, when she and Daddy took the tomato. Summer before she married, she the woman of the house, coaxing the family plot all school recess. Daddy had spotted the tomato early, size of a green gooseberry. Stake it, tie the branches with ripped bedclothes, water with pee at daybreak, he taught about the vine. She shaded one special globe from blister as it plumped, cradled it princess-and-the-pea on sawdust as it ripened. Until August, the county fair.
She and Daddy had walked to judging, that slick tomato in the held-together skirt of her babyish print sundress. Church shoes tacked through dirt, chafing her heels and cramping her toes. Catherine had a notion to watch Herbie take a premium with his horses over at the pull, but Daddy wanted her away from the dragging sleds, guarding the tomato. That meant hours suffocating inside the shed on the fairgrounds, smiling at strangers traipsing up to see winning vegetables.
What with the humidity, the blue ribbon curled on itself like a dead blacksnake over a hoe blade. The seeded bulb she’d grown squatted on plywood, oozing pulp out the blossom end. Everybody in Wythe County’d ogled it, less the Stilwells whose truck wouldn’t run, when two white-haired kids Catherine had seen in the lower grades at school came over.
“Give you a penny,” the Stilwell with bad teeth said. He chewed a sore at the corner of his mouth.
“Nope,” Catherine said. Herbie and his daddy would be oiling the leather traces, checking the four metal hames hooking their draft horses to the stone boat. “The ribbon’s mine,” she said. “I won.”
“Ours blighted,” the Stilwell girl with the mashed hand said. She licked her crooked wrist like double-dip for a nickel, strawberry, for sale on the midway.
The boy’s sore cracked, and corroded iron seeped. He pinched into his shirt pocket and showed Catherine the penny. “For the mater,” he said. “Can’t eat first place.”
* * *
Decrepit Catherine, dozing in the kitchen, groaned and twitched. The batter heated, sponged, and bloomed into fine grains. Between the baking magic’s middle chemistry and late physics, she conjured buckets of red. Five. Her little brother’s forehead gash (a cinder she threw wild), him twisting a white rag. Eleve. Mommy rinsing hemorrhage out a white slip, bargaining with the homeplace sink to delay the surgery. Fifteen. Red flannel underwear Catherine had heard wearing to bed was good luck, white bridal nightgown overtop.
In the minute the cake wafted that dry nag, done, and don’t bother plucking a broomstraw to check, Catherine cranked to her feet. She had drifted off with oven mitts on her hands, ready, intending to rotate the layers halfway. Fuschia drabs spotted bowls and spoons all over creation. No Mus for her to hoist, have him lick up the mess. As she skidded hot pans onto the grid she’d set out, she counted. Red velvet cake was two of seven deadly sins.
Her nose had been in the air since tomato time. She had sat on her bed afterward, flattening the ribbon in her Bible, forgetting the food she had left to rot. Vanity equal to that powered these wicked cakes, prizes nobody ate to fend off starving. Number one transgression, no doubt, pride.
Two. Lust. Nothing to do with shriveled girl parts, hairless ear lobes between her leathern thighs. Nor the cleft that Herbie had found their first week laying together, but she couldn’t say where, until it tore when the baby’s shoulders whopper-jawed. No, lust was just her stomach falling away quicker than her head could catch up. Not wanting to look but did. Vermillion, showy, scary, the inside-out of a red velvet when a knife scores the first triangle.
And what she had done, incorporating the beating blood, tied the prideful and the lust until not even the day’s risen Jesus would forgive her. Mutilation stung her mitt-covered hand, and she prayed she hadn’t stained the quilting. She pitched the padded waving hands (Hiya! New outfit?) on the floor at Mus’s dent, and by a miracle beat the icing. She swayed as she hacked two layers into four, going swimmy-headed after she smeared a crumb coat of purest white on each. The effect? Glistening lobes of hog’s liver, bleached gauze staunching what an edge fresh from the whetstone could do. Daddy butchered Thanksgivings.
Muscle straps plaiting her ribs quivered; she gulped air syrupy with bile. Where her belly usually anchored, guts slipped. Lust hit her anew. She lost herself – mind, body, or both – until she had minced outside. By the hardest, she toted a four-layer red velvet cake, brick-red exterior, icing mortar. A chipped plate, everyday supper dish, was the cake foundation. And where the creation was traveling, if Catherine could manage to deliver, was straight to the tangle of forsythia.
Because if Catherine’s soul hung in the balance after a near-century of sinning, the yard was already condemned to Purgatory. Where the time went, how she could have ignored rafts of fallen maple limbs from the previous summer, she couldn’t say. Floppy-headed daffodils had spiked out yellow that frost had bit. Petal tabs she imagined as petticoats were wind-charred, and the narcissus had collapsed. The showiest survivors wouldn’t persist until her yard boy/man, whatever, mowed the tangled grass. Wait, he had quit, left for military school, fought a war whose name she couldn’t recall.
Noon sun overhead prickled her scalp. She poked across the yard. Frosting on the sacrificial cake needn’t melt, not before she lobbed it under the flowering shrub. No pride, no lust complicated her tithe, not a speck, barely a lunch for the finches and leftovers for night critters. The payoff for her handiwork, if she didn’t bust the communion wafer on the cheap paten, was the biggest forgiveness God could grant.
“CATHERINE ALVA. “ A woman spoke, not God the Father, nearly causing Gram Gower to spend a penny down her leg. Answering to the whole name that primary teachers had deviled her with, she wobbled her head to see beyond the saucer-rims of her cataracts and belched, “Who you?”
“You’d know if you wasn’t so fixed on that impressive package. Where you going in your socks?” That the woman didn’t notice the mangy fur was a blessing. Catherine swiveled, fast. Had the outdoor glare backlit her crotch?
“It’s your neighbors Dan and Sadie, plus Dan’s sister’s girls,” the nice voice said. “You children say hey. Mrs. Gower sat in first grade with Grandmommyandthem.”
“Happy Easter,” Catherine said. “Coming from service?” Several girls said hey, and Catherine talked over them. “Catch a spray of flowers so’s we can have dessert.”
Dan, she figured -- horror that a man had to -- cleared the nasty table indoors and washed up. Sadie found a lace swatch in the china cabinet to use for a tablecloth, and the girls trucked plates, napkins, and the bulk hardware of every fork in the house. Catherine, doing less to hostess, put on underpants in the bedroom. She kept a stack in the bureau, sprinkled with cornstarch. She skinned off each embarrassing slipper with its opposite foot, and stepped into church shoes. Hooking a white cardigan over her shoulders, declaring the work dress festive, she caught the end of a rousing Christ the Lord is Risen Today, a-a-ah-lay-loo-lee-yah, belted out by the pastel-frocked nieces.
What a party. Sadie cut huge pieces, scraped up extra icing; Dan worked the soap suds. Everybody took turns parked in the few chairs, balancing plates and cups and utensils on their knees. As sets gummed up, Dan did the dishes, and they had sufficient. Catherine stood and sat in rotation with the others, no dibs on her chair, and wolfed two portions. One little girl, on her third, flopped down where ancient Mus had stalked phantom bunnies between the radiator fins. An older sister held a baby’s curls out of the way, and spoon-fed the delicious last.
“We thought you’d bake,” a shirt-and-tie gentleman said, clapping the screen door. Sam plunked a spray of baby’s breath, whittled from the paltry bush at the front gate, into a spare teapot. “My Easter Bonnets bloomed early, Cat,” he said. “Already finished dead-heading. Unnatural, salmon and pistachio jonquils.” Donnie’s pocketknife blade flashed, cutting red velvet for the whole crew. How the four sooty walls held the crowd, how the plenitude continued, Catherine never gave a thought.
Bill, who had driven Donnie and Sam, shared gossip from the feed and fertilizer store. Many Milsteads, joking with the Mexicans who worked their farms, tramped milking boots everywhere. Newlyweds, switching between Spanish and English, made tea at the stovetop, and combed frosting from the window muntins dividing wavy panes with twenty fingers. A ten-year-old boy named Milagro played harmonica tunes on some toddler’s sippy cup. Young’uns wrestled, pulled each other’s hair with sticky hands, and fell asleep glassy-eyed. Adults drank tea and coffee the livelong afternoon, switching to hot water with lemon slices, and the occasional whole clove, at twilight.
Not so late people who’d postponed chores couldn’t hay the horses and close the hen house, the stragglers wrapped their take-home in plastic wrap. Catherine saw them off, standing on the back stoop, handing a jacket she’d borrowed to its owner at the last minute. When she flipped off the porch light, mindful of wasting electricity, she heard frogs singing in the pond.
She had purely enjoyed the day. Except for the church shoes, which she had hated since she stuffed into her first shiny pair. Her ashy feet burrowed into slippers while she kneaded a cramp in her handshaking palm. She floated to her chair, its cushion creased in new spots, the spindles butting the stove. Before the hump on her back hit the padding, her eyelids slammed.
* * *
“In like a bitch, out like a boink.”
“That’s ugly, coming from a Mennonite,” Miles said. “We surveying somebody’s home.” They unloaded their tripod in Catherine’s front yard.
“March. The month, you idiot. Never heard ‘in like a lion?’ Besides, this ain’t home until they build.”
“You just mad,” Miles said. “You expected to be off, us not have to work Easter Monday. If it wasn’t 2008, and you was still milking Holsteins in Pennsylvania, you’d never have a holiday.”
“Well,” Yoder said.
“I’ll give it to you, though, she was a b-word,” Miles allowed. Going to the driver’s side of the truck, he shut off the ignition, but left the door with the company logo open. Faster to get away.
“Mean the lady called the office?” Yoder wouldn’t hush.
“Nah. She the granddaughter,” Miles said, “selling everything she get her hands on since that boy she married found meth. The real _itch of the clan, so I hear, was Catherine, one lived in the house.”
“What house? Paperwork says, no dwellings.” Yoder flipped typed papers on a clipboard.
“Your people heard of metal detectors and bulldozers? Lissen the story,” Miles said. They unwrapped their fast-food egg biscuits, pried brittle lids off their foam cups, and leaned against the truck’s tail gate near the baby’s breath.
“This Catherine ended up all alone, after the husband passed,” Miles said. “And she had this dog.”
“Love to hear yourself yap, else why talk about a dog?”
“Wait,” Miles said. “She stayed here, and her one mission was to carry these cakes she developed a reputation for -- red velvet, you’ve eat it -- to get-togethers. 2006, she was breaking. General spite gave way to terrible cooking.
“I know, because the last cake she could manage went -- fact from the woman at the fire auxiliary did it -- into the trash. Crazy Catherine’d put soda, maybe washing powder, by mistake in the frosting. Firehouse auction had a winning bid of $15. A bachelor man who wrote the check gouged a thumbful once he set the cake in his lap. Near about puked. Ladies in charge told him, choose double any other food in the raffle for your trouble. Wouldn’t you know, that was the station responded.”
“Yeah, week after,” Miles said. “One the Miller cousins said Catherine called the little dog Mess, dirtied the kitchen unbelievable. Finally went to his reward.”
“Naw, the dog. Christmas Eve, 2006. Which you wouldn’t know, not being from here.”
“Why keep track? Not like Pet Semetery,” Yoder said. “Thassa movie.” He bubbled a cough.
“Lots happened, smart-ass. She wrapped a shroud fashioned out a linen dishtowel. Hauled a shovel, the body, and headed to the orchard over yonder. Tough cookie. Packed a wooden spoon, likely one fabricated them god-awful cakes. Chipped the frozen ground, scooped a shallow hole. Tamped that spoon handle in with a rock, one straight-up bar for a cross.”
“Who sez?” Yoder said. “Family?”
“Everybody. Entire county’s dug up and reburied ole Mess. Granddaughter started the digs, hoping find miser money. Just one sorry canine. Your turn, Yoder, if we brought a mattock. Ashes to ashes.”
“You said a fire, Miles.” He wadded the trash into a ball he chucked in the middle of the plant.
“Coroner told,” Miles said. “the exact words on the report he mailed to Richmond: ascending full-thickness burn. How? Wore out from the graving, maybe chest hurting, she put on shaggy house shoes. Jacked the oven past 450, door wide open. Sprawled in her chair, propped her feet. Sparks turned her a ghost hard to forget.”