A few weeks ago I made a cake. It’s my grandmother’s recipe. For as long as I could remember, my grandmother made this cake for us. To her it came as easy as making rice. One afternoon many years ago, I set out to write down her recipe (where she got it from, I’ll never know). I watched her and I wrote down her instructions in English as she dictated each step to me in her dialect.
I’ve made this cake a few times before with mixed results. I guess that out of the five times I’ve made it, one was almost “perfect.” That is, as good as my grandmother’s cake was: Light, fluffy, sweet enough to stand on its own, and with a golden-brown, soft, crusted top. Other members of my family have tried to make the cake, but they have failed as well. If the eggs aren’t properly separated, or if there is water in the bowl, or the mixing was too vigorous… then the cake will inevitable fall. Usually practice makes perfect, but the recipe uses NINE eggs. Hard to justify when success is so rare.
I should add that my grandmother passed away a few years ago, not long before I decided to take up Christian studies. Every time I (attempt) to make the cake, I think of her. I think of her curly grey hair, her deep facial wrinkles and stern eyes. I think of her mannerisms and selective hearing. But I think most about her hands. Her hands that would deftly crack those eggs and separate them. Her hands that would pick wolfberries for hours or sew her own clothes. Her hand that would envelope mine in a firm grip while we walked together. Though the skin was loose and waxy, her hands were always warm….their bones strong. She was a petite yet formidable woman. No one crosses Grandmother (well, perhaps except my mother). Grandmother was always right.
So I made this cake because I wanted to connect with Ngeen Ngeen. I wanted her with me momentarily in this kitchen, even though time and death has separated us. I wanted to remember her strength, her stubbornness, and her care. I wish that my Toisan had been good enough for me to ask her about her childhood in China, how she met my grandfather, and those early years in Canada when she first arrived. But I believe we bonded in different ways even though I knew so little about her.
The cake turned out pretty good. And the one after that was near perfection. But they will never be perfect, simply because they won’t ever be made by her, by her hands.
But it’ll be pretty darn close.