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Puddin’ Tane and Pumpkin Pie Cake: An ode to my Great Aunt Pud
Baking a birthday cake for this rabble rouser of an ancestor, who 'had enough husbands for pallbearers and lovers for the choir.'
My Aunt Pud would have turned 107 the other day.
I only know this because I’ve started putting my ancestors’ birthdays on my Google calendar, so each year, I get a little reminder of the day of their birth.
Aunt Pud was one of my favorite elders. She was part of the Golden Girls, a cackling cacophony of matriarchs I knew a child when we were all living in Florida. My dad was working for his mom at a craft company outside Orlando, and these then-septuagenarians all lived together in a pink house with a pool in Deltona.
I made some of my first memories with these blue-haired betties, who lived together after their last husbands died, riding motorcycles, playing chess, some of them smoking an endless chain of cigarettes and, yes, watching “The Golden Girls.”
Their punchy personalities became more complicated as I grew older and started to piece together their personal histories. Two of them in particular — my great-grandmother Joyce and my Aunt Pud — seemed to have had particularly difficult lives.
They were both born during the 1910s and then spent the post-Depression and World War II years cavorting around, running bars in Kansas and Galveston and allegedly overseeing a brothel at one point. (Imagine being a child in the 1990s asking, “What’s a brothel?”)
They were heavy drinkers, and I picked up pretty early on that, as they ran toward the bottle, they ran away from their family.
By the time my dad was born in the 1950s, however, they’d both hit rock bottom. Aunt Pud recalled seeing a phantom of a talking rooster who told her to quit or else. She found her way to Alcoholics Anonymous, apparently sitting in the same rooms with Bob and Bill at some point. (Her given name was Lois, the same as Bill’s wife, who founded Al Anon. I sometimes wonder if they knew each other, too.)
My great-grandmother Joyce decided that one way she could redeem herself for those lost years was to take in my dad, offering to raise Danny as her own when his mom had him at age 16, a secret the whole family kept up for 30 years.
Pud, meanwhile, never had children. “But I’ve had enough husbands for pallbearers and enough lovers for the choir,” she recalled more than a few times.
As they got older, they sold the pink house and moved back to Branson, where they’d lived when my dad was a boy. It was closer to where my parents were raising my sister and I, plus they were tired of living near the beach.
Those were the years when I really got to know them. They taught us how to play chess. We watched “Wheel of Fortune” with them when we’d come to visit. I learned about “blinky” ice cream and flat 7UP.
They drank coffee all day long, which I now see as a remnant of Pud’s AA days. I don’t remember Pud continuing to attend AA meetings during that time, but she continued that coffee habit for a very long time.
(Apparently, her kitchen was always open to drunks who wanted to get sober. That’s a memory my dad shared about Pud. And the time she made him smoke an entire pack of cigarettes at once when he got caught smoking in high school.)
As the new millennium approached, Pud’s siblings died, one by one. She started to lose her eyesight, but not her humor.
My last visit with her, I brought my newborn son. He was born in January and she died on my mom’s birthday in April.
She couldn’t see him, but she could feel those tiny hands, the soft dark hair that still covered his head. She could hear in my voice how excited I was to be a mom and how happy I was to see her, even if she couldn’t see us.
I wonder if she went to sleep that night thinking about his smell.
I’m sure we didn’t stay long to visit. She was 92 years old and waning fast. She wasn’t drinking coffee any more. But she was still making jokes.
“Why is your name Pud?” I can remember asking her, even when I knew the answer. “When people would ask, ‘What’s your name?’ I told them, ‘Puddin’ Tane. Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same.”
A schoolyard rhyme that The Alley Cats turned into a song in 1963. But I’m sure Pud picked it up as a child as a way to antagonize boys — and later men, surely — who wanted something from her that she didn’t want to give.
She took that name and made it her own, just like she took a life that was going off the rails and made it into something that could carry her into her elderhood. Where she could have relationships with her great nieces and teach them a thing or two about staying true to yourself.
When it was her birthday the other day, I drank a cup of coffee at my kitchen table and pulled out my family recipe book. What recipe could I make for her that day?
I remembered my mom’s pumpkin pie bars, an old school, casserole-style dessert that you can serve hot or cold, which made it popular at all those Midwestern potlucks. Pud wasn’t the church potluck kind of lady or even a baker, but I decided to make this cake for her anyway.
And in honor of her birthday, I wanted to add something different than usual: a cream cheese swirl underneath that layer of cake.
Just for a little somethin’ unexpected.
Just like Pud.
Pumpkin Pie Bars with a Cream Cheese Swirl (aka Gooey Pumpkin Butter Cake)
This recipe originally calls for a can of evaporated milk, but in case you don’t have one of those hanging around, you can use a cup of regular milk. You can also use 3 teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice in place of the individual spices. Also, don’t rush the cream cheese swirl. Fully mix together the sugar and cream cheese before adding the rest of the ingredients.
— Addie Broyles
For the cake:
4 eggs, beaten
1 (29-ounce) can (or two 15-ounce cans) plain pumpkin purée (not pie filling)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 cup milk
For the cream cheese swirl:
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 box yellow cake mix
1 1/2 cups butter, melted
1 cup chopped pecans (optional)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, pumpkin, spices, sugar and milk. Mix well and pour in an even layer in a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan.
In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to combine the cream cheese and sugar. Add egg and vanilla.
Pour or spoon the cream cheese mixture over the pumpkin filling. Use a chopstick or the handle of a spoon to swirl the pumpkin and cream cheese mixture. Do not overmix, but you won’t be able to see the swirl, so don’t worry too much about how it looks.
Finally, sprinkle the dried cake mix on top of the filling. (Yes, leaving it dry.) Pour the melted butter on top and sprinkle with pecans, if using. DO NOT MIX.
Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or up to an hour. Look for the middle of the cake to have set up a little, with some golden brown on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.
— Addie Broyles, adapted from a recipe by Louise Wagner and Carolyn Cook
I hope this week’s newsletter leaves you craving a piece of Gooey Pumpkin Butter Cake! And perhaps a quiet moment with one of your own beloved ancestors.
As I head out to the polls for my second stint as an Election Day worker — come see me at the Dougherty Arts Center if you’re in town! — I wanted to send a special thank you to all of the Feminist Kitchen subscribers who’ve stuck around for a whole year
Many of you signed up when I first launched in February of last year and SO MANY have stayed. Paid subscribers make this writing project possible, and I’m so grateful. (I see you, Founding Members. I won’t soon forget your investment into my career as an independent writer. Thank you. Seriously.)
I leave you with a little hand-drawn card I made on…checks the date…July 6, 1991 while sitting at the kitchen table with Aunt Pud at their shared house in Branson. She loved drawing little nonsensical pictures on index cards, and I have vivid memories of drawing with her, using pens and highlighters and stickers and whatever else we could find to make these little comics.
Thanks, Aunt Pud, for inspiring this kind of quirky creativity. I still feel your impact on me all these years later. 107 looks great on you. You did good.
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