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Cake and Courage

My mother was Afrikaans. I called her Mamma. Or in later years, Ma. And I addressed her as such. I never used the pronouns ‘jy’ or ‘jou’  – the Afrikaans for the more informal form of address ‘you’ or ‘your’.  ‘Mamma, moet ek vir Mamma die meel gaan koop vir die koek wat Mamma later gaan bak?’ (Mom, should I go out and buy Mom the flour for the cake that Mom will be baking later on?’) Grammatically awkward? Perhaps. But in terms of respect, in the middle-class suburban and cultural environment I grew up in, it was a non-negotiable. Like referring to all my mother’s friends, Die Milnerton Meisies, as they called themselves, as ‘Tannie’ (Aunty) even when there were no blood ties. 

They were a formidable bunch, these White, Afrikaans, mostly God-Fearing Suburban Housewives. And I adored them then. Adore them still. They met when their children were in nursery school and they remained friends during those school years and long after their children had left their nests. They would meet for tea and cake on one another’s birthdays and hand over a communal birthday card filled with handwritten messages wishing prosperity and happiness and in which everyone had put in R100 as a gift. They celebrated one another’s joys and knew and supported one another during their heartaches. They laughed loudly, told rude jokes, challenged one another’s political views and, completely out of character, would call one another by their diminutive names – Marietjie, Altatjie, Lourethatjie, Antoinettejie, Herculientjie. All but one, Tannie Angie, she was called, with utmost love, respect, affection and admiration, Angie Koek. (Angie Cake).

For Tannie Angie baked cakes. Many cakes. Many, many cakes. She baked for various tuisnywerhede (home industries) – shops selling homemade baked goods that had sprouted up all over the suburbs where the less industrious or less talented could buy home-baked cakes and cookies to pass off as their own if they were so inclined. These shops almost always looked the same, cheap white shelving that held rows and rows of balloon-like plastic bags each containing a freshly-baked cake. If you knew your shop well, you recognised the cakes according to the baker. 

Some bakers excelled at sponge cake – well-risen and lightly dusted with icing sugar, others were the milk tart queens whose flaky pastry and milky custard-filled pies flew out of the doors as soon as they came in. Chocolate cakes had butter icing and apricot jam filling and were decorated with glacéed cherries. There were large flat beer box cakes – baked in cardboard beer boxes which once contained dozens of cans of Castle or Black label beer. And there were Hertzoggies– apricot-jam-filled coconut tartlets –  and sweet syrupy koeksisters kept in fridges, bottles of strawberry jam and preserved figs and bags filled with buttermilk rusks. Baked goods that had their origins in farm kitchens but the tastes had lingered and were longed for in cities and suburbs all over the country.

But the cakes that Tannie Angie baked were the ones that defined my childhood. The double-layered vanilla sponges with caramel filing and perfectly-piped vanilla buttercream roses and the double-layered chocolate cakes were the ones my brother and I took to school for our birthdays and which my dad took to the office on his. These were our requested birthday cakes. Always. Without fail. I loved going to Tannie Angie’s house to collect these cakes, each safely nestled on a paper plate in a blown-up plastic bag tied up with a small red piece of sticky tape. Large bubbles of cake-filled plastic covered the dining room table and all the available surfaces of the kitchen, ready for distribution. The kitchen would be spotless but the lingering scent of vanilla and sugar hung in the air. Tannie Angie started baking at 4am each day. She did this for many years. It was her source of income. Her husband was ill, she had bills to pay and four children that needed to be educated. Baking was not her hobby, it was her livelihood. But it was also her gift. The cake table of every church bazaar and each school fëte would feature cakes donated by and made by Tannie Angie’s talented hands and generous heart. ‘Angie Koek,’ my ma would always say with so much love ‘is die sout van die aarde’ (the salt of the earth). And for me, Tannie Angie has become the icing and the inspiration. Because like my mother I have an unwavering admiration and respect for those women who do what must be done. And do it with such grace and courage.

Sam Woulidge is a food writer who bakes badly but loves well. Motherhood has exceeded her greatest expectations. It is way way better than cake.

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