Introduction Part II: My Cake Adventure

As family lore tells it, my mother’s father’s passion for baking started early. He dropped out of school around the 8th grade, then went to work on the family farm. During his free time he enjoyed baking blueberry muffins. (If he’d written a blog, would it have been called “The Muffin Man”?) After one of his brothers declined a job “opportunity” at a local bakery, 19-year-old Papa K. volunteered to take his place. His hobby quickly transitioned into a long, successful career as a baker.

Last year, in launching a blog primarily about my interest in – among other things – national parks, the idea of linking the 2016 Centennial of the National Park Service with my grandfather (both born in 1916) led naturally to a birthday cake, specifically the chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting Papa K. baked for all family birthdays.

Fortunately, before he passed, my sister hunted down our grandfather’s recipe, then dictated it to me. Unfortunately, I’d only written out the ingredients and amounts, an oven temperature, and the size of the pan. I once attempted the recipe and found the result mediocre. Why still use the recipe? For the purposes of this blog I wanted a symbol, a unifying thread connecting me and my genealogy (a secondary blog interest) with the NPS. (Baking counts as a third interest. Writing about it scores a fourth.) Taste? Pshaw. Irrelevant.

Still, no reason not to try again, right? Maybe I’d improved as a baker in the intervening years. One thing definitely changed over all that time = the internet. Seeking an explanation for one puzzling ingredient, I typed in “chocolate cake + boiling water” and struck Google gold. I learned two crucial things:

  1. My grandfather’s treasured recipe came from the back of the Hershey’s cocoa tin.
  2. When to add the boiling water. The upside of discovering that a private family recipe belongs to the entire world? The instructions are easy to find!

Adding the water at the right time made all the difference. The cake turned out moist and delicious. (Just ask the three people I shared it with… Yes, three. That felt generous at the time. Maybe I could/should have shared another small piece or two.)

Let’s review the intended design. To incorporate my love of forested national parks, I pictured pine trees clustered in the center, closer to one cake end than the other. Spilling out of this copse would be four blue icing “rivers” flowing North, South, East and West. Maybe a few candy rocks near the trees, or in the rivers, or… I decided to work that out during decorating. Green frosting, if I found affordable, organic green dye (I didn’t). The finishing touch? A pre-printed sign, sparing myself the frustration of writing a long, legible message in icing. The decorated cake would hopefully resemble a wrapped present, the trees resembling a “bow” and the rivers, “ribbons.”

In the end, only the sign matched my vision:

NPS Centennial Cake_1

Telling my mother about the Hershey’s recipe got her talking. Besides taking responsibility for the chocolate cake family tradition, claiming she scorned an earlier recipe he’d been using (something like “For a professional baker, you need to make a better chocolate cake”), she divulged the main reason Papa K. dropped out of school: the fallout from having locked the teacher in the outhouse.

That brings me back to how all this ties together. Need a hint? Think “Tell Your Story.”

(To be concluded in Introduction Part III: Tell Your Story)

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