09 April 2016

Death Cake: Grandmother and a Recipe

Grandmother's living room circa 1955 and circa 2016
"I had a casserole ready for dinner and just decided to go ahead and take it over there. When I got to the house, there were no other cars there so I thought for sure, this time I had beat her to it." said Mrs. Cindy to me one Sunday morning before church started. "And when I walked in the kitchen, there was her Death Cake! Already there! He just died last night!" and she laughed. She wasn't laughing at the family who had just lost a loved one. No, she was laughing at the seeming impossible task of beating her friend, my Grandmother, Ernestine, to a grieving family's home with food.


That's actually what we all had to call her. In her thick Southern US accent she'd say, "I'll not have any of y'all be embarrassed by what you call me. I was SO embarrassed to say 'Big Mama' in front of my friends when I was younger." I never did tell her that my friends actually thought "Grandmother" was a bit odd and so her plan to save me from embarrassment didn't really come off like she had hoped.

2012 Nearly all the Great-Grands. (2 of mine were not yet born)
 But back to the Death Cake.

It's a simple recipe. One Grandmother would mix up in batches, bake and freeze. Then pop one out of the freezer and ice it whenever she needed to take a food item somewhere like a shower, church potluck, or most famously, to the home of a grieving family in our community.

It's how the Death Cake got it's name.

Like lightning that scrumptious yellow cake would show up on your doorstep in her hands. She was so consistent in this that somewhere along the line the cake got a moniker it couldn't shake. She'd make like she wanted us to stop calling it that, but I think she thought it was funny. Her act of being dedicated to those around her. Loving and coming alongside in the saddest of moments. Faithfully.
Family on her 88th Birthday. She died a few days before her 89th.

As I write this I'm confounded and proud all at once. The woman did not shy away from a grief-stricken soul. She wasn't scared. This woman who literally lived in the same small town her entire 89 years because she didn't like to travel ('cept for that one time my Granddaddy talked her into going to Hawaii) didn't blink when it came to deathbeds. And for that I'm amazed and love her all the more.

So when my sister was with her on Grandmother's own deathbed, it didn't surprise me to hear that she was ready to go. Unafraid. After a coughing fit she looked up at my sister and said, "I just wanna fly away!" She was ready to meet her Lord.


Sitting on the edge of her lifetime, looking out in hope, sure that relief was coming.

Granted, yes, she was a frail, elderly woman. But when I think about the condition of her soul, it had only grown stronger through her almost 9 decades. So many many days she put her feet in front of the other and walked through joy, and laughter and pain and loss while constantly turning to her Bible to hear from her Friend and King. So much life lived. So much proof to my watching eyes that the grandest of lives are the ones lived with hope that does not fade. Hope makes a difference and she was thankful for it.

February 2016
And I am so thankful for her. For raising my dad to be the incredible man he is. For having the kind of home that was appealing to my teenaged mom when she went for dinner while my parents were dating. My mom has told me at one point she had to ask herself if she was attracted to my dad for him or for his family. I want my family to have a dinner table like that. I want to live so faithfully that people do not hesitate to associate me with the God I claim to love. His presence evident in my life. I could go on and on (my oldest son Isaac just came in and found me crying. After I explained and told him about how Grandmother's funeral was so full that not everyone could fit inside the church and how I wanted to be like her in how much she loved people and loved Jesus...he told me his own story about a Lego invention he had built and took out to show her last year when we were in Florida and how she loved it...and now I'm REALLY crying...)

With Isaac, 2012
Instead, I'll share with you her Death Cake recipe. It's not a family secret, but it is a family treasure, and it's the kind that's best when shared.  (Sorry, international-developing-country-dwelling friends... it calls for Cool Whip, plus other canned items. I have plans to take a cooler with me on my next trip to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and get a couple containers. I'll share some Death Cake if you come stay with me!)

Recipe in Grandmother's hand. Not super neat but so familiar all the same. One Christmas I, Sharon, got a lazer tag game and my cousin Shawn got some Care Bear Roller skates. She started adding our middle names to her Christmas presents after that.
My sister and cousins nearly done frosting a (doubled) Death Cake shortly after her death last month

Pineapple Cake, Affectionately known As Death Cake

4 Eggs
1/2 Cup Crisco Oil (Vegetable Oil)
1 can mandarin oranges
1 box of Duncan Hines yellow butter cake mix (probably any yellow cake mix would work)

Mix together, pour into 2 greased cake pans, bake @ 350F/180C for 25 minutes (3 cake pans if you double the recipe)

1 Can crushed pineapples
Mix in 2 packs of vanilla instant pudding.
Mix in 1, 8oz tub of Cool Whip


  1. Love this story of your grandmother and her cake. Also, that you called her Grandmother. My grandma had us call her Gumpy (?!) cause she was too young to be a grandmother at 40 (double ?!). Also try DreamWhip as an alternative for cool whip. It comes in dry packages that can be mailed and tastes good enough!

    1. I DO know about DreamWhip but from my use of it, I don't think it would hold up in the frosting for this. I have to get most of the other ingredients from import store anyway, so might as well bring a cooler and get the cool whip too. Once Cold Storage in our city had like 6 boxes of dreamwhip in their discount bin. I bought them all!

  2. Sharon, I love hearing about your Grandmother. I have a Grandmother too (although she isn't as cool as yours was :)) and I had a Granny (who I found out in my late 20's that she hated being called that). Ms. Ernestine was a wonderful, kind woman. I only remember interacting with her a few times, but she and my dad were good buddies :) (remember the "drug" deals they did?) (not really folks, it was all to do with fertilizer). I'm going to have to try this Death Cake and see if we can keep the tradition going in Hardee County!