Mammaw’s Marshmallow Cake
I won’t claim that I never ate a single meal in Mammaw’s immaculate dining room, but I bet the number of times over 20 years of visits that the family sat around her polished oak formal table could be counted on one hand. No, when we stayed with Mammaw, if the temperature was higher than 40 degrees, at first light we piled out of the house and into the yard.
Laggard peepers created us, and coos of mourning doves. Grass wet with dew marked our path to the picnic table. There we sat, desultory with sleep-caked eyes, contemplating the Kentucky mountain sunrise with grumbling stomachs. Finally, Mammaw would emerge from the house, where she had been working since 4 a.m., mopping the already spotless floors, humming along with gospel songs. She’d bring us boxes of cold cereal and a jug of milk, and after we ate, she’d shoo us out onto the 18 wild acres, to gather eggs or wade in the creek or roam briar-choked hillsides until the noon hour, when it was time to once again gather at the table for a nuncheon.
To say Mammaw was a bit touched in the head might be an understatement. A hard girlhood, four children, and old-time religion had culminated in obsessions with cleanliness and order that seemed like cold lovelessness to us grandchildren. But one thing Mammaw could do, she could bake – and her piece de resistance was her chocolate marshmallow cake. Never again have I tasted such bliss as the gooey, endless layers of moist chocolate sandwiched between layers of melted marshmallows, topped with creamy chocolate icing.
To come back from a mountain ramble to that cake – which made its appearance unannounced on the picnic table at erratic intervals, too unscheduled to provoke rational anticipation – now that was heaven. The cake was hard to cut, messy to eat, and pure joy to any child under 12 (after 12, one had to appear cool and unfazed by such a prize). I lived for that cake. Every visit, I knew, sooner or later, the cake would magically appear, for no child – really no grownup, either – ever participated in the creation of the cake. Mammaw was the sorceress, the high priestess of delight, who brought forth her creation from the fairy realms, the secret lair, of her kitchen.
When at its most perfect, the cake was made from scratch – at least, that’s the legend – I can’t testify to this under oath, as I never saw it made. To make a scratch chocolate cake involved melting squares of Hersey’s baking chocolate – there is no other kind – in a sauce pan, then combining quantities of white (unbleached) flour with sugar, baking soda and butter – or maybe Crisco – to produce the cake batter. Then the cake batter is layered with the marshmallows to form strata of goodness that are first baked, then iced.
The cake melted in our mouths, like county fair cotton candy. Mammaw’s hours of work were savored, devoured, by grandchildren grimy from their morning’s adventures (for the cake always appeared at noon, to be eaten while still slightly warm with over heat and unspoken love). No cake was ever left behind by the six of us, for it appeared only when we were all present, three girls, three boys. Now that I am full-grown, I realize that Mammaw’s marshmallow cake reified her love for her family. The cake spoke words she could not. The cake was her love letter to us all, remembered long after the cake was gone.