Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Meet mama bee

My mom is really really wonderful. An alarming amount of advice she has gently offered is turning out to be right. She is the magicest grandma ever. I asked her to write up some stories she has told me over the years so I could put them on my blog, and she graciously agreed. Because without even seeing it she believed me that I must be asking for a good reason and that is enough for her to help out. She's just like that. (I have since shared my blog with her. I know.)

Here's one. By her. All through my childhood, her recipe box was half handwritten recipes on 4x6 cards and half cake recipe magazines from the 1950s. I spent many, many hours poring through them--even in the 1980s in Pennsylvania they seemed like they were from another time. So I asked her to tell us about women and cakes in the 1950s.
It was, like, a THING.


Indianapolis, where I was born, was a big city, not in the Chicago sense, but pretty big, because it had street cars and kindergartens and a milk man who came three times a week.

Then by about 1947, when I was in second grade, we moved to a small Ohio town, a hundred miles or so down the road. I felt, however, as if I had been dropped in a foreign land . Remember, this was before the internet or free long distance or affordable air fare. I was suddenly in a quiet little town full of people who knew where everybody lived and what everybody's parents and grandparents had ever done or not done. A place where people just followed their customs and did not pay much attention at all to the rest of the world.

One of these customs was the bake sale. Which really was a cake sale. And such a glorious array of cakes I had never seen--tall and elegant and fluffed up with seven minute frosting. And every one of them made from scratch. Although cake mixes had just become available, there was only one kind and it was expensive and it produced a vastly inferior kind of cake, the ladies believed. But even if you could have passed a cake mix cake for the real thing, you never would have dared. The chance of being discovered would have been too shameful to imagine.

Since every group in town had its bake sale to raise money, every few weeks or so it seemed my mother was called upon to make a cake for a bake sale. She dreaded this duty, because the competition was fierce.

Everybody knew, without ever saying, of course, that Mrs. Kitchen's yellow cake or Mrs. McIntire's jam cake or Mrs. Seifert's devil's food cake or Mrs. Ballinger's angel food would be ordered and paid for long before the sale ever began. These most prized cakes, marked "sold," were then displayed among all the lesser cakes right there on the long table. Bake sale customers would gasp at the beauty of the sold cakes before they settled for one of the ordinary ones, like my mother's. Sometimes she made a German chocolate one, a wonderful recipe from my grandmother, which took most of a day to make, but my mother had not lived nearly long enough in that town to earn the reputation of the others.

My mother, a city girl, who did not even like to cook, worked very hard to succeed at this bake sale performance that was expected of her. She knew that each layer of her cake must be high and even and level, so as not to make the finished cake look tilted in any way. She knew that the experts used seven minute frosting sparingly, not merely to disguise imperfections. She knew that when the cake was served, each slice must look symmetrical with no holes--only very fine little air bubbles as if the batter had been perfectly stirred--by hand, of course.

Well, my mother should have been an engineer, but that career path was not available. She sometimes made two or three tries before she produced a cake she thought was worthy for the bake sale. She got up early in the morning, filled the kitchen with equipment and ingredients. She measured everything precisely. She anguished over whether or not to cheat and use her new mixer. She despaired when the oven rack was slightly crooked and made the layers a little off or someone banged a door and made the layers fall in the middle. She hated the icing part, for often it did not set right. Finally she would pack the cake in her cake basket and deliver it to the sale.

The judgment came when one of the ladies in charge lifted her cake out of the basket, held it up to her practiced eye, and put a price on it. My mother knew she would never be in Mrs. Kitchen's league, where cakes went for a dollar or more, but her greatest fear was that her cake would be put in the back row beside Mrs. Beady's, whose sloping cakes they never refused, but wished they could.

I did not, back then, really understand my mother's relief when her cake was finally sold. She always dreaded the day she might have to bring her cake home--a bake sale dropout. What could be so bad about that, I wondered? We would be happy to eat it.

I was not old enough yet to understand the injustice of measuring a woman's worth by her cakes.


Anonymous said...

That was a fantastic post. Is your mother a writer?

Claire B. said...

What a great story! Your mom is lovely and eloquent. All this pressure, for all these years. When is our best ever going to be good enough? As a pre-teen, I made a cake for our church bazaar and kept walking by the table until I saw the "sold" card on the toothpick stuck into it. Then I was happy.

Tootsie Farklepants said...

Awww...this is so sweet. And I really want some cake.

Minnesota Matron said...

This is so great! I love this post and am profoundly grateful for this new century. Big cheer to your mother (who probably missed one of your firsts, too!)

Vanessa said...

You're mother sounds like a wonderful treasure of a person. Lucky you!

ellen said...

Nora, I just loved this story. Your mother sounds like such a wonderful person!
I remember the admonition to not slam the doors when there was a cake in the oven.
I hope that your mother will write some more stories for us. We are about the same age.

coffespaz said...

I love it!! Please continue to add her stories now and then. Its nice to hear wonderful memories of a time that's passed, we get too caught up in the pace of today's lifestyle and forget the simpler joys sometimes.

OH, and I want cake now too!! Growing up, my mom always made our birthday cakes..and she did wonderfully creative character cakes too. We had some great ones...a hairbrush, Miss Piggy, an ROTC shirt, complete with patches and ribbons.

Melanie said...

Nora's Mooooooom! I love this.

I'm so very glad that my worth as a woman isn't determined by the quality of my cakes, for my cakes, they are not pretty.

Jennifer said...

Mmm - cake!

This is a wonderful story. And a reminder that the pressures to be "perfect" we face today aren't much different from the pressures of years passed. The categories of judgment have simply changed. *sigh*.

My Ice Cream Diary said...

A lovely, bittersweet tale. I love hearing stories like these and should do as you have done and make my mom write them down.

TwoSquareMeals said...

I can't wait to hear more from Mama Bee. That was wonderful. It's a shame people are so judgmental sometimes. At the same time, it's kind of sad that we've lost the pride people used to take in doing simple things like baking a cake or ironing a shirt. My grandma was so intentional about the little daily things, and I think there is something good for the soul in that.

Melissa said...

I finally got around to reading this! I'd bookmarked it and forgotten to come back. Tell your mama I think she's a wonderful writer, and that was a beautifully written story. I hope she'll tell more.