Each year when our birthdays rolled around Momma started making plans. Rarely did her plans only include the immediately family because there was a grand array of extended family and friends to invite. To not have Uncles or cousins and friends at our house for special occasions would have been strange.
It would have been even stranger if Momma only served Coffee, Cake and Ice Cream. This was her stage and she often became the queen of the festivities when one of her new dishes became the hit of the party. Finally, she would say to herself that their approval was enough to prove that the time spent clipping recipes from the newspaper was necessary. I also think Momma liked the rumble of noise and activity rising from the people seated around the large dining room table.
In the fifties boutique foods were not known, nor did you need to decide between organic or regular. Most people that lived in our little community were “meat and taters” folk and they never attempted to buy or make anything new. I don’t think too many women collected cookbooks or considered subscribing to a home and food magazine. Their basic recipes were all they needed, although some women had the most delicious, one of a kind creations.
My paternal grandmother was one of those women, but she also loved to experiment with food preparation. She required guests and family to be willing to accept a variety of taste treats at her table. Any one who shunned a dish didn’t get by with it! Grandma’s precedent allowed my mother to continue the same philosophy and it worked because she was a good cook.
My grandmother and the community had a hard time accepting my mother since she was not from the same little town. In fact, my mother was from Illinois and to make it even worse she was Italian. The citizens of the little town and the surrounding farmers never accepted someone new. Unknowingly my grandmother helped my mother to become part of the family and welcomed in town. If she ever knew how she helped my mother, I am sure she would have been upset and even angry!
Since my sister was twelve Momma thought that a tiered cake was appropriate. The cake needed to look impressive and pretty, but above all else; it needed to serve many people. First there was to be a dinner for family and some chosen young guests of my sister and then an open house for classmates and their families was held’
The guests at the open house and at dinner enjoyed a tasty yellow cake layered with three filling including fudge and walnut. As children, we looked forward when my mother made a birthday cake, because there were always plenty of trimmings from the tops of the cake layers ate. I always dipped a spatula into the butter cream frosting to spread some on my piece. My sister ate hers plain and if my mother had a small piece, she would slather it with soft, country butter,
The day before the birthday party Momma was up early. First she needed to take care of her daily chores on the farm, then make breakfast for my sister and I, take some time to sit with us as we ate, (which she always did regardless of her schedule) and afterward she began making the cakes. Since she wanted a tiered cake Momma needed to bake a large round cake for the bottom tier. Because any thing larger than an eight or 9-inch cake pan available Momma became creative. Whenever she wanted this big size, she used a 16″ round white, glazed dishpan with a bright red stripe around the perimeter of the pan. We always teased her about making the cake in a dishpan.
Within a short time, Momma had the batter made for one of the layers in the bottom tier. She always prepared the right amount of cake batter for each pan size. The cake went into the oven; the timer set and then Momma continued making more cake batter for the rest of the cake. I have always been amazed that all of this (the enlarging of recipes, the knowledge to know how much batter to make, the knowledge of how to set a tiered cake together and how to decorate a cake) came to Momma naturally. After I had grown, I looked at pictures of the many cakes that she had made. I asked her how she knew how to do all this and answered by saying: “Well, I just did it because I wanted to!” I think that if Momma had pondered the problems of building a tiered cake she would have never succeeded!
While the cake was baking and Momma was making more batter my sister had to get ready to leave for piano lessons and I became entranced, sitting on a chair at the kitchen table-watching Momma make the batter. I also was anxious in anticipation of seeing the big round cake come from the oven. Half way through the baking time a neighbor stopped in to see us. He lived on the farm next to ours. Momma gave him coffee and a homemade cinnamon roll while they chatted. Leon teased my mother and told her he smelled the cake burning. Momma knew how he teased and was ready not to over react. The timer sounded just before Leon was going to leave. Momma checked the cake, first with the finger test and then if the results were questionable she would use a toothpick to test the cake for doneness. She decided it needed a little more time and reset the timer. Leon, in the meantime was preparing to leave, but before he put his glove on he stuck his finger into the cake batter Momma had just made. SMAAAACK, Momma asked if he wanted another smack on his hand. Leon left with a smile on his face and cake batter smeared on his cheek.
The timer sounded again and this time Momma took the cake from the oven and set it on the cooling rack. The warm scents of butter, vanilla and egg rose from the cake making me hungry. Soon, enough time had passed so Momma could remove the cake from the pan. Deftly and quickly, Momma turned the cake out onto a cooling rack and then placed another rack onto the cake so she could turn it over to cool with the raised center up. To cool the cake a little quicker Momma carried the cake outside to a hand-washing stand just outside of the door where she often cooled her cakes and pies. While the cake cooled Momma placed another big round cake in the oven and then continued making more batter. Soon it was time for Momma to bring the cake in because the one in the oven would be ready to cool. The bake, cool, trim and wrap routine began.
Momma first removed the cake from the oven and then set it to cool on the cake rack. Next, she placed some smaller size cakes in the oven and then headed outside for the original large tier. Within just a moment I heard a loud scream and then a fearless order-
“You mangy cat, get-go away-GD how dare you eat my cake!”
Next, I heard the swishing sound of a broom flying overhead and brushing against the wooden post of the washstand. I quickly looked out the window as I saw Momma with broom in hand chasing one of thirty cats that lived in our barn. As the cat, a very well groomed tabby passed the gate leading into the lane that gave the cat a quick get-a-way to the barn.
This cat, as well as, the others lived in the barn. They controlled the mice population on the farm. Each night my mother made their dinner, a large pot of Oatmeal mixed with the day’s table scraps. After Momma prepared their supper she set it aside to cool before she took it to the barn to feed the cats. At feeding time, the felines came tumbling in from their homes in the haymow or in the bins of oats and scampered around her legs until she would divide the food in three different containers. .
As Momma arrived at the gate that allowed the cat a speedy get-a-way, she stopped and leaned onto the gate for just a moment. Head down, broom dragging, she turned and headed back to the house grumbling.
Upon her arrival into the kitchen with the cake I quickly questioned: “Momma, what are you going to do?” Then I looked at the cake and realized the cat had eaten the whole area in the center of the cake that had mounded as it had baked. Momma set the cake down on the table, went to the cupboard for a cup and poured herself a cup of coffee.
She asked me to be quiet and then drank her coffee one tiny sip at a time. Her right foot wrapped around her left foot and somehow she was able to tap the floor; tapping steadily and quietly matched the intense look on her face and how she swallowed each cup. When she finished her coffee, she took the cup to the sink and washed it. As she returned to the table where I was sitting, she picked up her long serrated knife and trimmed a thin layer from the entire cake. Then she smiled at me and said, “Honey, Momma doesn’t have time to make this cake over so we are going to use it! A little cat nibble isn’t going to hurt anything. Help Momma wrap it and then throw these crumbs out! ” Remember little man, we have lots more cake to bake, cool and wrap!”
The morning passed quickly as we continued to bake and wrap the cakes. When the batter was all made Momma told me I was in charge of watching them bake, cooling and then wrapping them. Momma began making the fillings and her special butter cream frosting. When we were all done Momma told me to take a little break and go play. As I reached the door she stopped me and said,
“Buzzie, this is our little secret-No One Needs to Know.”
That afternoon Momma frosted and decorated my sister’s birthday. In the evening, she began cooking for the birthday dinner. During supper, I never said a word. Occasionally Momma would touch me and give me a secret little smile.
At the dinner and then the reception, the cake sat regally in the center of the table, decorated with garlands of white butter cream, pale pink roses and light green leaves. Oh, it was so pretty and I knew it would taste equally as good. Momma was right; there was no need to tell any one. If Momma had decided to throw the cake away, my sister would probably have had a much smaller, less elegant cake. In the end, we were all happy and my Mother was smiling. The guests raved over how great the cake was and how wonderful my mother was at entertaining!