Debbie Hewson

“Wow, that’s good cake.”  He savoured the taste, the light texture, the balance between the fruit and the fluffy sponge.  It was a wonderful sensation, buttery, and delicious.  “Your cakes are always good, but this is a step beyond.”  Josh sat back from his empty plate, the table heaved with the remainders of the barbeque, wine glasses half way to empty and plates piled up.  There had been ten of them for dinner, and the evening had been fun, everyone was smiling, as much from the company as from the wine, and the food.  They knew each other well, and had for years.  There had been meals just like this one in each one of their homes, but all of them agreed that the pudding was the best when Carrie was cooking.  “What makes this cake so much better than anything else I’ve eaten?”

Carrie took a deep breath.  “It’s a very special cake.  A very important cake Josh.”  The quiet conversations around the table stopped.  Nine pairs of eyes turned towards her, something in the tone of her voice intrigued them.  “OK I will tell you.”  She smiled at them, and sipped her wine.

“When I was young, my Mum, who was a wonderful woman in very many ways, but was completely rubbish at cooking, taught me a great many things, but I knew I would have to look elsewhere if I wanted to know about food.  We lived in an area that was carved into fairly distinct communities, Irish on one side of us, and Jewish on the other.  Being a skinny, annoying protestant English child gave me a foot in neither camp, but friends in both.”  She stood up to circle the table topping up glasses.  

“My friend, Ellie, grew up in a loud, happy Jewish family, but, perhaps because the food they ate was always wonderful and flavourful she was completely uninterested in it.  Her Mother and Grandmother cooked every day, and the smells and taste were beyond my comprehension and experience.  Ellie’s Grandma Reenie, was desperate to pass on a lifetime of cooking experience, but my friend’s lack of interest was clear.  One day when, once again Ellie had refused.  I found the courage to meet the old lady’s eyes, and ask if she would teach me.  I think she was surprised, but she agreed, perhaps hoping it might spark some interest in Ellie.  So, a week later I found my way to her house, and in the tiny kitchen I spent a very happy Sunday afternoon, learning how to make chicken soup, coming each week and making potato latkes and salt beef, baking challah, and flaky borekas.  It was a joy, and while we cooked, we talked.  She became my friend, and I think I became hers too.”  There was a wistful tone to her voice, and she paused to sip her wine and collect her thoughts.  Around the table, her friends shifted in their seats, settling in to hear the rest of the story.

“After a while, I was getting better at the cooking, and learning the skills I had wanted so very badly.  I arrived for my usual Sunday afternoon lesson, to find Reenie sitting at the table with a piece of paper in front of her.  She pointed to the chair opposite her, and she smiled at me.  She said that she was surprised that I had kept on coming for lessons, but the time had come to teach me the most important thing about cooking, and food and life.”  Carrie raised her eyebrows.  “I waited for her to start, and was amazed to see her eyes were a little wet, as though she might be upset.  I had never seen a grown-up cry, and I worried she was ill or something.  I made her a cup of tea and put it in front of her, and she began. ‘Today, we are going to cook apple cake.  It’s a very old recipe which was passed down through my family, Mother to Daughter, for as long as anyone has eaten cake.  Today, I will pass the skills to you.  Look after them, and one day, pass them to your children.’ Her face was so serious, I was a little scared, but I nodded.  ‘This is my Mother’s handwriting.’  She turned the paper to me, and it was faded, and not in English, there were hard lines through the paper and the writing where it had been folded.  ‘Long ago, when I was younger than you, my Mother took me and my Brother and Sister to the train station, where a lady was waiting to take us to England.  She hugged us, really hard, and told us to look after each other, that she would see us soon, and we would all be together.  She had told us where she had sewn jewellery and precious things into our clothes, and reminded us to keep it all safe.  Then she reminded me that the recipe for apple cake was sewn into the hem of my blouse.  We were frightened and very young, but we climbed onto the train waving to her, and we came to England, with lots of other children.  It was the last time I ever saw her.’  Reenie’s tears had fell then, and I tried my best to comfort her.  Eventually she sniffed and wiped her eyes, and carried on.  ‘This piece of paper is a symbol of hope and trust, she told me. My Mother knew that they had little chance to get out, they had paid a fortune to the government to buy our freedom, in the hope that we would be safe, and trusting that my Aunt Marion in England would care for us.  At the bottom of the page, she wrote:  There is no reason to share this wonderful cake with people who are unkind or intolerant or who bully or attack people for the sin of being born into a different religion or skin colour.  Share this cake with people you love, bake in the love, it’s stronger than hate.  Taking this with you, darling Irena will make sure that Mr Hitler and his friends never taste the most wonderful cake in the world, which is revenge enough.’”  Carrie watched their eyes around the table, and waited for what she had said to sink in.

“Food is about more than stopping people being hungry, you can do that with a sandwich.  It’s about a night like tonight, when friends get together to share food, to laugh, to enjoy each other’s company.  That was what I learned from Reenie, that was the real lesson, and that every single time she made apple cake, it was her own personal victory over the forces of darkness and destruction, that took her parents from her.”  Carrie sat back and sipped her wine.

“That’s a hell of cake.”  Josh smiled.  “So how did you learn how to make Italian food?”  Carrie laughed out loud.

“Ah, there was an Italian family in our street, between the two communities, and the grandmother was wonderful.”  She twinkled back at him and topped up the glasses again.  Somewhere out there, in the sparkling lights of the city, she thought she could hear Reenie’s laughter and could feel her love.  The fierce love that was the strongest of all weapons.

Debbie Hewson lives near the cost in Dorset, and loves to write, walk on the beach, and sometimes, to dance very badly.

Flights. Issue Two, September 2021