Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Take the Long Way Home: September Birthday Cake/Brown-Eyed Susan Cake

This weekend we traveled to Illinois to celebrate my dad’s birthday. This is such a beautiful time of year – the leaves are just beginning to change and the landscape seemed to glow all the way through Wisconsin. As Ryan steered us through the illuminated scenes, I stared out the window seeking inspiration from the autumn palette. Listening to the hum of the tires on the road and counting rows of pine trees in structured groves along the side of the highway, I realized that every ounce of the experience reminded me of my dad.

Some of my earliest memories are of cruising around in cars with my dad. He has always had an affinity for “cool” cars, especially the classics, and I can’t remember a time in my life when there wasn’t a car sitting in our driveway that made men salivate and my mom threaten to put a “for sale” sign on it. Much to my mom’s dismay, I inherited the car gene and was always intrigued by these vehicles. When I was little, I’m not sure if it was the car that was so fascinating or the fact that it meant uninterrupted time with my dad that was the appeal. But I’ll never forget the feeling of driving around town in my dad’s dark green Trans-Am with the windows down, letting the summer air swat my hair into tangled knots, listening to songs that will forever be embedded into my heart, and looking over and smiling at my dad. Ironically, the songs that are the most dear to me from that time are on Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” album – how fitting that food is mentioned in the title.

My dad’s family used to have a cabin in a little town in northern Wisconsin called Crivitz. Not far from the cabin is a county park with hiking trails that lead to a river whose main attraction is a set of waterfalls, the one I remember the most being Dave’s Falls. Every trip, my dad and I would drive over, hike the area and hang out at the falls. He’d regale me with stories of his childhood adventures in Crivitz while we hiked with pine needles crunching underfoot and the sound of raging water pounding against rock in the background. On the drive home, we were usually so tired that we let the Wisconsin scenery lull us into an inspired silence.

When I was old enough to drive, I learned that those car rides with my dad had had more of an effect on me than I ever imagined. If I had a bad day or was plagued by something that I needed to think over, I found that driving was the solution to calm my nerves or still my mind enough to think things through. But even when I was alone in the car, my dad was always with me. I’d drive the routes he took me on when I was a kid, listen to the music we listened to together, and remember the stories he told me about his own childhood. It didn’t matter what car I was in, it was the act of being behind the wheel, hearing the hum of rubber against asphalt, and feeling the wind against my skin that instantly drew pictures of my father in my mind. And driving home to celebrate his birthday, in the middle of the state where we had many outdoor adventures together, I realized that after all this time, driving still had the same effect.

For the celebration, I chose to make the September Birthday Cake of the Month: a Brown-Eyed Susan Cake. At first, I wasn’t sure my choice was the appropriate match for my dad, but as I mixed batter, created the different flavors and constructed the cake, I knew it was perfect. This is a marble cake with one flavor being chocolate and the other having a hint of orange. The colors immediately reminded me of the current autumn season and the golden hue of the orange-flavored batter made me think of those Wisconsin landscapes that have drifted past my eyes for so many years. Then, as I dropped spoonfuls of batter into the cake pans, I was taken back to Dave’s Falls – the orange cake being the leaf-stained water of the river and the chocolate being the boulders the water constantly clobbers. 

The first layer of the cake

The chocolate frosting layer in the middle of the cake

The cake, completely frosted and topped off with chocolate shavings

The best part of cooking at my parents’ house is the three helpers I get in the kitchen with me. 

My helpers: Nell, Dorie & Sage

Unlike Murphy, who pretty much stays out of my way, these three are never far from my feet, anxiously awaiting a handout or for a morsel to fall on the ground. This makes cooking both interesting and very dangerous (I’ve nearly fallen over them several times). This time however, the only thing that fell to the dogs was flour as I greased the cake pans and they weren’t too interested in that. 

"My" dog Dorie all decorated with flour

Cooking, I’ve come to realize, has a similar effect on me that driving does. It is an act that calms the mind, takes me to another place, and brings back a lot of memories. Certain recipes can evoke just as strong an emotion as driving down the roads of my childhood. However, I’m not sure which is the cheaper trip down memory lane – gas may be expensive, but with the amount of cooking I’ve been doing lately, the grocery bills are starting to add up!

When I was in high school my grandmother (my dad’s mom) passed away and we had to sell the cabin in Crivitz. But on a camping trip several years ago, some friends and I went river rafting not far from the area. One afternoon, I pulled out all those memories of my dad’s cabin and retraced our steps. Somehow, I was able to find the house and even made it to Dave’s Falls (which, thanks to the internet, was a little easier to locate). Standing in front of the hunter green cabin and staring at the lake behind it made me long for those days of being a kid in the seat next to my dad, driving down the road without a care in the world. The world has gotten a lot more complicated since those days, but it’s comforting to know that all I have to do is get behind the wheel, turn on Supertramp, let the wind dance through the car and magically, I’ll be transported back in time. And as I started to get swept up in my emotions standing in front of the cabin that used to be ours, I did just that. At the time, I had a Jeep Wrangler (a car that, to this day, I still regret getting rid of). With the top down, I crunched back down the gravel road and out onto the rural highway where I got lost among groves of perfectly placed pine trees and memories of a man whom I love with all my heart.

Thanks dad, for everything. I hope you had a great birthday! I look forward to our next road trip, even if it’s just a quick run to Starbucks. We’ll need to listen to Supertramp and do as they suggest…take the long way home. 

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