Easter cakes

An iconography of resilience

I START WRITING a poem when Ellen is still alive, and it is the first thing I write that I am proud of. It starts with a title (it is part of a sequence) or maybe a number, and then: I was afraid of Easter / stuffed with walnuts and dates / moulded then sugared / (why mould if you’re sugaring?). I forget the next part of the verse, which concludes: moulding and sugaring and Eastering Arabic cakes. Even approaching ninety and losing her sight, Ellen, my grandmother, would make hundreds of the cakes I am writing about, called ma’amoul (and I have subsequently learnt we really did Easter those cakes, cakes also made for Muslim festivals such as Eid and Jewish festivals such as Purim).

These cakes are shared across the region, although I wonder (but do not know) how Muslims account for their iconography, which I understand as follows: one cake is moulded with many ribbed lines that converge at the centre in the shape of a dome – a cake filled with walnuts and rose water (sometimes orange blossom water, according to preference) that is said to represent the sponge of vinegar offered to Jesus (a man who is terribly thirsty, though he expresses this appetence in Aramaic and I do not know what that utterance sounds like, although I can say that whatever the language, in the mouth of our Saviour, this utterance must have sounded painful), when he is nailed to the cross.

There is also a cake filled with dates, and one year I burn out the engine in two different blenders until they are smoking toxic plumes into our faces, and Nader says, stop! and I say, I’m nearly there, and all we can do is laugh as I try to pulverise the brown sticky mass of a kilo of dates and just as much butter. And later Dad says Ellen would grind dates in a hand-operated meat mincer, which makes sense in the context of the blenders. This cake can be made two different ways. You can use a mould – a flatter shape than the walnut cake – which is a nest of concentric circles that radiate out to the circular edge. But Ellen does not use a mould for the date cakes (Dad’s favourites). Instead she rolls the ground dates into a log, rolls pastry around it, slices the log into pieces then joins each piece into rings with a hole in the middle. This cake represents the crown of thorns, which tore through the skin of Jesus’ head (and which as a child, bored by interminable masses and sitting beside my mother, I would stare at for long hours until I believed that what they had wrapped around Jesus’ brow was barbed wire). Pa makes a tiny set of tongs from scrap metal (you can see the imprint of a serial number in them) that are used to press little patterns around the edges (delicate pinpricks far from the teeth of the thorns they are representing, which Dad says are made so that the dusting of icing sugar catches and does not slide off).

The production of these cakes is quite epic, more so when you consider that Ellen would make a tray for each of her children (six minus her daughter Vera, in Adelaide) and all the grandchildren old enough to have separate families (nine perhaps, or seven – two in another state). We arrive in shifts and she has already made the dough (which must sit for twenty-four hours), but the crushing of walnuts, the hand-mincing of dates, the moulding and cooking and cooling and sugaring is a task for many hands, so the kitchen is set up with temporary workstations. Ellen shows me how to knock the mould on the table so the walnut cake comes away intact with the pattern printed, and after several hours she says I’m the best at it – and I wear this endorsement as a badge of great honour always.

When Ellen dies, the daughters (or aunts) sort carefully through all the articles of property that belonged to her and Pa at their house in Mirls Street. There is no argument during this process and each of us, all of the grandchildren, is asked if there is some specific item we’d like to keep before the rest is packed up and sent to the Salvos. Vera is here (from Adelaide) and so is Sylvie, and it falls to these aunts, this task of fulfilling requests, of searching through the pieces in their mother’s house for each of us, and at first I can’t think what I would like or what I am even allowed to ask for, but I ask for this, the ma’amoul mould from Syria, the finest mould I have ever seen, heavy and deep, for making my favourite cakes, the walnut ones, in the shape of the vinegar sponge.

It is carefully put aside by the time we arrive at Mirls Street for the very last time at Ellen’s wake, and Vera and Sylvie both tell me what happens after I ask for it. Vera says, when we were hunting we couldn’t find the mould and I said to Sylvie, never mind, we’ll buy her a new one, and Sylvie says, she doesn’t want any one, Vera, what she wants is that one! And Sylvie is very prescient in this and quite right and I am pleased they do find it, and it is placed into my hands on the day of Ellen’s funeral and it has always been exactly where I know it to be ever since.


AT ELLEN’S FUNERAL I find that I cannot cry. In the days between the day she dies and the day we bury her my father takes on the task of writing her eulogy because he was disappointed by the eulogy of a minister that was done for my pa. He sits up on his bed with his magnifying spectacles halfway down his nose, bare summer feet crossed at the ankles, and spends these several nights writing – very little – onto a paper napkin, which he leans on a book, until the night before the funeral when he hands me the napkin at last and says, I’ve got the bones of it down, you finish it.

On the day of the funeral we print our eulogy (to which mum adds Vale Grandma, and I say to my father, What’s that doing there? It ruins the line of my writing, to which Dad says Well, all I know is your grandmother’s dead and your mother’s still living), and Dad says he will drive me via the university first to submit the slew of November essays that are due that same day (and for which I secure extensions for all but one, which works to negate the value of any of them). And after I submit the assessments through the slots in the doors on different levels of the John Medley Building according to subject, Dad turns and, as we sit in the traffic, says I’m an orphan, and I wonder if orphan is a word that means something to a man of fifty-six on losing his mother and last parent (but can confirm at the age I write this that, should I outlive my parents, it will be for me as it has been for my father).

I find I cannot cry on the day of the funeral or for many nights after the news of Ellen’s death and it is as if I am stunned by this loss, as if I am too close to this absence for it to mean anything yet, until two weeks later when I take the handle of the mould in my hands and lay the flat back of it against my cheek, and I cry and I cry. I do this same thing for many nights, late at night, listening to Lucky Oceans hosting The Daily Planet on ABC Radio National, and it is the first time that I actually understand what people mean when they talk about catharsis.

There is something quite marvellous about this mould and it is marvellous to this day still: when you hold the negative space of the impression it will make on a cake up to your nose, you will not smell the butter and semolina that has been pressed into the hollow thousands of times (I do not exaggerate); what you will smell is the most delightful emanation of the scent of Ellen and Pa, of Mirls Street, of the kitchen where cakes were made each Easter, twice over (first for the Roman Catholic and then for the Greek Orthodox calendar). One Easter when Shukry is visiting – a cousin nearest my father’s age and more like a brother to him than his own – he tells me they used to share all their cakes to make Easter last for as long as possible (which is why I mention the asynchronous calendars of Christianities). Incidentally, Shukry also remarks that Dad and Dad’s littlest sister Irene were small nuisances, eating the hand-minced date paste before Ellen could give it another life in the crown-of-thorns cake, while Dad, to the contrary, does not indict Shukry, so maybe the date ones were not his favourite. Or maybe Dad, the younger of the two, can find no fault in his memory of the older boy. On the back of the mould is stamped ‘Made in Syria’ written in English, and I believe this mould is part of the legacy of a trip Ellen and Abdullah made in the 1970s (the one trip they make, after Nakba hurls them to the edge of the world, to visit their family) and maybe, when I ask about this stamp, it is the first time I learn of that trip.

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