My great-aunt Rae was an operator for Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company in Corbin, Kentucky. When I was a little girl and stayed there in the summer or over Christmas, it was my great delight to make a call on the “magic phone.” Not only did the heavy black object have no dial, as ours did in Louisville, but when you picked it up, instead of a strident dial tone, a kindly voice would ask, “Number, please?” to which you were to respond with the three digits that defined whatever household you were trying to reach.
More often than not, it was my great-aunt’s pleasant voice that would greet me, and when she’d hear mine, she’d respond, “Well—hello, little girl. What are you doing today?” I’d tell her the newest adventure I’d gotten into, and before connecting me to one of my other kin in town, she’d sometimes whisper the location of a piece of gum she’d hidden in the house for me or give me a message for one of the grown-ups—making me feel grown-up too. She was, in a way, the communication hub of our family.
To my knowledge, Rae and her sister Johnnie always lived together, even during the too few years that Rae was married to her life’s love, my great-uncle Charlie, before his death. Their house on Carter Street was where my mother and Uncle Jack lived in their teens after their parents were killed in a car wreck, and it was where my father was welcomed as friend and kin when he married my mother.
As sisters do, they seemed to work out a division of labor between themselves. Johnnie was the gardener who planted, hoed, and harvested. She wrung the chickens’ necks and plucked their feathers before frying them. Rae was there for multihanded tasks such as canning, but because of her day job, she was not as regular in the kitchen. This is why, I think, it was Johnnie’s task to pick the gnarly green June apples that grew on their tree, pare them, and lay them out to dry on clean sheets, while Rae was the maker of the family’s favorite special-occasion dessert, Apple Stack Cake.
A labor-intensive art that required baking each hand-rolled and patted-out layer one at a time in the same cast-iron skillet before skillfully stacking them high with steaming dried-apple puree between, it was a job for Rae’s days off in cold winter. On one such day, my cousin Sparky dropped by for a cup of coffee just in time for Rae to unwrap and cut into the cake she had made three days before—a stack cake must “ripen.”
WATCH: Easy Skillet Apple Pie
As the two took their first bites of what was an especially good cake, Rae did what most Appalachians do when something pleases: She remembered. “Mmm, mmm, I wish Pap Lundy was here,” she said. “There’s nobody on this earth who likes a good stack cake better than he does.” For a moment, she and Sparky considered my daddy, who was living over three hours away in Louisville, where there was work he couldn’t find in his beloved home in Eastern Kentucky. Sparky reached for his hat and said, “Rae, wrap up some of that cake and I’ll drive it up to Pap right now. Don’t have a thing more important to do.”
And that is how, late that afternoon, Daddy and Sparky were marveling over Rae’s stack cake and telling stories from home until the laughing made tears run down their cheeks. Then Sparky put his hat on and drove all the way back, while Daddy wrapped up the rest of that cake to share with Mama and me later.
A Very Tall Tale
According to Appalachian folklore, whenever there was a wedding in the community, women would bake single layers of this regional dessert and then bring them to the reception. There, they would stack the collected layers with a filling made from dried apples to make one tall cake big enough to feed a wedding party. The higher the cake, the more popular the bride. We hate to dispel beloved legends, but this one probably isn’t true. All of the layers from the neighboring cooks, baked in pans and skillets of varying sizes, would have different diameters and thicknesses, so stacking a tall cake with even sides would be nearly impossible. What’s more, an apple stack cake should be assembled while the layers and filling are still warm and then left to “ripen” for two to three days, so it’s not something you could do at a wedding reception.
Ronni Lundy is the author of Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes.