Saturday, 18 February 2012

Kentucky Jam Cake in Yokohama

"I have something good waiting for me at home!" the blonde girl squeals to her friends. "Something very delicious. And I will share it!"

They are walking together, four abreast, hogging the sidewalk and for the past minute I've been waiting for the chance to push past them. But I've missed lunch, and I want to hear what that something good is, so as I finally manage to get by, I do everything but swivel around, one hand cupped behind an ear.

"What is it?" one of the girls' friends asks, bless her.

"Finnish rye bread! My mother baked it because I have been longing for it!"

The others make appreciative noises as the girl tells them about this bread, fresh out of the oven, and  how wonderful it is spread with butter, served with soup and cold fish.

Suddenly I am ravenously hungry. And I think about my own daughter at university, far away from us, getting by on her own cooking: pot noodles, pasta, discount sandwiches. I don't have the time to send her platters of sushi or her favorite tofu dish, mabo dofu, but surely I could bake her chocolate chip cookies? If I did, I'll bet she'd tell her friends -- possibly even share.

And I remember my mother's Kentucky jam cake, and the one occasion she managed to send it to me my first year in Japan -- and how I almost didn't get it.

My  mother hated cooking and baking. For her, fussing over food was a ridiculous waste of time -- time that could be better spent reading, talking, gardening, or supporting charities. I grew up yearning for all the things my mother didn't cook, nagging her to try out the recipes she perversely loved collecting but not actually testing. But there was one thing she made better than anyone else: fruit cake. My mother's fruit cakes were always moist, the raisins in them didn't rise to the top and get hard and dried out, and they were a lovely pastel lavender because she made them with buttermilk and blackberry jam. The crumb was tender and fragrant with spices, and she frosted her cakes with a carmelized brown sugar frosting that I actually dreamed about.  

The year I moved to Japan, my mother sent me a Kentucky jam cake for Christmas. For weeks, I looked forward to it, eagerly checking my mailbox every day when I got back from work. I could almost taste the spices -- cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon -- and taste the plumpness of the raisins, the delicate crumb of the cake, the buttery richness of the caramel frosting.  But Christmas came and went and I waited in vain. Then in February, long after I'd given up hope, one of my co-workers told me a student of his had seen my name in the unclaimed mail section of the Japan Times. After work, I made my way to the Yokohama Main Post Office, wondering whether the thing I'd received was just a misaddressed postcard (this had happened before, a cruel disappointment), or my mother's Kentucky jam cake. I stood at the counter, waiting for the clerk to bring me my unclaimed mail. Ten minutes later, the man emerged, holding a package. My heart leapt as I saw my mother's careful writing. She'd forgotten to write the ward I lived in.

All the way back to my apartment I stood on the train, crushed on all sides by students and salarymen, clutching my mother's package, filled with anticipation. Would the cake still be edible, or moldy and stale? As soon as I got home, I unwrapped it and cut myself a slice. They say that food is always better shared, but I have to tell you that they lie. The two-month ship journey from California to Japan followed by six weeks in the Yokohama Main Post Office had done nothing but improve the flavor. I ate almost all of that cake in one go -- saving only a few slices for later -- and I can't remember enjoying anything so much. I don't regret my selfishness either: I wasn't to know it then, but that was the last cake I would ever get from my mother.

Tonight, I'm going to bake my daughter some chocolate chip cookies, and I will put pecans in them. I will double-check that I've got her address right.


Kit said...

So glad you got it in the end... you're making me long for the recipe - do you have it?

Charles Gramlich said...

A wonderful scene of family and the ties that bind. :)

Vijaya said...

Oh, Mary, the fact that it was the last cake that your mother ever sent made me sad ... did she happen to teach you how to make it? I would've eaten the whole thing myself too. I hope your daughter is enjoying the cookies, and if she eats them all by herself, I would understand completely. Shall I send you my address too?

Ruth Kelly said...

To keep the lovely jam cake alive, did you learn to make it?

Mary Witzl said...

Kit -- I still have the original recipe, tucked into a cookbook somewhere, but I found this on the internet and it's virtually identical:

It really is good!

Charles -- Thank you. Food has a lot to do with family binding, doesn't it?

Vijaya -- Yes, I made it with her a few times and I am in possession of the recipe. :o) My husband and kids aren't as crazy about it as I am, and only my youngest daughter likes banana pudding, which was a big treat for us too, but could never be sent by post. Unlike chocolate chip cookies -- but you'll have to come to Scotland for them!

Ruth -- Yes. Here is an almost identical version of the recipe: I've seen other recipes for it that included pineapple, but my mother never put that in it. Give it a try -- I guarantee it's good!

angryparsnip said...

What a wonderful story about the cake.
Thank goodness you have the recipe.

For me it was my Mothers Date Cookies. Paper thin slices of a refrigerated dough that when baked the edges were crispy but the center was chewy. I had the recipe but it burned in the wild fire that destroyed my home and quiet a bit of Laguna Beach that year.

By the way I love Mabo Tofu and use to make it often, so good !

Your daughter will love the cookies !
cheers, parsnip

Pat said...

It sounds soppy but the magic ingredient is love.
I didn't take up serious gardening until my boys left home and I needed to have something to feed and water.

Marcia said...

Mary, this is lovely, and you really made me experience all the food. Would you believe I have bread due out of the bread maker THIS MINUTE, and it's filling the house with a heavenly smell? How special that you got to "horde" that last cake from your mom, and that it finally made its way to you, better than ever.

Kim said...

For me, it was my mom's peanut butter fudge. She had no recipe, everything was done to feel and taste so no matter how hard I've tried over the years, I haven't been able to duplicate her fudge. I've ruined pans, wasted ingredients and thrown away some of my attempts but there's always that hope that maybe, just maybe, the next time I'll get it right.

It's just the fudge, because -- like your mom -- my mom wasn't a fan of the kitchen. She didn't have a sense of smell and tended to get distracted so often burned things. I was an adult before I realized most things didn't have a scorched flavor :)

Thanks for your story and the way it brought up memories of my own. And I'm so glad you received that cake in the end.

Marian Perera said...

That was such a lovely story, and it's true - we only appreciate our mothers' cooking when we no longer have it.

For Christmas a friend of mine gave me drumsticks - the vegetable, not the chicken part - and I tried to prepare a murrunga curry as my mother and grandmother would have done so easily. But it didn't turn out well at all. The past really is a different country, and sometimes you can't get there from here.

Falak said...

That was such a delicious post!

I hope the cookies reach your daughter on time. I'm sure she craves for the food her Mom cooks. All of us kids away from home do :)

Carrie S said...

I'm glad you finally received that cake! My mother never sent me any baked goods (she wasn't much of a baker), but one year she sent Easter baskets full of candy to my roommate and me when we were in college. I've never forgotten happy how that made me. :-)

NyNy said...

Are there pictures of this Kentucky Jam Cake? That sounds really interesting O__O

By the way, I have my own blog which focuses on Asian culture and entertainment such as video games and I wonder if it is possible for you to view it and tell me what you think about my blog: