& his favorite cake
Dear bread friends,
This week, my family kept a mental vigil over the vigil we kept last year.
I’m reviewing all the moments. The two hours I was with him by FaceTime when he was in the hospital, and I read him Huckleberry Finn. The stunning truth of a death grip, and the usefulness of a hospice nurse rolling up a washcloth to put between my hand and his, to soften the strength. My refusal of a friend’s offer of food. Why didn’t I take her help? Did I really need to burn two pounds of pasta? Why can’t I let people nourish me?
During my father’s last while with us, we read him poems and sang to him and chatted quietly by his bed. We were in a room that he built with family and friends. The family room was an extension off the old back porch and he left part of that porch as decorations, wooden balustrades that my mom painted different colors over the years. Above those columns there was a long shelf that held a toy and a rusty tractor.
On the room’s crossbeams, he had wound bittersweet vines and Christmas tree lights that stayed up all year, and these decorations were some of the last things to leave the house after it sold this fall. The castle is now on top of my piano and the tractor perches on a mantle above my dad’s old desk, a hulking oak beauty that he and my mom bought for $10 in 1964. I could fill my house with all of his things, but I don’t want to make this a museum. It is so tempting to do that!
Earlier in the week I thought I would bake and cook things I associate with my dad: War Surplus Cake, creamed chipped beef on toast, tuna noodle casserole made with tomato soup (I never wanted to eat that! I loved my mom’s, made with cream of mushroom soup), pancakes. But I was really sluggish and mostly read and rested.
The fall that my father had his first strokes, I got pneumonia. Grief, I learned, was affiliated with the lungs in Traditional Chinese Medicine. How could my body so easily tell my truth? I felt like my illness was stripping me naked. Covid’s frequent attack on the lungs reminds me of that concept. Is this a planetary expression of grief taking place in our bodies?
Yesterday, my boy Felix helped the people who bought my parents’ house move in. At first, I didn’t want him to mention the coincidence, that they are beginning their life with this house just a year after my father left. But it seems a really beautiful circle to me now, not a morbid thing.
I am so grateful that I got to be with my family and near our dad last year, and my heart breaks for people who don’t get the chance, either because of Covid restrictions or sudden death. Tomorrow, we will have brunch at my sister’s. I am making some quiches with leeks that my husband Jack grew in the yard. My sister-in-law is making cinnamon buns and my older sister is making fruit salad. Jack will drink a stinger in my dad’s honor, made from brandy and white crème de mint. I don’t know if he actually likes this drink or just liked connecting with my dad and sharing one with him! I might have to make a War Surplus Cake.
Thank you for reading my reflections, even when bread is not front of mind.
War Surplus Cake Recipe
This common cake has more common names: mix–in–the–pan cake, wacky cake, crazy cake. When my dad brought slices of this cake to high school, kids commented “What is that Halloran, war surplus?” Lest you automatically affiliate the word grandmother with a love of the kitchen, please note that Georgiana Cole Halloran did not like to cook! But she did like to make this cake, and so do I.
1 ½ cups flour -- all-purpose flour, whole wheat pastry flour, rye flour, barley flour all work well
½ -1 cup sugar, depending on how sweet you’d like it
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
¼ cup cocoa
1 cup water
1/3 cup oil
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Whisk or sift together the dry ingredients, and add the liquids to them. Stir just until mixed and pour into an 8 x 8 or equivalent pan. You only need to grease the pan if you want to take the cake out of it; the cake comes cleanly from the pan. I use a heart-shaped pan.
Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 30 to 35 minutes. Dress this up with jam and ganache, if you’d like, but my dad never did like anything other than white icing.
The Times Union published my food book gift guide — including Technically Food, investigative reporter Larissa Zimberoff’s book about high tech food.
Civil Eats published a roundup of food and farming books, and I wrote about All That She Carried, historian Tia Miles stunning examination of an embroidered sack.
Feminist City: A Field Guide by Leslie Kern
The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants by Jane S. Smith
The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue
What a bittersweet newsletter. Thinking of you all sending you lots of love. To add on to what you mentioned about the lungs and grief in Chinese medicine, in Chinese astrology we are actually in a 12 year metal cycle (2020-2031) and metal is the element of grief (and rules the lungs and large intestine). So, buckle up, theme is going to be an ongoing theme for the next decade. Pretty powerful if we chose to engage it with intention, but rough going to be sure if we don't. xoxo
Lovely! It's the small things, isn't it? The War Surplus Cake, the toy tractor, the "hulking oak beauty" that make his life shimmer in front of us.