Eden Royce is a writer from Charleston, SC and the author of middle-grade titles Root Magic (2021) and Conjure Island (2023), as well as the short story collection for adults Who Lost, I Found: Stories (2023). She is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and a Nebula Award Finalist, and has written articles for Writer’s Digest and We Need Diverse Books. Her first adult novella, a Southern Gothic entitled Hollow Tongue, is scheduled for publication in 2024.
My grandmother taught me to cook when I was barely able to see over the counter. You gotta learn to do for yourself, was her reasoning. Growing up in a Gullah Geechee community, that was the mantra most of us lived by.
She got me a stool to stand on while I helped her wash collard greens. I sat at the dining room table with her to snap green beans and shell pecans from our yard. (She’d also made me pick up those pecans, placing them in an empty orange sherbet container that she’d given me.)
When my gran taught me her biscuit recipe, she did so because I told her about a commercial for some pre-measured mix that would make biscuits, pancakes and the like. Her mouth twisted. She asked me what I would do if I ever wanted biscuits and the store stopped selling that mix or ran out of it. I didn’t have an answer. I did get a lesson that day, though. On biscuit-making from scratch, and on being self-sufficient.
My grandmother taught me several lessons via cooking, to include persistence. One recipe that reinforced this more than any other was Seven Minute Frosting.
I became the baker in our family at a young age. I could make a cake from a boxed mix without issue when I was knee-high to a duck. You know, the kind of cakes found cut into squares and smeared in store-bought icing from a plastic tub that could be found at after-church teas and fundraising bake sales. The ones still left after the homemade sour cream pound cakes and hummingbird cakes were gone.
But I wanted to do more than add an egg or a stick of butter to pre-measured ingredients. And my grandmother happened to have a few cookbooks lying around the house. Not that she used them. But I loved reading one specific cookbook that my aunt got as a wedding gift in 1949. She’d left it at my grandmother’s house when she moved away with her husband. When my gran handed it over to me to read, she shadily said that my aunt never really used it anyway.
I loved reading that cookbook, the green hardcover fraying at the edges, the pages gone an orange pekoe tea-stained beige. The antiquated wording, the oddly matte photographs, and the hand-drawn pictures were such a delight to me at that age; it was like physically going back in time. I scoured the strange recipes and odd ingredient lists. My favorite picture showed what a “good muffin” versus a “bad one” should look like.
That was it for me. I wanted to bake more complicated recipes. I found a recipe my grandfather used when he was alive to make an old school pound cake but I wasn’t allowed to make it because, as the name implies, it called for a pound of each of several ingredients, including butter. And we didn’t have the kind of funds for me to test out a recipe like that. What if it went wrong and somehow turned out inedible? The cost of the ingredients would be a significant loss.
Then she glanced at me and said I could make a simpler cake, and after, she would let me try as many times as I needed to make the frosting.
I scoffed. I’d made frosting before, many times. But not like this. This one was an old-school recipe and when my grandmother took two pots out of the cabinet, I knew I was in for it.
We didn’t have a bain-marie—a double boiler—growing up. My gran put a saucepan on the stove with an inch or so of water, then put another larger, thinner-bottomed pot on top of it. Then she left me and the cookbook in the kitchen and went into the next room to watch Matlock.
I’ll admit: nine-year-old me messed it up the first time. Or I thought I did. My arm certainly got tired holding the mixer over that pot on my tiptoes for that long. The frosting wasn’t becoming the thick, glossy-white concoction the recipe said it should.
My mother came to investigate and saw my dismay. She took over the mixing for a while, saying it had been so long since she’d made seven minute frosting. We shared our experience of grandma introducing us both to the recipe, laughing at how we knew we were being supervised even if she wasn’t technically in the room with us.
Eventually Gran reentered the picture and peered over at our efforts. Finally, the frosting was coming together into creamy, shiny meringue-y peaks. And it tasted… well, I wondered where this frosting had been all my life. Certainly worthy of the two cooled layers of butter cake waiting on wire racks on the other side of the kitchen. It spread like glory in the morning, whisking along the cakes without so much as a crumb getting lodged in it.
As we ate that silkily frosted cake, my grandmother, usually reticent to share much about her youth, spoke about what it was like for her making the recipe for the first time. It felt like a rite of passage. That cookbook now sits on my bookshelf and I still glance through it from time to time. What did I learn? Persistence, yes, but also collaboration, the sweetness of shared memories, and how recipes can unite us across generations.
Eden’s Seven Minute Frosting
This is a recipe for a fluffy, satiny white cooked frosting that requires no butter, cream, or icing sugar. Prepared as written, it produces enough frosting to cover an average-sized cake or a batch of cupcakes.
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Remember: Care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.