The Folklore Project


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Nashville, Tennessee

The Groaning Cake

By Jennifer Justus


My friend Jess had her first baby at home while planking on a yoga ball without so much as an aspirin. That’s how I think of it anyway, because she’s the superhero of my girl gang. And she’ll also say that if you need to a have a crime scene erased, you shouldn’t bother calling a hit man. Call a midwife.
 
“It’s like Dexter’s kill box,” she said of the Showtime crime drama while holding up a roll of plastic. It came from a box of materials the midwife would need to help deliver Jess’s second baby, which she also planned to have at home. 
 
I laughed and tried to sound nonchalant, as if I weren’t nervous for her. Because that’s what friends do. We offer surrogate bravery at the very least, even if it’s not needed. But this time around, I would be in the house during the birth, and as a middle-aged woman with no children and maybe three babysitting gigs on my resume, I had no clue how to help.

Of course, Jess had that covered, too. She declared I should join her home-birth team for a special mission. It would include a couple friends, her husband, the midwife, her curious toddler, and a rambunctious Lab-golden mix named Waylon. If that weren’t a full enough house, she hoped to introduce her toddler to the new baby with a birthday party soon after giving birth. While she labored, she wanted me to bake a cake. I would be the official home-birth cake baker. 
 
For the rest of the afternoon as we organized supplies and dawdled around the kitchen, I stole glances at her like you do when you’re worried about someone but don’t want them to know it. The baby wouldn’t be coming for a few more weeks, but our time together and her invitation to the birth gave me plenty to think about until then. 
 
When people ask me why I don’t have a baby of my own at 43, and they do, I usually say I don’t know. Because I don’t. Sometimes people have a hard time believing this.

It’s true I recognize there couldn’t possibly be a greater love or a more interesting job (or one with more job security). I can’t imagine anything more challenging, educational, heartbreaking, heartwarming, expensive, or worth it. Yet I’ve had a long, deep feeling of just … nope. For a time, I fretted and prayed to want to want a baby. And even though I’ve found peace in my decision not to have children, I’ll never be sure it wasn’t a mistake. Then there’s the physical marvel of creating, carrying, and delivering a human, which will forever have me feeling a little less of a woman for never having experienced it. But you know what does give me a tinge of the maternal? Baking people cakes.  

Unbeknownst to Jess and me at the time, an ancient tradition exists of cakes baked for mothers while they’re in labor. The aroma is intended to help ease the mother’s pain. And recipes for these “Groaning Cakes,” as they’re called, often pack in the nutrients for post-labor recovery with shredded apple, carrot and zucchini. They’re sweetened naturally with honey and spiced with Ayurvedic seeds such as fenugreek. If the mother-to-be breaks the eggs for the batter, the old wives’ tales say her labor won’t last as long. The father has a role too in serving the cake to friends and family the first time the mother and baby are “churched.”

But we didn’t know about any of that pre-labor. Jess just knew she wanted a favorite chocolate cake from her family’s gatherings and holidays. Her groaning cake wasn’t designed for loading up on nutrients—we’d be loading it instead with sugar, butter, and cocoa. The icing would need to be poured over the cake as it came out of the oven like asphalt, for hardening into a slab of fudge.

As we prepared for the big day, Jess texted me photos of yellow recipe cards handwritten by her mother, who had been given the recipe by her friend. As a food writer, I’m especially fond of recipe cards and cookbooks adorned with coffee stains and chocolate smudges. But like many passed-down recipes, the instructions on Jess’s cake were vague enough to give a modern cookbook copy editor a come-apart. The ingredients were listed as part of the instructions, and most sentences had one to three words. “Stir. Bring to boil. Beat.” Intuition and improvisation would need to be measured as ingredients too. But as Kim Severson writes in her book “Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life,” recipes are often taken on as an act of faith. You have to trust the cooks who prepared it before you.



A few weeks after receiving the recipe, my phone buzzed with another text from our friend Ann.

“She’s dilated to 4 … this baby could be here sooner than we thought!!!!”

I noticed she used four exclamation points and replied:

“OMG, What does that mean?!?!”

Before she could answer, I frantically scraped the cake ingredients from my pantry into a shopping bag—the cocoa, vanilla, baking soda, two types of sugar. I didn’t figure I had time to measure anything, so I loaded an entire glass canister of flour into the bag, too.
 
But the baby didn’t come that night. Or the next. So as I waited for the word, I took the bag of cake ingredients to yoga. I lugged it to work. I took it to a fancy fundraising dinner, and I once even had an Uber driver stop by my car to pick it up on the way home, just in case. I learned that while four centimeters might mean we’re close, no one really knows for sure. We can make all the plans in the world, but they’re not necessarily going to turn out as we hope.
 
Indeed, we knew a thing or two about plans. In the years that I’ve been close friends with Jess and Ann and our group of girlfriends—our tribe or “the village” as we call it—we’ve been through a few divorces, new marriages, and births. We’re written books and business plans, had a billion job changes and moves. We’ve lived pretty much every country song our town of Nashville has turned out with the death of dogs and family or friends off to rehab or jail. Sometimes—really, most of the time—life hasn’t worked out the way we planned. But we have lived fully. We’ve made do. We’ve done our best.

It would still be another two weeks before we got the call.
 
The house felt like church when we arrived, reverent and quiet except for the deep, determined sounds of work coming in waves from Jess in labor. It was almost midnight, and with the toddler asleep—and Jess’s wishes to keep the house as peaceful as possible—I set about my job with the busied hush of a French mime. No chance of firing up a noisy mixer, I used a whisk instead.

As a person who considers cooking a contemplative activity, this wouldn’t be the first time I’d prayed over measuring cups and cake batter, this time hoping my friend and her baby would be OK. Excitement and worry mixed with their varied textures, like the creaming of sugar and flour. 
 
Soon after the cake hit the oven, I heard Jess’s work turn to laughter. “It’s a boy,” she cried. And then suddenly, as if we hadn’t been expecting it, another smaller cry rang out and the energy in the house shifted. Just over nine pounds carried the emotional weight of nine tons. I couldn’t have known what it felt like for Jess, but the wave of energy reminded me of a line from Elizabeth Alexander’s poem "Neonatology":

Giving birth is like jazz, something from silence,
then all of it. 

A little later, the plastic from Dexter’s box crinkled under my feet as I tiptoed toward Jess and her baby boy, Charter. 
 
“This is JJ,” Jess whispered to him. “She’s part of your tribe.”
 
Of course, I still didn’t know what it felt like to have a baby, and I certainly don’t know what it takes to raise one. But in that moment, I at least could feel the importance of what it means to be there—to show up. And what it means to make and be part of a family of a different sort.

From the moment it begins, it seems life is all just practice and plans until it’s over. Most of the time it has the mercy to start us small, with high school breakups, and then come layoffs and the tougher stuff like miscarriages, divorces, deaths. We learn to abruptly end meals, pay the tab and flock together when the signal goes up or the text goes out. We know by feel when to make the cake or when to drop the whisk and get in the car. All the while, we’re just doing our improv show, making do and making decisions on faith, even when we haven’t been given detailed instructions. 
 
In some cases, it seems having a village to show up for is the gift—a reminder that we’re not alone as we walk each other through the unknown thrills and challenges that come with our decisions.

It was approaching 3 a.m. as we stood around Jess, watching Charter breathe—the rise and fall of tiny lungs filled with new life. And sure enough, the midwife had cleaned her workstation, disposed of the plastic, and folded the laundry. She had dismantled a birthing pool and packed it into what might as well have been a briefcase. With a spotless scene behind her, she slipped into the night leaving a new baby, a growing village and the scent of chocolate cake.


Jess’s Chocolate Groaning Cake

(with a few instructions added)

 

For the cake:

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 sticks butter
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon vanilla

For the icing: 

1 stick butter
4 tablespoons cocoa
6 tablespoon milk
3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease and flour a 9x13 pan. 
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and sugar. Set aside. 
  • In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, melt 2 sticks of butter and add the cocoa and 1 cup water. Bring to boil. Then remove the pan from the heat and allow the cocoa mixture to cool for 1 minute. Add the flour-sugar mixture to the cocoa mixture and beat with an electric mixer or whisk to combine. Add the buttermilk, eggs, soda and vanilla and beat 1 minute more. Pour batter into 9x13 pan and bake for 45 minutes. 
  • During the last 10 minutes of baking the cake, make the icing. 
  • In a saucepan, melt 1 stick of butter and bring it to a boil. Remove from heat and add remaining icing ingredients by beating with an electric mixer or whisk until smooth. 
  • After removing the cake from the oven, immediately spread icing over hot cake. Allow icing to cool before serving.