Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Life with Fred & Lucy, Part 9: The Cake that Ate South Philly


My mother had issues with cooking and when my siblings and I were younger, we never knew what to expect on our dinner plates. 
Chef Boyardee, she wasn’t, but bless her heart, she tried to keep up with working in the store, raising four wild children and feeding us healthy, if not tasty, nutritious foods. It’s just that her food never looked like the pictures inside her cook books, and her children were quick to point out this discrepancy.
I was the worse of the dissidents. “This doesn’t taste like grandma’s gravy,” I would whine whenever my mother placed a bowl of macaroni in front of me. I loved my grandma’s cooking and licked the plate clean whenever I ate at her house. She made the best gravy.
                                 Grandmom (center) at Sunday Meal

But, let me take a break from the story to explain the difference between gravy and sauce. To Italians in South Philly, gravy was made with fresh or canned tomatoes and it often included meatballs made from beef, alongside chunks of lamb, sausage, and pork. This gravy would cook for hours until ready, and then it was served with pasta. This was our special meal every Sunday.                                                                     

Now back to my mother and her attempt to bake a cake from scratch. We sold Betty Crocker Cake Mix in our store, but Lucy wanted to try out a new recipe given to her by one of our customers. So, out came the 5lb bag of flour, sugar, yeast and other ingredients. In between helping my dad in the store, my siblings watched my mother make her cake. She wanted to make a special cake for her father’s birthday.
“You can pick up a cake from Termini’s Bakery,” my father said on one of his visits into the kitchen to check on Mom's project. “I don’t know why you’re driving yourself crazy with this mix?” 
                                        Lucy and Fred                        
“Leave me alone,” she snapped. Flour covered every surface in the kitchen as it floated down from the ceiling. We couldn’t figure out what she was doing with the flour or why it was all over the place, but we kids knew better than to ask. After placing the cake batter into the greased cake pans, Lucy then placed the pans carefully into the oven. After we helped mom clean up the mess, we all headed back into the store for the heavy rush of noon time shoppers. 
She sent my brother Michael into the kitchen to check on the cake after the timer had dinged. “Use the toothpick,” she instructed him. “If the toothpick is dry; the cake is done.”                                                                                                            
 “Mommy, I don’t know where to stick the toothpick,” Michael yelled running back into the store, toothpick in hand.
“Just stick it in the center of the pan,” mom instructed as she handed a customer their change.
“I don’t know where the center is.”
My mother, father and all four children rushed into the kitchen to check on the cake. I don’t know how much yeast my mother used for that recipe, but the cake had grown and grown while baking and covered all four sides of the oven. 
“How the hell…what the *&$%@&...how will we get this out?” my father stammered as my mother began using a butter knife to dig around the edges of the cake with the hope of freeing her creation from the oven. My mother and father argued, while mom tried her best to tackle the Blob inside the oven, but it was a mess.
“It tastes good,” Michael announced after pulling free a piece and taking a bite.
“It does?” my sisters and I asked, before digging in.
It tasted yummy, and we began to eat the cake right from the oven. We sat on the floor in front of the oven eating cake, until it was small enough for my mother to dig out the rest. My mother never made cake from scratch again and my grandpa got a Termini cake for his birthday.
                                    Grandpa Enrico, Uncle Ralph and Uncle Mario

Years later, after Lucy took off to California (that is an episode for a later time) she took cooking lessons and became quite the gourmet chef. Her meals were scrumptious, but we would  often joked about the cake she made from scratch.
                                                   Mom and me cooking                                    


  1. Wonderful, Marie. It reminds me of going to my Aunt Rita and Uncle Rocky's row home in South Philly. And by the way, I remember making "sauce" every Sunday with my father. It cooked all day, too. Thanks again, Marie, for all the memories.

  2. Man, does this ever bring back memories! I remember my house smelling awesome with the aroma of mamma's gravy cooking over the stove every Sunday morning. My dad would listen to his soccer matches that were only available on the radio and I'd be playing with my Matchbox cars on the carpet. It really was a vivid memory I will never forget! Thanks for this!

    1. Sometimes, I wish I was a time traveler. Good memories