Kristy Woodson Harvey: Love — and caramel icing — never fail

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 22, 2024

By Kristy Woodson Harvey

My best memories are in my grandparents Ola and Joe Rutledge’s kitchen. Picking pieces of ham and turkey off the pan as my grandfather carved. Sneaking the corner of the dressing. (Not stuffing. Dressing.) Burning my fingers swiping fried okra from the paper towel-covered plate as quickly as Grandmommy could scoop them out of the pan. And, maybe most of all, sitting around the kitchen table with my mom, my aunts and my cousins, laughing, telling stories, eating plates of homemade oatmeal cookies, Bridge Mix, salted pecans and what I would consider Grandmommy’s signature dish: her unfathomably delicious caramel cake.  

When my now husband and I started dating, he let it slip that homemade caramel cake was his favorite dessert. And that was no problem for me. Because I had grown up at my grandmother’s knee, making her famous, fabulous, “never-fail” caramel icing. Never fail. It was right there in the title of the recipe. How hard could it be for me to tackle solo? 

As it turns out, pretty darn hard. Three watery, soupy, decidedly failed batches in, I did the only sensible thing: I got in the car, drove an hour and a half from Chapel Hill, where I was in college, to Salisbury, where I grew up. I don’t remember calling to tell Grandmommy I was coming, and, in retrospect, I’m sure she had to drop a thing or two to accommodate my request to bake right now

I watched carefully, glued to her, as she executed the same recipe that I had just attempted three times in the tiny kitchen of the house I lived in with seven girlfriends. I was almost waiting to say, “See! See! It’s not working! The recipe is broken!” Only, the minute she put the stainless bowl in the cold water in the sink and began to stir, her icing thickened perfectly and was on our homemade cake minutes later. 

She was a wonder, that woman. And it was a lesson that maybe sometimes it wasn’t about the recipe, it was about the chef, the experience, the practiced hand and skill of someone who had spent hours in the kitchen perfecting the dishes that her family associated with home, with safety, with security, with love. 

In my forthcoming novel, “A Happier Life,” which I will be launching on June 25 at 5:30 p.m. at the Hall House with South Main Book Company, Keaton Smith doesn’t have her grandmother, beloved Beaufort, N.C., hostess Rebecca Saint James, by her side to tell her her story, to love her through her food, to reveal to her in person what happened to her and her husband Townsend the night they met their demise in 1976. But Keaton has her grandmother’s recipes, her entertaining notes, and all summer long to try to recreate the hostessing prowess that she surely inherited. 

In many ways, I relate to Keaton, echo her feeling of wanting so desperately to hang onto the beloved Southern traditions that fill my memories, that defined my childhood and, in lesser ways, my adulthood. I think that’s why I love to host parties. It’s definitely why — like my grandmother — I always keep a batch of homemade oatmeal cookie dough from her recipe in the freezer. I pull it out when my son’s friends show up unannounced, when a neighbor stops by for a visit, to fill my home with that smell and that taste that will always, always be, to me, the very essence of my grandmother. 

It is why I will try, yet again, to recreate her never-fail caramel icing for my son’s birthday cake this year knowing that, for the first time, she won’t be here to rescue me if I can’t make it thicken. 

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the grandparents I had for 36 years of my life are gone. I remember coming home from my grandmother’s funeral in particular — she passed away a few months after my grandfather — and feeling that deep, painful longing for those days when we sat around the kitchen table making memories that we didn’t even realize we would always cherish, doing the nothing that would, later in our lives, mean everything. 

As I began to drift off, that ache taking hold in my chest, in that moment between sleeping and waking, I heard, clear as a bell, the sound of my grandfather’s voice: “We’ll all be around the table again someday.”

It could have been my imagination, or a dream, but I like to believe that it was really him, that it was a message from the people who were there for me, by my side, day in and day out for so much of my life. They taught me that you have to believe in something bigger than yourself. That family comes first. That some things — like Grandmommy’s stand-up fried chicken — are worth all the hard work they require. And, most important of all, that their love — like Grandmommy’s caramel icing — would never fail. 

Join Salisbury native and New York Times Bestselling Author Kristy Woodson Harvey with South Main Book Company and the Historic Salisbury Foundation at the Hall House at 5:30 p.m. on June 25, the official launch day of her 11th novel, “A Happier Life.”

A preorder of “A Happier Life” from South Main Book Company serves as your ticket for this event, which will include a talk by Harvey, live music and refreshments.  

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