A Tall Thanksgiving Order

Cakes and other desserts
My coconut cake takes it place among the Thanksgiving desserts.

Just last year, in A Woman in Need of a Dish, I complained that every year at Thanksgiving, I feel like the only person who doesn’t have a signature dish. Each year, I rack my brain for creative ideas, and they’re yummy but – let’s face it – the holidays are all about tradition, and I wanted one.

Sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for! Shortly after posting that blog, I got some very unsettling news. Thanks to a new, smaller kitchen (and being much closer to 90 than to 80), my paternal grandmother – my Granny Nell – had decided to stop making her famous coconut cake, beginning right now! It was an earth-shattering declaration that I really thought she made way too casually, without nearly the drama it deserved.

Coconut cake
This coconut cake is no joke!

Now, let me make one thing clear. You don’t just “not have” Granny Nell’s coconut cake. That would be about as conceivable as not having Saturday. Granny Nell’s coconut cake has been on every holiday table as far back as I can remember, and – just ask my cousins – it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving/Christmas/Easter/Independence Day/Groundhog Day, or any other holiday, without it.

The coconut cake is not only the most grabbed for dessert in our family, it’s also the basis for some great family lore. Like the time Granny Nell baked a coconut cake, froze it solid, and shipped it to her grandson in Texas, where (as the legend goes) it arrived perfectly thawed and chilled in time for his birthday. Or the time she flew halfway across the country with a double-sized coconut cake on her lap, for another grandson’s wedding rehearsal dinner.

The recipe, which most of us have never set eyes on, takes five days to make. These cakes are serious business!

Making coconut cake
A sneak peak at the mysterious (and messy) 5-day process.

When I heard that there might be a Thanksgiving without coconut cake, I knew that I was receiving a calling; but I wasn’t sure I had the guts to answer it. Me? Really? Not only to make Granny Nell’s coconut cake, but to serve it to the master herself?

After some deliberation, I finally decided that this was my golden opportunity. So I arranged a recipe handoff (involving heavy cloaks and cover of darkness), screwed up my courage, and made the cake.

Coconut cake covered with plastic wrap
What is IN there?

Not only did I make the cake, but I also made Granny Nell’s equally-famous squash casserole, and I waltzed in with both dishes to our family Thanksgiving party. If you’re going to go down, why not go down in flames?

When the time came, I cut a piece of cake, put it on a plate, handed it to my Granny Nell, and held my breath. . . . She took a bite and tasted it very slowly, then looked up at me and gave a little nod and a smile. And then she took another bite, and another! The release of tension in the room was nearly audible, and a new tradition began to show some promise.

When I asked for a tradition, I didn’t expect to get such an important one. Oh, I’m sure it’ll take many, many cakes before I get the flavors and textures just right; but so far, nobody seems to mind me practicing!

This Thanksgiving I made the coconut cake again, and after the party, I caught my husband lurking near the cake to scare off anybody who tried to sneak too many pieces into their take-home containers. And with that, my cousin Chad turned to me and said simply, “Consider the torch passed.”


  1. I think you need to share this recipe with me! My mother inlaw was also “Granny Nell”. She passed a few years back but always had her Special Coconut Pie at every holiday! Oh, how we miss that pie! You see the recipe was never written down. How lucky you are to have the coconut cake recipe and your Granny Nell!


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