Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Birthday Cake for Grandpa (From last night's Memoir Project/Bookmarks reading)

Last night, I was honored to read alongside several other local writers at the Arts Center of the Capitol Region's Memoir Project/Bookmarks event.  Curated by Robyn Ringler, a local writer, bookseller, and owner of Eastline Books in Clifton Park, NY,  the topic for this submission was "Food."  Seemed basic and daunting at the same time.  So I began sifting through some ideas - my food allergies and sensitivities?  Too common.  Eating disorders?  Too overdone.  My vegetarianism? Too trendy.  Finally, my memory took me back to age 13, where I found myself trapped in afternoon of cake baking with my little brother, Rick.  It was too wonderful not to write and submit.  So that was what I did.  And I was happy that others saw it as worthy of sharing last night.  The evening was wonderful, filled with so many diverse experiences and stories about food and its impact on our lives, from sad to nostaligic to funny.  And what we all had in common, regardless of our age or our topic or our tone, was our love of food in some form or another, as a vehicle into relationships with our loved ones, ourselves, our surroundings, our memories. 

To my friends and family who have supported my writing, many thanks.  I know you would have been there last night if at all possible, so I have decided to share the piece here. And I want to thank my brother, Rick, who read (and laughed) at the piece and admitted that it was as true as he could recall (a rareity for memoir writers to hear!). Rick inspires me in countless ways, and he literally inspired this story by living through the memoirable experience with me.  It is for him, and for the happy childhood memories we shared, that I wrote this piece.

A Birthday Cake for Grandpa
 “We’re making grandpa a birthday cake with peanut butter frosting,” I announced.
“We?” my grandmother replied.
“Yes.  We.  Rick and me.”
“Do you know how to bake a cake?” Grandma asked.   
“Of course,” I lied.  “Mom lets me bake all the time.”
I was thirteen. My brother Rick was six.  And our combined baking resume at that point consisted of popcorn, oatmeal, and Duncan Hines Double Fudge box mix brownies. But since Grandpa’s birthday fell during our summer visit that year, it was the perfect opportunity to surprise him. 
How hard could it be to make a cake?  And some frosting? 
Maybe my mother didn’t let me bake all the time, but I had certainly watched her mix flour and sugar and eggs together enough to know the process.  And what I hadn’t learned from my mother I had seen on the cooking shows at Grandma’s house.
“Do you think Grandpa would take you grocery shopping?” I asked. “For like … two hours?”  I aimed straight for Grandma’s Achilles: her love of shopping.  And since Grandma didn’t drive, Grandpa took her everywhere she wanted to go.
By the time Grandma and Grandpa backed out of their gravel driveway thirty minutes later, I was already churning a giant mountain of flour from the Hoosier cabinet into the largest bowl I could find while Rick gathered the last four eggs from the refrigerator.
“Four people equals four eggs,” he reasoned.
“Right,” I replied, handing him a small ceramic dish.  “Here, crack them into this.”
But as Rick cradled the eggs in his left arm to reach for the dish, the first egg fell.
Within seconds, egg number two followed. 
I stopped churning, grabbed Grandma’s favorite dish towel, and began chasing and wiping the yolk puddle fanning across the kitchen floor.
 Rick’s face sank. “Now we don’t have enough eggs for the cake.”    
“Two eggs are plenty,” I promised. 
Rick recovered and began cracking the remaining eggs into the designated bowl. “Now what?”
“We should start the frosting,” I instructed. “We need to boil Karo Syrup and sugar first.  That’s what mom does. After that, we can add peanut butter.” 
I threw some granulated sugar into a saucepan and added half a jar of Karo Syrup. Then I slapped the pan on a burner and cranked the temperature to “High.”
“High temperature will make it boil faster so we can finish in time.” 
Unaware that the frosting was already in its initial burning stage, I grabbed the remaining eggs, a handful of sugar, and a pinch of baking powder and tossed everything on top of the flour mountain. 
Finally, it was time to mix.  Easier said than done, since Grandma and Grandpa’s old, four-story house was an electrical maze.  We couldn’t plug anything into the outlet by the pantry if the dining room lamp was on.  We couldn’t use the outlet by the front door if the television was playing.  We risked shrouding the entire house in darkness if we used the toaster or blender before turning off all the lights on the second floor.  And since Grandma had started a load of laundry before she left, we couldn’t plug anything into the kitchen outlet nearest the utility room without blowing all the circuits on the left side of the house.
I handed Rick the bowl and electric mixer and pointed toward the bathroom.  “Go mix this. Use the outlet by the toothbrushes.”
Rick hobbled away hugging the bowl in his arms, the mixer tucked between his chin and chest.
As I turned my attention back toward the stove, it was the crackling I heard first. 
Then, I smelled … something.
Then I saw the thick cloud of smoke rising from the front burner. 
I lunged for the saucepan, gripped the handle, and dumped the bubbling black substance into the sink. Evidently, Karo Syrup turns to granite the second it hits cold enamel.
 “What happened?” Rick ran into the kitchen.
“I burned the frosting and ruined the sink!”
We stared helplessly at the hardening mass until a low buzzing interrupted the silence.
 “Rick!  Did you leave the beaters on?” I sprinted toward the bathroom while Rick followed.
“Oh SHIT!” I screamed as I entered the centrifuge of batter leaping from the beaters and splattering the walls. The mirrors.  The claw foot tub. I ran to the mixer and slammed the “off” button.
 “I think we still have enough batter for a small cake,” I persevered. Then I scooped the beaters and the much lighter batter bowl and headed back to the kitchen.  Finally, I emptied the mixture into two metal cake tins and popped them into a 400-degree oven.
Then I turned my attention back to the marbleized mess in the sink. 
“Find a hammer,” I ordered. “And a screwdriver.” 
While Rick searched, I grabbed the bucket of peanut butter and began spooning thick blobs into one of the few mixing bowls that wasn’t covered in batter. Or egg. Or white powder.  Peanut butter is pretty perfect on its own.  I’ll just dump some sugar into this and call it frosting.  Not only was I unaware of the difference between granulated and powdered sugar, I was also unaware that peanut butter frosting required the latter.   
“Frosting’s done,” I announced as Rick reentered with a hammer in one hand and a Philip’s flathead in the other. 
I motioned him toward the sink and positioned the screwdriver in his right hand, lining it up with the solid black substance now embedded into enamel. 
“Hold it tight,” I instructed as I raised the hammer and let it fall on top of the screwdriver with such force that my arms vibrated and Rick winced.
Our victorious, boiled opponent refused to budge. 
“Forget it,” I heaved.  "We’re running out of time.  And we still have to frost the cake.”  I threw the hammer to the floor and proceeded to pull the tins out of the oven.
At that point, I noticed that one layer was shallower and darker than the other.  And after several failed attempts to pry the smaller piece from its pan, I decided that Grandpa would be celebrating this year’s birthday with half of a one-layer cake.  Resigned, I gently cut the thicker layer from its pan and pieced it together on one of Grandma’s antique serving platters before slapping thick piles of sugary peanut butter all over its top and sides. The only thing left to do was set the thing inside Grandma’s domed cake holder and snap the lid shut.  I imagined everyone’s shock as I removed the enormous cover to reveal the tiny little disaster that appeared so large, so normal, so edible from the outside. 
At that moment, I heard what I dreaded most: the sound of my grandparents’ car crunching up the driveway.
“SHIT!” I yelled one last time before shoving the cake into my brother’s arms. “Hide this somewhere.”
As Rick bolted from the room and my grandparents entered, dropping their grocery bags and cases of soda to the floor, I summoned my most cheerful voice:
“Surprise!  You’ll never guess what we did while you were out!”
No truer words were ever spoken.


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