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Miss Mary’s caramel cake

The cake made it from Dothan to Panama City to Auburn, as my daughter, Elizabeth, made the rounds with her family over the Thanksgiving holiday.  It was an 8-layer chocolate cake with icing that had oozed down the cake and onto the cake saver.  The icing was so fluid that it seeped through the seal of the cake saver.  If they had not transported the cake saver in a plastic bag along the way, it would have been a monumental mess.

By the time I saw the cake, my grandchildren were all laughing about it.  Elizabeth herself was enjoying the story of what was perhaps the most epic failure of any cake that she had ever made.  Obviously, some part of the recipe was wrong.

I asked for a piece of cake after dinner.  I scooped up a part of the runny icing and put it on the fallen layered cake.  I took the first bite of the failed cake and was amazed at just how incredible the cake tasted.  Talk about not judging a book by its cover, this cake was impressive.

For the next hour or so, our family sat around in the kitchen and recounted the long story of this cake’s recipe and why it tasted so good.  Needless to say, the cake was all gone by the next morning.   

“Miss Mary” Goodwin was one of four sisters.  The Goodwin Girls grew up in the Presbyterian Church in Donalsonville.  Their mother, “Miss Annie”, sat on the same pew each Sunday for many years after Mary Lou and I found our way to that great place of worship.

Mary was famous for her cooking, particularly her desserts.  I personally loved her caramel cake, which when made as a double sheet cake could easily weigh 10 pounds.  The icing between the two layers might be a half inch thick.  It was a calorie buster, but it made you think of heaven during a church covered dish supper.

When Elizabeth was in high school, she told us about her upcoming Senior trip.  We told her she could go provided she earned part of the money to pay for the trip.  She came up with an idea of baking goodies to sell during the Christmas holidays.  

Elizabeth asked Miss Mary, who was 80 years old at the time if she would teach her how to bake some of her specialties.  To the amazement of many, Mary said yes.  Elizabeth met with Mary several times at Mary’s home.  During the first meeting, Mary informed Elizabeth that she had to buy a Kitchen Aid Mixer.  Nothing else would do.  Of course, that really meant that her parents had to purchase the expensive kitchen appliance.  

Mary was known for baking for any event, including the unexpected demise of any church member or friend.  Elizabeth discovered that Mary had pre-portioned the ingredients of her cakes into small plastic bags and stored them in her cabinet.  This allowed her to bake on a moment’s notice.  “You never know when someone might pass away”, she said.

Mary, who never married, did not share these recipes with her siblings or anyone else.  You could understand some might be upset when a teenager living several blocks away began to write down all the long kept secrets of the much beloved cakes and sweets.

For years, Jeanne Jones, our beloved choir director made me a Butternut Cake for my birthday.  I was the organist, and the cake was her personal gift to me.  When Jeanne passed away, Mary made her very first Butternut Cake to keep that tradition going.

I have written articles about Thanksgiving for over a dozen years.  Somehow, as my family started telling spontaneous stories about this wonderful woman, I knew that I wanted to write about “Miss Mary.”

In less than two weeks, Mary Goodwin will be 103 years old.  She touched many lives along the way, including my daughter, Elizabeth.  Almost 50 years after I first met Mary Goodwin, I was blessed as multiple generations of my own family told stories about her this Thanksgiving.  

It is funny that it all started because of a failed cake that tasted wonderful.  I wish Mary could still tell us what went wrong.  It does not matter.  It just adds to the stories that make family time special.  

My family is thankful for the long life of Mary Goodwin.  After all these years, I still think of Mary Goodwin every time I have a piece of caramel cake.  I plan to have a slice in her honor this coming December 11th on her 103rd birthday.    

Happy Birthday, Mary.  And thank you.  

Dan Ponder can be reached at dan@ponderenterprises.net

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