I’d be willing to bet that each of us has, somewhere back when we were very young (I get that that’s probably not as long ago for most of you as it is for me), a special memory that’s stuck with us over the years, of someone we wish we could see again, of a thing we wish we could find again or do again, or a food we wish we could taste again, just once before we shuffle off this mortal coil.
Mr. Right, one of the world’s great storytellers was spoiled for choice in this respect. The tales of his childhood (born three floors above a bar on Pittsburgh’s South Side, into the second-generation of a Polish immigrant family, in which almost all the men were furnace operators, stove tenders, and welders at the local Jones and Laughlin Steel Plant), were full of poignant, loving, and sometimes bizarre detail–who here doesn’t want to hear about Father John McKaveny, the Catholic priest with the steel plate in his head (earned in World War I), and his foul-mouthed parrot? Or about how one of Mr. Right’s earliest childhood jobs was to take a small handful of coins from his “barrel-shaped Polish grandma” and go up the road to the bookie’s every day to play the numbers as instructed? So many stories, so many characters, and such a life.
An awful lot of Mr. Right’s early memories involved food. Lovely, warm memories like that of the pretzel shop at 2316 Carson Street–turning out pretzels by the thousands each day, and selling the “mistakes” and the broken ones, still hot, in brown paper bags, from the back door, for a few pennies each to the kids who’d line up around the block for them. Or of the loaf of bread he’d be sent by Grandma to collect every day, which sometimes smelled so good that by the time he’d reached home with it, most of the soft insides of the loaf had been prized out by his grubby little fingers and eaten, and only the crust was left. Disturbing memories of Kapusta, cabbage soup, an unpopular, but cheap and filling concoction that was, Mr. Right swore, left to simmer on the stove for at least a week, quite possibly with a few dirty socks thrown in for a little extra flavor, until the entire building smelled of overripe cabbage and other underlying and even less pleasant odors. Or, czarnina, duck’s blood soup. (That one was a result of the “waste not, want not,” philosophy of the time, the family being anxious to use up every part of the duck, since they purchased it “on the hoof” as it were, and started out their cooking adventures by wringing its neck. Or even of the vegetable dish he thought, for most of his life, was called “suttocush,” thanks to Grandma’s imperfect command of the culinary idiom of her new home. That much-loathed concoction led to an aversion to an admixture of corn and lima beans which persisted all his life.
They say that the sense of smell is, in many ways, the most evocative of memory. And still, coming across the smells of those foods could catapult him back to his childhood in a heartbeat or less.
But there was one food of his childhood that stood above all others; the most delicious treat, the one he hadn’t seen, tasted or smelled for almost seventy years, and the one he’d have given almost anything to find, smell, and taste again.
Wilde’s birthday cake.
Gustav Wilde was a German immigrant who settled in Pittsburgh’s South Side and who, with his family, opened a bakery at 1711 Carson Street. His breads, cakes, and cookies were known for their high quality and their excellent flavor, and (apparently) the celebrated birthday cake was no exception. Mr. Right just about wept with joy, every time he thought about it. The texture! The sweet (but not too sweet) frosting! The hint of . . . something! The beauty! “Veneration” is not too strong a word to describe his feelings towards this cake. There’s never, ever, been another like it! Nothing to compare, and nothing even half as good!
As I found to my cost over almost forty years of marriage.
Those of you who know me know that it takes a lot to put me off my stride, that I generally rise to a challenge, and that I’m not backward about coming forwards when it comes to attempting new things. But, as good a cook and baker as I deem myself, I was an abject failure on the birthday cake front.
Oh, it wasn’t for want of trying. I wrote to the Pittsburgh newspapers and asked for help. I put questions on the websites of Pittsburgh’s cooking shows. I tracked down someone whose mother worked at Wilde’s during the years in question (mom didn’t know what I was talking about). I found out that, when Wilde’s closed, Mr. Wilde sold the business to “Munch’s Lunches,” a local chain of bakeries and restaurants, and the recipes along with them. Munsch’s, in turn, sold the recipes to a bakery in New Jersey. And there the trail runs cold.
But that’s not all. I’ve scoured the Internet. I plumbed the depths of four decades of Mr. Right’s memory, to find out exactly what it was about this cake that was so appealing, so fabulous, so . . . perfect. To no avail.
Sadly, Mr. Right’s ability to describe, in concrete terms (what an unfortunate metaphor in this case) exactly what it was about this cake that so entranced him, left almost everything to be desired. So, I roped in my late mother-in-law, a pretty good baker in her own right. “Butter sponge,” she pronounced. With “buttercream frosting.” No other decoration needed, it was just so beautiful and so delicious all by itself.
So, more research, this portion practical and involving elements of culinary chemistry. Every German butter sponge recipe I could find. And when none of them passed muster, English butter sponges. French genoise. Eastern European sponge cakes. (Yes, I have a Polish recipe book. In Polish. Yes, I learned enough to figure out the recipe for the blasted sponge cake. Nie dobrze.)
Same with the frosting. It was always too sweet. Or not sweet enough. Or too granular. Or too stiff. Or not stiff enough. And the flavor was never entirely right. (I mastered the color, though–white.)
Over the decades, I produced some awesome cakes. With some delicious icing. But they were always a disappointment when compared against the gold standard. Against his memory. Against his imagination.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I can’t help feeling.
I think perhaps it’s that I should just have stopped messing with that moment in time, and that memory, and let them stand forever, perfect and untouched.
Before I throw in the towel once and for all, though, one final time: I don’t suppose any of you happen to have the recipe for Wilde’s birthday cake anywhere handy? Just a thought. For me, this time. Not for Mr. Right.
He doesn’t need it any more. He’s in heaven. And I bet he has a slice of Wilde’s birthday cake every day. With ice cream. Lucky guy.