The Strawberry Cake Story

I always hesitate to tell this story, it just sounds too strange and unbelievable, but a few folks asked me to. My birthday's over,  and I'm just now making THE strawberry cake. Our Friday night dinner group consists of 11 people, out of those, 3 have birthdays in late May. So tonight we're going out for dinner at Devito's Restaurant and Trout Farm and since I didn't make myself my favorite strawberry cake on my birthday, this will be the cake we 3 who have birthdays this week and last, will share.

The actual and real, I swear, story of this cake, follows here. Believe it, because it's true, but if you don't choose to believe, that's ok, I understand. It all started my first year in the Air Force, 1967. I'd been away at college for 2 years, the Army and the Vietnam war were breathing down my neck. I chose the Medical Corps in the Air Force and that May was my first birthday away from home. Before, even while in college, I always returned home for my birthday, where my mother made my favorite of all cakes - strawberry. I'm guessing the recipe had come from one of the women's magazines my mother read, because it is wholly a 50's style cake. There is nothing healthy or wholesome in it.

Knowing I was not getting to come home for my birthday, I planned ahead, asking my mother to write mail the recipe to me. I attended church off-base, in town each Sunday. There was a group of college students and Airmen who met for study in the Church annex and someone always brought food to go with coffee. I thought sharing my favorite cake would be a great way to celebrate.

I had a desk in my barracks room which I shared with a roommate. I stored my mother's strawberry cake recipe in my one drawer. I had asked Connie, one of the girls in our Sunday group if I could come to her house to make the cake on Saturday and we could store it in the annex's refrigerator until Sunday. She agreed and I bought the necessary ingredients on Friday.

Saturday morning I was excited to get the cake project underway. I had the ingredients already in my vehicle, but when I opened the desk drawer, the cake recipe was nowhere to be found. I looked and looked, turning everything upside down, asked my roommate, looked in the groceries, in my pockets, all to no avail. The recipe was lost. Food for me, is always a connection to emotion, to nostalgia, to good memories, and I was miserable. I wanted that cake.

It was pouring down rain as I drove to Connie's house, very sad. I really wanted to taste that cake badly, and I really wanted to share it with my friends. I didn't start crying like a baby, but I darned well felt like it. I parked near Connie's house, thinking I would just take the ingredients inside and leave them for her family as I couldn't do anything with frozen strawberries, eggs, oil, etc.

When I stepped out of my truck, the wind was blowing the rain so hard it immediately soaked my shirt and the paper grocery bags. I walked toward the house with my head down to avoid as much of the blowing rain as I could. Looking down to avoid stepping in puddles on the sidewalk, I saw a small piece of soggy paper. I nearly didn't stop, but I bent down and picked it up out of curiosity. It couldn't be. How was this possible? It was A strawberry cake recipe! Not the one my mother had typed out for me, this one was in a handwriting I didn't recognized. I stood there, dumbfounded. I tried to figure out how this strange coincidence could be. The water running down my back, through my underwear and jeans and down my legs, brought me back to reality. I ran on to Connie's house, losing the box of frozen strawberries out of the now disintegrated grocery bag.

Indoors, Connie handed me a towel and helped me retrieve the groceries. As we spread everything out on the kitchen counter, I told her my story of the disappearing recipe and the incredible appearance of the new one I held in my hand. She nodded and smiled, but obviously didn't believe me. I couldn't blame her, had I not witnessed it myself, I wouldn't have believed it, either.

We made the cake. The ingredients were similar to my mom's recipe, but slightly different. Egg whites instead of whole eggs, for instance. Sliced fresh strawberries instead of frozen. But the cake was baked and appeared all right. We let it cool, iced it, then drove to the church and put it in the refrigerator for morning. But wait, this isn't the end of the story!

Next day when we arrived early to make coffee, Connie went to get the cake. She came back and said the cake wasn't there. I looked in the refrigerator, too. We looked in the church's big walk-in refrigerator, asked the associate pastor. Nothing. As the coffee perked Connie excused herself and went to the lady's bathroom. She came back carrying a wastebasket. In it, was my cake, still intact except for one missing piece.

We had about 30 people in our group and as they arrived I told them about the cake and how disappointed I was in not getting to share it with them. (And how I really wanted to have some myself). It took weeks for the mystery to be unraveled, but in the end, a girl I had dated one time (and not again because she was absolutely crackers) was jealous that I'd gone to Connie's to make the cake. She discovered the cake in the church refrigerator, ate a piece, cried, and dumped the rest in the trashcan, as revenge! But wait, this also isn't the end of the story!

Every year when I get ready to make mom's strawberry cake, the recipe is no where to be found. I keep it in a notebook of recipes, I even check during the winter, but when my birthday rolls around, it's nowhere to be seen. I have a special pocket for it in my file, I always put the recipe there when I find it again, but when I make the cake, I wind up using the recipe I found on the sidewalk. So one of my reasons for waiting a week to make the cake, was to see if the right recipe would stay where I put it last year. It was where it was supposed to be.  I used Mom's recipe this year. In the photo you can see both hers and the one I found on the sidewalk in the rain in 1967.

Because several people asked, here's Mom's recipe. It may not sound like it, but is so incredibly good that I would probably eat the whole thing, which is why I'm sharing it with our dinner group tonight, to save me from myself. As I warned earlier, it's a typical 1950s recipe, there is absolutely nothing healthy in this except for the strawberries.

Strawberry Cake

1 box white cake mix
1 small box strawberry Jell-O (dry)
Scant cup cooking oil
4 egg whites
1/2 cup water

Mix thoroughly with electric mixer or by hand. Then add 1 box (about a cup) of thawed, frozen strawberries, mixing by hand to combine. Pour into oiled, floured 9 x 13 baking pan and bake at 325 degrees F. until a knife inserted into center comes out clean.

1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter, combined with 1/2 cup formerly frozen strawberries and 2 cups powdered sugar, mixing well. Spread on cooled cake. (I use half cream cheese, half butter instead of all butter).

Josh picked another 3 gallons, bringing the total up to a little over 6 gallons of cherries off of the one, dwarf Montmorency cherry tree. He bought a new cherry pitter, and it works like a charm. It's not electric or anything automatic, but it does make this job a whole lot easier. He's freezing the cherries in pie-sized batches (4 cups). I made a pie a couple of days ago out of the first picking. It's great to have a winter's supply of good pie cherries.

I'm really glad my birthday comes during strawberry (and cherry) season. Happy Gardening!


Anonymous said...

What a crazy, amazing story! Wow, seriously one of the coolest I have ever heard, it would have to make the cake even more special....Happy bday btw ;)

fertilemind said...

Hi Jim,
I write a garden column for the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, and as I did some research on my topic for the week — mint — I came across something you wrote where you mentioned Jim Westerfield - I love it that there is always someone somewhere who is passionate about just about everything that grows.

So I decided to check out your blog and was so pleased to find the piece about the strawberry cake. This is the Strawberry Shortcake (cute little commercial character meant to sell stuff to little girls' parents) cake. My 37-year-old daughter was crazy about SS as a kid and I came across this recipe on the back of a cake mix box and made it for her on her 7th or 8th birthday, and she has requested it every year since. We just call it Birthday Cake.

I'm tickled strawberry pink that someone else shares one of our family traditions

Happy Birthday!

Jan Wiese-Fales

Lindy said...

What an absolutely delightful story. I believe every word :) Strange things are often going on in our world.

Would you please share the brand name of your new cherry pitter with us. I am moving back home to the Cherry Capital of the World - the Grand Traverse region of northwestern lower Michigan. I will be needing a good, relatively quick and painless method for pitting cherries.

Jim Long said...

Hi Jan, I am so pleased someone else loves that cake. I didn't know where the recipe came from but I'm not surprised it was from the back of a cake mix box.

I wrote a fairly lengthy article on Jim Westerfield's mints for The Herb Companion magazine about 3 years ago. Quite a remarkable collection of mints he offers through Richters Herbs. Also if you look back a few weeks in postings on my blog you'll find the mint I introduced through Mountain Valley Growers this year, which they named, "Macho Mint." I'll be introducing another mint next year, also. Thanks for sharing your love of strawberry cake!

Jim Long said...

Lindy, I had intended for the brand name to show up in the photo but see that the side I photographed is in German. Oh, wait, that IS the brand. It's a Leifheit Cherry and Olive Pitter, several stores carry it on-line and sells for $30. It works really great and is easily worth the price for the speed and convenience.

Jim Long said...

Lindy, I had intended for the brand name to show up in the photo but see that the side I photographed is in German. Oh, wait, that IS the brand. It's a Leifheit Cherry and Olive Pitter, several stores carry it on-line and sells for $30. It works really great and is easily worth the price for the speed and convenience.