Donna Siemen, Anderson
“Alright,” Donna Siemen warns us, “things are gonna fly!”
She has loaded all the ingredients for her holiday cake into an overworked mixer. Having fried two mixers making this very cake, she hopes the new one is up for the job. A hunk of batter lops around in the bowl for a moment before the attachments grind to a slow whirl. “She’s getting a little unhappy,” Donna observes.
The mixer may be female, but the cake itself is masculine. When I ask if the dessert Donna’s preparing is a fruitcake, she shushes me. “He gets very offended. He doesn’t like to be called a fruitcake.” It looks like a fruitcake to me, but I can see her point: “If you call it a fruitcake, no one will try it!”
She calls it Lemon Nut Cake, and she makes it because her family begs. But it is so labor-intensive she limits herself— and her mixer—to exactly one Lemon Nut Cake per year. It is the finale of her Christmas Eve feast.
Donna’s cooking revolves around her family, her husband Wolfgang and adult son Remington. Everything she makes has purpose and history, much of it a reflection of her husband’s Swiss heritage and the five years they spent living in Europe.
When she became a mother, Donna wanted to establish traditions her son would remember—traditions that didn’t involve “ripping into presents.” She also wanted her Swiss-born husband to be reminded of home, so she blended Swiss and American traditions to create new ones all their own. Donna had the idea to begin celebrating Christmas in early December, long before presents are wrapped and stacked. On December 6, Saint Nicholas Day, Donna bakes grittibanz, bread shaped like a little man, and everyone has an ornament and Swiss chocolate on his plate when they sit down to dinner. They decorate a tree that evening, hanging the new ornaments first.
The real feast is saved for Christmas Eve, when all three don their Christmas aprons and get to work. (Wolfgang always chops the onions.) They prepare each component of their annual Christmas Eve meal on only that one night of the year. The feast is Geschnetzeltes Züricher Art (German for “sliced meat Zurich style”) followed by a cake Donna’s mother used to make. Not usually a fan of sweets, Wolfgang loved the cake the first time he tasted it on a Christmas Eve after their son was born. “So it became our cake,” Donna explains, and she has baked it on December 24 for a quarter-century now.
While Donna’s food may revolve around family, it might also be said her family revolves around food. Donna says, “There’s not a holiday we celebrate that doesn’t involve food! Food is nourishing. It’s how I show love to the people I care about.” The Siemens rarely eat out because, when they do, Wolfgang complains that Donna’s food is so much better.
When she cooks, Donna’s first priority isn’t the recipe or the ingredients but the person for whom she’s cooking. “It has to be something the person really likes,” she says. In an age of Pinterest and Michelin stars and the pressure to prepare food that not only nourishes but also impresses, Donna is surely getting it right. She remembers intimate, people-centered entertaining. Although she admits she loves a big, themed “production,” she can also find great joy in preparing a simple picnic for a hike with her family.
While we eat warm Lemon Nut Cake by the Christmas tree (a singular treat since I am not a Siemen and it is not Christmas Eve just yet), we sip Donna’s own homemade Irish Breakfast tea. (She is also the owner of Carolina Parakeet, a tea company.) For a few minutes I have the joy of experiencing Donna’s hospitality, and I am nourished indeed.