Last week was a blur. When I think back to my visit to the Midwest, all I see are smiling faces, plates of homemade food, people all talking at the same time trying to see whose joke gets heard first around the dinner table, my nephew and my sister’s Puggle dog running around the house excited for attention from new faces, voices and guffaws, and feeling the humid end-of-summer heat that we literally swam through while going for our daily run on country roads.
Back in the country, in Indiana where I grew up, nothing has really changed.
The heat, the laughter, the neighbors are all still there – the same ones that were there 30 years ago when my parents built our house. Yes, thankfully there are a few exceptions. My mom and dad have finally changed the 70’s orange and brown wallpaper in the bathroom (now the walls are an appropriately eccentric lime green). The matching pumpkin orange sink has finally (just last week) bit the dust as well. The huge maple tree that towered behind our pond fell down in a storm last year, so my dad took our his chainsaw and went to work, as that’s the wood that heats our house in the frigid winter months. The three blue spruce trees that my dad planted in our front yard must be 40 feet tall now. They are the same ones that my older sister and I stood in front of, in our Sunday dresses (ages 4 and 7?), for a photo. The trees were as tall as we were. We stopped growing but the trees did not. But just about everything else? It’s how I’ve always remembered it.
My mother, in all of her stubborn pragmatism, still maintains a garden, coaxing tiny vegetables out of clay soil – the soil that she battles each spring with a tiller whose blades attempt assault on the clay but barely make a dent. The small amount of tomatoes, peppers and corn that eke out their existence in that godforsaken stuff then live shortened lives as my mother battles the numerous deer that wander over for a noontime salad buffet. But she still does it, year after year.
Birthdays are still celebrated with a homemade cake and lasagna. My youngest sister Gina turned 20 that week and we gathered to eat and make noise. With my older sister’s family, my younger sister Terri and her fiancé, my brother, and now me with Mark (who was seeing the Indiana family for the first time on home court) we barely fit around the table. I couldn’t stop smiling because, well, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. The dog was barking, there were five voices ‘please passing’ and my dad’s joking provoked all of us to come up with witty retorts in loud voices - because that’s the only way you’ll be heard in a family of 7. But once the German Chocolate Cake was served, we quieted down a bit. Our mouths were too busy. A homemade three-layer cake from a recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook circa 1972. I think it was the first cookbook she ever regularly used, and its the same one she uses today for everything from beef stroganoff to apple spice bread. The chocolate cake came out dense, as my mom replaced most of the sugar in the batter with honey. Now that I think about it I don’t believe my mother’s ever made a fluffy baked product in her life. She’s kept the bees busy for many years.
My dad and sister Gina after blowing out the candles
When I look at my photos from Indiana, I realize that they are mostly of all of us gathered around eating and laughing. The same big family that bugged me when I was younger, for having to share bedrooms and Halloween candy and for preventing us from going on expensive vacations, is the same family that brings unimaginable energy and laughter to me. We get eachother’s sense of humor, like that perfect best friend who’s always in on the absurdities of your inside world.
When Mark and I return to Seattle and open the door to our tiny place, I can’t help but notice how quiet the house is. There is no dog, no little kids, no siblings to greet us and pepper us with questions. We don’t have a big table to gather around for supper. Our coffee table, with the magazines pushed aside, is all we can fit.
Yet Seattle is my new home, even without all the trappings.
I begin to hope that someday Mark and I will have a home filled with energy and laughter, activity and people, people, people all the time. Coming from a big family, that’s my idea of home. Friends will drop in on a whim for coffee in our light-filled kitchen, Sunday dinners will be shared not just with Mark, but with other loved ones as well.
That is what we both want, more of that family stuff.
German Chocolate Cake
From the Betty Crocker Cookbook
I can still picture my mother bent over her relic of a cookbook, making this cake in three layers. As she can’t handle sugary desserts, she made a few substitutions… maybe this is where I get my manic-substituting ways. Customize your food, why not?
For the sweet cooking chocolate, she subbed 3 tablespoons butter and ¾ cup cocoa powder. For the 2 cups sugar in the cake, replace with 1 cup honey. I wouldn’t bother with the 9 inch round pans unless you enjoy particularly thin layers, try the 8 inch round instead.
1/2 cup Boiling water
4 ounces Sweet cooking chocolate
2 cups Sugar
1 cup Butter; softened
4 Egg yolks
1 teaspoon Vanilla
2 1/4 cups All purpose flour; or
2 1/2 cups Cake flour
1 teaspoon Baking soda
1 teaspoon Salt
1 cup Buttermilk
4 Egg whites; stiffly beaten
Coconut pecan frosting:
3 Egg yolks
1 cup Evaporated milk
1 cup Sugar
1/2 cup Butter
1 teaspoon Vanilla
1 1/3 cups Flaked coconut
1 cup Pecans; chopped
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 2 square pans, 8x8x2-inches or 9x9x2-inches, or 3 round pans, 8x1-1/2-inches or 9x1-1/2-inches. Line bottoms of pans with cooking parchment paper. Pour boiling water over chocolate, stirring until chocolate is melted; cool. Mix sugar and margarine in medium bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time. Beat in chocolate and vanilla on low speed. Mix flour, baking soda and salt. Add alternately with buttermilk, beating after each addition until batter is smooth. Fold in egg whites. Divide batter between pans. Bake 8-inch squares 45-50 minutes, 9-inch squares 40-45 minutes, 8-inch rounds 35-40 minutes, 9-inch rounds 30-35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cakes 10 minutes. Invert on wire rack and cool completely. Fill layers and frost top of cake with Coconut-Pecan Frosting. Coconut-Pecan Frosting. Beat egg yolks and milk in 2-quart saucepan. Stir in sugar, margarine and vanilla. Cook over medium heat about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thick. Stir in coconut and pecans. Beat until frosting is of spreading consistency.