Ca. 1959: Grandma with my brother Tom (left) and sister Tina.

Many of my earliest memories from childhood, before we moved from the South Texas tropics to the high desert of New Mexico, are images of my maternal Grandma Wade’s farm. It was a sprawling 2,000-acre expanse of cotton fields that surrounded her house, several barns holding farm equipment, a machine shop, and multiple garages. A paved semi-circular driveway went around the house, linking to Farm Road 1, which led to the nearby village of La Villa (population 500). Towering ebony trees, filled with nesting birds during the spring, lined the drive. Just across the drive from the front porch was Grandma’s flower garden, a screen-enclosed sanctuary to hundreds of exotic plants she had collected on her travels. Rumor had it that she had even been to Cuba at some point in the early 1950s before the advent of the Castro era.

Just a stone’s throw away from the house were several sizeable corrals that once held cattle. By the time I was old enough to clamber over the fences, the corrals were covered in burlap and filled with acres of aloe vera plants that Grandma sold to a company that processed them for medicinal purposes. No surprise that she was a staunch believer in the healing properties of aloe vera. Every day she slathered her skin in clear aloe gel until shiny, and then applied a generous powdering of Jungle Gardenia, which always screamed floral in her wake. Grandma even drank watered down aloe gel for her digestive tract. She kept it in quart Mason jars in the fridge. Only problem was that she also kept drinking water in the same kind of jars. Many times I reached into the fridge for a jar of water only to pour a tall glass, tale a huge gulp, and realize that is was aloe. Gack!

Inside the house several refrigerated air units that were mounted in the windows continually hummed. Originally Grandpa had central AC installed when the house was built in 1950, which was revolutionary for the time. However, after he passed several years later, Grandma had the window units installed because she didn’t trust central air conditioning. With refrigerated air being constantly on, a musty smell pervaded the house. Enter the middle bedroom, which was stacked floor to ceiling with old newspapers and magazines, and the musty smell became a force field. Yes, Grandma was a hoarder, long before it became fashionable TV. As for the musty smell, only many years later was I to learn that it was trichloranisole—or TCA—the same compound that taints wine corks. And to think that I was inundated with it at times as a child.

At some point Grandma started to use a single crutch to get around. That crutch served as an instrument of discipline, often used to keep the mangy lot of us kids in line. Many times a sudden whack across the butt would put an end to the tomfoolery of the moment. Then there was the time when Grandma caught my sister Tina and me trying on her wigs in the bathroom. Many whacks were instantly issued.

When Grandma wasn’t whacking us with her crutch, she was in the kitchen at the stove or at the counter prepping something for the stove. My memories of Grandma’s cooking involve a lot of breaded protein deep-fried in butter or lard. Vegetables from the multi-acre garden just beyond the aloe corrals were summarily shot on sight and cooked until rendered inorganic. Anything in the green vegetable universe was khaki by the time it was served. Boiled okra, one of Granny’s favorites, had the texture (and color) of snot. When the okra was breaded with cornmeal and fried, it had a crunchy outer crust but still the same mucous inner layer.

Aside from deep fried beast and khaki veggies, the true staple of Grandma’s cooking was her applesauce cake. It was—and still is—the stuff of family culinary legend. I remember watching her standing at the counter, crutch at the ready, mixing the cake directly into an enormous rectangular baking pan. It goes without saying that Grandma didn’t need a recipe, having previously made the cake from scratch hundreds of times. As she mixed up the batter, she talked non-stop in her raspy/whiny voice telling me what ingredients were being flung into the pan at the moment.

Truth be told, cake assembly was so fast that it was hard to keep up. But the last step before putting the pan into the oven was the best. Then, to get all the air bubbles out of the batter, Grandma picked up the pan and dropped it back on the counter with a deafening smack. Granny did this repeatedly until she was satisfied that all the hidden bubbles in the batter were gone. To me it was a thrilling moment of full-contact baking.

Some 45 minutes later, the cake was taken out of the oven and left to cool. Finally, after several preemptive cake strikes on our part had been warded off by the evil crutch, slices of warm, almost gooey cake were cut and served with ice cream. The first bite was beyond delicious.

In the first few years after we moved to New Mexico Grandma would visit always bringing a sizable portion of a cake in her luggage. It was a treat beyond compare. Grandma also taught Mom how to make her applesauce cake. But try as she might, Mom’s version was never quite as good. I’m sure the high altitude and dry climate of Albuquerque were to blame. However, I also have to think that it was a matter of Grandma being the source, urtext, and author of great applesauce cakes.  

In the many years since, I’ve never tasted another applesauce cake remotely as good as Grandma’s. Her glorious applesauce cakes will live forever in my memory, along with cotton fields, ebony trees, and acres of aloe vera plants. And that’s how it should be.