A Bittersweet Ending; Plus Coca-Cola Cake Recipe

The cake was sweet, but the occasion—a daughter cooking for her failing father—was not

by Jan Barker
coca cola cake recipe image
Coca-Cola Cake: Seriously sweet and easy to make, this dessert is a family legacy that links the generations.
Photograph: Christopher Testani

“What are you doing, Dad?” I ask. My 81-year-old father is pouring water precisely to the line marked 16 ounces on the measuring cup. He has done it four times.

“It says add two quarts of water,” he explains, looking on the back of the pasta box, “and I intend to do just that.” I watch, astonished that anyone would care about such levels of precision. But I say only, “Yum.”

“Smart ass,” he responds, and then proceeds to do the same for the pasta, shaking the measuring cup to make sure the contents have settled. I am responsible for the sauce, a fact that Dad is happy about until he turns to me and asks, “Where’s the recipe?”

“In my head.” Dad shakes his but resists the urge to say anything. We have similar natures: Tell us something isn’t going to work out, and we’ll kill ourselves to prove you wrong. I sauté andouille sausage, shrimp and Vidalia onions until the mixture is golden and fragrant, then finish it with fresh thyme and a little cream. Although Dad declares the result “flipping amazing,” we have different approaches to cooking—and to life, which started with the creative way I mowed the lawn as a child, by cutting my name into the grass or carving out a big cake and then dividing it into slices. Dad preferred the grass be cut in a more orderly manner, or at least so you couldn’t see a giant jan etched into it.

I was always a little more out there than my conservative siblings. It’s not that I’m the black sheep of the family; I’m more like the tie-dye sheep, tree hugging, granola crunching, peace loving. I’m concerned about the environment, Dad’s concerned about big oil; I think war is madness, Dad thinks it’s a great idea; I think everyone should have health insurance, Dad thinks the deadbeats should fend for themselves. The last political conversation we had was when I was in college and I decided to discuss my stance on nuclear energy. He considered it clean, I considered it dangerous. The argument became so heated that we risked a nuclear meltdown of our own, so I dropped the subject and never brought it up again.

But the one place we always got along was the kitchen, which is where we find ourselves on this particular night, cooking dinner in our own distinct ways. I’m in my fifties and divorced, Dad is now a widower, and I am visiting for the week. My daughters, his garden and his Jack Russell terrier, Bonnie, all make their way into our dinner conversation, the last quite literally as she leaps onto our laps—first his, then mine, then back to his again. Politics stays off the table. Cake recipes work their way on.

I’ve made a blueberry-peach crumble for dessert. Cinnamon, sugar and summer-ripe fruit bubble away in the oven, the fragrance heady. Dad is regaling me with my grandmother’s orange pound cake recipe, which I am fascinated to hear derives its name from the ingredients: a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound, as Dad tells it anyway, of eggs. I get up to check on our dessert; its color reminds me of the setting Wyoming sun outside the kitchen window.

We both learned to cook from Dad’s mother. Most of our family vacations were spent visiting her and my grandfather in Alabama. After driving all day from Texas, we’d pull into the tree-lined drive to see Grandma standing on the back porch with her apron on, having spent the entire afternoon cooking. Out we’d tumble from our wood-paneled station wagon right into Grandma’s arms, and then straight from there to her kitchen. A typical dinner was fried okra, salmon croquettes, coleslaw and buttermilk corn bread. And then there was dessert: some variety of chocolate cake, peanut butter cookies and sweet, sweet Southern peaches.

My mother, on the other hand, couldn’t make toast. Really. She burned it every morning, then scraped off the blackened part and buttered it anyway, with margarine instead of the real thing. Dinner, too, was something we dreaded. About once a week, the oven erupted in flames from the grease that had dripped onto the heating element. Mom would snatch out the offending pan, douse the fire with salt and return the food to the oven. Dinner was served.

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