The declaration that my grandmother’s coconut cake is “haunted” is the kind of statement that requires immediate expansion before any other words can be got in edgewise. Our corner of Appalachia is rich in superstition, but even among friends it’s not the kind of thing you can just lob into conversation and expect it to be left alone where it lands. Well, it’s the recipe that’s haunted, really, if you want to get specific. No, it’s just the maker of the cake that’s afflicted, not the cake itself, if you want to assuage those glancing nervously at the buffet table. Eat it. It’s fine. I didn’t bleed in it, not literally.
There’s a short version of the story you can tell and have it over with pretty quick, if cornered and compelled, which goes like this: My father’s mother, my Nana, made this cake at Christmas for as long as I can remember and for as long as he can remember before me, this towering confection of coconut and pineapple and fluffy spun meringue, and in the last year of her life she tried to teach the other women in the family how to carry on with it after her time, only none of us could do it, and by “none of us could do it,” I mean “this not-at-all-difficult recipe is absolutely guaranteed to go sideways under anyone else’s control,” sometimes literally sideways, in ways that defy all available skills and science.
This recipe has been haunted since it left her hands. On the afternoon of what would be her last Christmas Eve, Nana half-sat on the couch in my parents’ living room, dispensing explicit instructions to her daughter-in-law through the open kitchen door, and half an hour later one of the layers literally exploded all over the inside of the oven, which shouldn’t have even been chemically possible, but we were all there, we all saw, we all hooted with laughter, only mildly tinged with hysteria, as we scraped the blackened bits into a dustpan.
It was the last time that iteration of my family was all together at the same time. I wasn’t there in February, when Nana died. I had a scholarship to study in Europe that semester, and she wouldn’t be there when I got back, and I knew it and she knew I knew. So a couple weeks after the great Christmas cake explosion, I knelt by her bed and held her knotted hands and kissed her cheeks. When I pulled away, I saw where my own tears had fallen on them. A month after classes started, I got the call.
Our family tree is old but not rich, thick with coal miners and schoolteachers, but Nana gave my father a check for a couple thousand dollars after I boarded my plane and told him to keep me out in the world as long as I could make that money last. When school let out, I did the collegiate thing and bought a rail pass and a light-frame backpack and wrote my first ballet in a window seat on a train speeding through the Black Forest and didn’t come home until after midsummer. When I finally wound my way back to Tennessee, another inheritance was waiting for me: Nana had written the coconut cake recipe for me in her beautiful longhand on a torn-off sheet of spiral notebook paper. I pressed it in a plastic sleeve and put it in my mother’s recipe binder for safekeeping.
It’s not even a difficult recipe is the maddening thing. Any child capable of separating eggs can make a white cake; they’re fiddly but not unreasonable. It’s the frosting that you know going in might be the death of you: The tricky seven-minute method is called for, whipping sugar and corn syrup and egg whites and cream of tartar in a double boiler until it goes fluffy, then glossy, and takes on a consistency of sculptable marshmallow. Any number of things can go wrong here. You can undercook your egg whites and the mixture will collapse and slide off the sides of the cake. You can overbeat the mixture and it will go grainy before it’s even off the stove. You can, and will, lose control of either the hand holding the mixer or the hand holding the pan of boiling water and fling molten sugar at your own face and your mother’s wallpaper. Welder’s gear would not be out of place here.