Lately, I’ve been thinking about wine cake. In the last few years there have been several “lost recipes” cookbooks—one, I believe, from the doubtless clinical and spotless kitchens of Cook’s Illustrated, another by the great Marion Cunningham. Both are good, and both are made up largely of heirloom recipes passed down through the generations.
The way people learn to cook today—or don’t—is a subject worthy of some study, because it’s changing before our eyes. Back in the day, people learned to cook from their mothers, or maybe from a domestic science course. It was a matter of survival, or at least good household management, and was regarded as a necessary part of adult female competence.
There was also the question of continuity: consciously or not, recipes were a living link with the past—not merely of sentimental value, but time-tested before we had four forks to tell us whether to make something.
Now, cooking and eating are no longer synonymous. You can quite easily do one without the other—and vice versa, now that I think about it. You certainly don’t need to know how to cook, and even if you think you can that doesn’t mean you can crank out a creditable white sauce, brown a chop, or broil a piece of fish without a recipe. Cooking’s now about economy, or luxury, but rarely survival. That’s a generalization, of course, but it’s also true to say that the culture of the heirloom recipe isn’t alive and well as it once was.
Take my family. When I think of my culinary education, for good and bad, it’s my mom’s parents. The California grandparents, Yumma and Moe, with whom I spent every August until their deaths a few years ago. Wine cake, especially, brings it to the fore: whenever I pour the cake mix into the bowl, and add the oil and (yes) the instant pudding, the cloying, chemical smell is practically Proustian: at once I’m carried back to my grandparents’ aqua kitchen, and to my first adventures in cooking.
To call my grandmother a bad cook would be an understatement of epic proportions. It would also be misleading, because it would imply that she acted independently, rather than as an arm of my grandfather’s culinary will.
My grandfather was a Faulkneresque madman and rocket scientist from Arkansas who never met a used pressure cooker or a brass animal he didn’t like, bought books by the metric ton, and covered his once valuable Northern California property with sheds, boats, piles of salvaged rubble, and the occasional tractor-trailer.
His scavenging did not stop at the kitchen door. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he added a room to the house to accommodate an immense deep-freezer. Or that, on one notorious occasion, he picked up a half-eaten sourdough bread bowl from the beach and brought it home for his lunch the next day.
Approximately three times a week, he made the rounds for food-shopping: a produce stand that sold him old merchandise; a Navy commissary with a bargain bin; or the discount supermarket that carried only discontinued products and out-of-season Easter candies. Needless to say, my grandfather regarded expiration dates as academic, weevils a valuable source of protein, and mold on cheese something that suckers paid large sums for.
His meals, the menus of which he dictated the night before, were brought to him on a tray. Breakfast was unvarying: shredded wheat with strawberries and half and half; scrambled eggs, hard; bacon, limp; toast with plum jam; and a small orange juice. Lunch was subject to whim. And dinner was his chef d’oeuvre.
He planned the family’s meal with an epicure’s attention and a nutritionist’s care. Every day he would dive into the Deepfreeze and produce a menu. We would have steak, he would declare. Or turkey. Or Lean Cuisine dinners. Often, the menu would center around some gadget: a newly acquired smoker, or the series of defective bread machines.
And my grandmother, the sweetest and mildest of women, would comply. Albeit joylessly, and with a suspicious number of kitchen fires, scorched stews, and botched loaves. Her cooking was a combination of passive aggression, performance art, and rotten ingredients, and it was to be avoided whenever possible.
And yet, it was here that I learned to cook. My grandmother was happy to relinquish the task, my grandfather happy to experiment, and chances are whatever I made wouldn’t be any worse than the alternative. The Deepfreeze was, to me, the source of endless inspiration. The hundreds of assorted and ancient cookbooks were there to be plundered.
I turned out soufflés and Sacher tortes, albeit with chocolate syrup and month-old eggs. A vintage 1970s round-the-world cookbook resulted in some semblance of Chicken Marengo and a highly dubious paella. Naturally, I exhausted the Betty Crocker children’s oeuvre: fudge and gingerbread with something called “firedog topping” issued forth as though a scrub team of hungry 1950s playmates was about to descend.
I became my grandfather’s companion on his shopping trips, throwing dented industrial-size cans of chili and one-dollar jugs of wine into his carts with zeal. When the plums in the yard ripened, I helped him make the sour, shockingly unhygienic batches of jam he pulverized with his unwashed hands and ate on his English muffin every morning. I helped tend the smokers, and I cranked the churn on the gelato maker that was supposed to be automatic but had long since broken. Like everyone in the house, I was periodically violently ill.
My enthusiasm provoked no renewed joy in cooking for my grandmother, but I do have fond memories of working with her in the kitchen: mixing ginger ale and apple juice for a punch she contributed to church functions, making sandwiches for my grandfather’s gin buddies—and, of course, baking wine cake.
The bulk of what we ate at 92 Twin Oaks was inedible, but the one exception was wine cake, which goes to show that it’s foolproof. Wine cake is the traditional birthday cake on that side of the family, a tradition I’ve continued. It’s one of those objectively revolting, 1950s-style recipes that makes no bones about its chemical antecedents and becomes more unfashionable every year. In a bid for respectability, I once worked out an all-natural version, but it just made me miss the original. Wine cake is somehow, alchemically even, greater than the sum of its parts—cake mix, instant pudding, eggs, oil, and a healthy glug of the cheapest available sherry. Friends of mine have brought wine cake to feuding families and CIA picnics and block parties, and it’s always a hit. It was customary, in my grandmother’s day, to decorate the cake with a squat pink candle and a small circlet of flowers from the overgrown, dusty garden. It was, I suppose, her means of imposing a little beauty on the chaos of her existence—at least the edible arm of it. Anyway, cake mix never tasted so sweet.