Baking Up My Past

“If baking is any labor at all, it’s a labor of love. A love that gets passed down from generation to generation.”

–Regina Brett

Make no mistake: I love to bake! My earliest baking triumph was a total disaster. I was four years old. My mother turned me loose in the kitchen to bake a cake all by myself, as she pretended to busy herself in the adjoining room, ready to rescue.

Rescue? What on earth could possibly go wrong? After all, I had been hanging out in the kitchen since forever, watching my mom bake one delicious cake after another, one sweet, tasty day after another into oblivion.

But something went terribly wrong. I measured the baking powder incorrectly. Neither I nor my mother knew until batter oozed out the door of our South Bend, woodburning cookstove, onto the kitchen floor.

Then my mother helped me understand the companion joy of baking: cleaning up the mess.

More, she made me bold enough to give a botched bake another try! I have no doubt that my second attempt–that same day, of course–was a resounding success. Ironically, though, what lingers is the initial memory of cake batter oozing out onto the floor like lava spewing out of Mt. Vesuvius.

That first bake–catastrophic though it was–got me hooked on baking, and through baking, I discovered that cake is the way to everyone’s heart. It can also be a mirror into the past.

For example, my mother’s favorite cake was a twelve-layer strawberry stack cake, make (preferably) with wild strawberries. Her mother always baked it for mom’s birthday. Later in life, when I baked that cake on mom’s birthday, she insisted that mine was every bit as good as any that her mother ever made (even if my strawberries never quite measured up to the wildness of the ones that her mother picked each May).

As for my dad, his favorite was a yellow layer cake with apple butter not only spread between the layers but also slathered on the sides and top. The thicker, the better. It was his favorite, first because he enjoyed baking it, and, second, because it was a quick version of the more complex and complicated apple stack cake that he enjoyed as a child.

As for my two brothers and three sisters, I am clueless.

As for me, I may be clueless about lots of things in life, but I am never clueless about my favorite cake. It’s always the one smackdab in front of me, assuming, of course, that it’s homemade from scratch or the one that I’m planning to back next always from scratch.

My siblings must have their favorites, too. I could ask, I suppose, but that straightforward approach would give me straightforward answers. What’s the fun in that?

I prefer thinking and conjecturing and researching.

What cakes were the rage when I was born? My siblings? My parents?

Mind you. This is not original thinking at all. I have seen such articles before: “famous cakes the decade you were born.”

The thing is that most of those articles don’t focus on what matters to me: cakes before the 1950s. Apparently, people born before 1950 are no longer alive, or, if they are, they’re too old to be baking cakes!

Well, excuse me. I was born before 1950, and I’ll put my bakes up against the best!

So I decided to don my toque blanche and research cakes that were popular during the decade of the Fighting Forties when I was born! I have two older sisters and an older brother who were born in that decade, too.

I could simply tell you that desserts from the 1940s included Carnival Marble Cake, Magic Peach Cake, Mincemeat Christmas Cake, and even a Chintz Cake.

But my 1940s siblings and I, though born in the same decade (and of the same parents) are as different as night and day.

So I decided to see what I could discover about birth-year cakes.

1947 was my year. A Chocolate Weary Willie Cake seems to have captured attention. It might interest you to know that “Weary Willie” was another name for a tramp. (Well, excuse me again. I’ve been called lots of things before, but never a tramp. Having made that disclosure, I’m confident that you will check out the link to that recipe. However, would you refrain from doing so until after you finish reading–and liking–today’s post? Thank you in advance for refraining and for liking!)

Another 1947 cake was Jack Berch’s Mahogany Cake. Berch was a radio announcer who chatted, whistled and sang for audiences from 1935 to 1954. “Keep a listenin’ while I’m a whistlin” was his motto. I like the backstory enough to try that recipe.

Now let’s move back a few years to 1943 when my sister Judy was born. That year the Red Velvet Cake was a hit. The recipe had been around far earlier, but in 1943, Irma Rombauer’s classic cookbook The Joy of Cooking introduced the Red Velvet Cake to America.

The year before–when my brother Stanley was born–America was grappling with war rations, and many cake recipes called for cheap pantry staples and far less sugar. This was the year of the Victory Cake.

My sister Arlene was born in 1940, the year of the Do Nothing Cake: “easy, takes no time to throw it together, and is so delicious.” I’m sure that she will be quite insulted when she reads about “her” cake, because she is always busy doing something.

My two oldest siblings were born in the previous decade, the Threadbare Thirties following the Great Depression.

Little wonder that when my sister Audrey was born in 1935, an eggless, milkless Depression Cake cake was popular. Far better, though, would have been the Sun-Maid Raisin Nut Cake from the same year, with the recipe right on the back of the raisin box.

Moving back two years to 1933, when my brother John was born, a Chocolate Prune Cake was the favorite. If you don’t like prunes, you might try the Doberge Cake, also popular that year.

Since I started this post by talking about my parents’ favorite cakes, it seems fitting that I should end with something about the cakes that folks enjoyed during their birth decades.

My mother, Bertha Pearl, was born in 1912, the year that the Titanic sank. During her decade of the Nineteen Tens/Teens, lots of cakes were in the lineup. Chocolate Nut Cake. Sponge Cake.

But I think my mother would have given a nod to the Lady Baltimore Cake, described in Owen Wister’s novel, Lady Baltimore:

“‘I should like a slice, if you please, of Lady Baltimore,’ I said with extreme formality. I returned to the table and she brought me the cake, and I had my first felicitous meeting with Lady Baltimore.  Oh, my goodness! Did you ever taste it?  It’s all soft, and it’s in layers, and it has nuts – but I can’t write any more about it; my mouth waters too much.  Delighted surprise caused me once more to speak aloud, and with my mouth full, ‘But, dear me, this is delicious!’”

Finally we reach 1902 when my father, John Saunders, was born, at the start of the Aughties decade. Among a number of other chocolate-battered cakes, the first recipes actually dubbed Devil’s Food appeared that year, “one in Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book, and the other in The New Dixie Receipt Book in which it was slyly subtitled ‘Fit for Angels’.”

Clearly, I could bake up my past forever, especially if I were to pursue cake backstories for grandparents, aunts, uncles, first cousins, and cousins twice removed.

Fortunately, I won’t.

But rest assured. I will bake all the cakes that I have mentioned, knowing that I will continue to learn an awful lot about baking. Who knows: with a little luck, I might even stumble upon a recipe or two worthy of sharing with others.

As I taste my way along, I will stack up a rich and multi-layered appreciation of my family’s past with every cake I bake … with every bite I take.

9 thoughts on “Baking Up My Past

  1. As you bake and experiment, please note that some of your readers are more than willing and ready to taste test and provide feedback. I know of what I speak. ;-)

    The imagery of 4-year-old you watching in terror as the oven overflowed with batter is priceless!


    • I am always glad to have readers taste-test my cakes! Some of the recipes in this post sound truly intriguing!

      Obviously, the image of me watching in terror as the oven overflowed with batter has lingered with me down through the years!

      Thanks for your comments!


  2. I promise you, Arlene may always be busy doing something, but baking elaborate cakes is not one of them. Do Nothing Cake sounds right up her alley! I’m sure everything that comes out of your kitchen is delicious. Happy baking!


  3. What an amazing post! I followed up (after reading your post clear through, as ordered!) — I followed up on most of the links and golly, what a wealth of memories they bring back. The cakes yes, but even the handwritten recipes looked familiar to me, since it’s the way I was taught to write.

    My mother was a very good cake baker, and my very first memory of one of her cakes was a birthday cake she made for a little boy up the road. It has stayed in my mind because it was a butterfly! Even now I feel the enchantment I felt then (age 5 or 6), at seeing two or three plain round vanilla cakes cut and iced together to form a winged butterfly with purple and green wings. I have the faintest memory that she made two, one for the little boy and one for us, but I have no memory of eating it. I just remember the glory of seeing a butterfly made out of cake.


    • Thanks, Bonnie, for your thoughtful comments. I am delighted that you liked the post and that it helped you bake up a layer of your own family’s past!

      Your mother was a more accomplished baker than I. I can’t imagine baking a butterfly cake, but it sounds like a fun and glorious challenge! I shall do some searching to see what I can find on the Internet.

      One of my favorite writers, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, commented once that if she could come back to earth after she died, she would come back as a butterfly.

      Whenever I see a butterfly, I always think of her! And, who knows: perhaps when her birthday comes around on October 31 this year, I will celebrate her memory by baking a butterfly cake!


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