From the pantry, a reminder of laughter amid sorrow

Twice a year, near significant dates associated with her parents, the writer makes a molasses cake to share with coworkers.
Twice a year, near significant dates associated with her parents, the writer makes a molasses cake to share with coworkers. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 09, 2013

I can only imagine what happened when my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack just after midnight.

We lived on a narrow street of two-story twins, and the ambulance lights must have spun red through the bedrooms that night. The uncharacteristic hubbub on our quiet block surely brought neighbors to their windows, if not their porches.

I can only imagine, because I wasn't there.

At the time, I was a sophomore at Temple University. After spending most of the day and evening at the Temple News, putting out our student daily, I had just returned to my dorm room when the call came. My roommate, unusually, was gone for the night.

It's hard, 40 years later, to remember my reaction to the call; but I think I screamed. Then I telephoned the paper to tell the editors, still there for the final proofing, that I wouldn't be able to finish my stories.

Hanging up the phone, I sat down to cry and cry and cry. It wasn't long before my editors knocked on the door. I was only a fledgling staffer. Editors Rochelle Koff and Mary Siegfried seemed so much older - so wise and assured. I was 19, they were probably 21, at the most.

In an incredible act of friendship, they stayed with me all night, letting my grief wash over them. In the morning, exhausted, they rode the Broad Street bus with me to the Greyhound station and waited until I left for Allentown.

By the time I got home, the first molasses cake was already there.

In the next few hours, the doorbell rang and neighbors brought food, as neighbors do. The food they brought was molasses cake. After about the third or fourth cake, it was almost funny.

The ring of the doorbell.

The sad, stunned faces.

The proffered cake in a well-worn pan.

By the fifth cake, it was actually funny, and we began to laugh, shocking our solemn neighbors.

No wonder they brought molasses cake.

It was a pantry standard for the Pennsylvania Dutch folks who lived around us. With pantry staples - a few sticks of butter, molasses, sugar, and baking soda - kind wishes or sudden grief could be baked into a cake in an hour. No mixer, no eggs, nothing to be fetched last-minute from the store.

In other words, the perfect cake for a heart attack in the middle of the night. And the perfect lesson to remind us that even in sorrow, we could find laughter.

I needed that lesson in 1996, when, not suddenly, but still too fast, my mother was dying of breast cancer, after beating it twice before. I was a wreck - my mom and I were close.

By that time, I was working at the Inquirer. Like my Temple News friends, my Inquirer colleagues provided support. My boss gave me the time I needed, and as Mom was dying, my colleagues tolerated my tears. I couldn't confine them to the bathroom, make deadline, and still get out of the newsroom in time to dash to Allentown to see Mom.

I promised Mom that I would make the molasses cake for the funeral lunch when she died.

I'd like to think she didn't do it on purpose, but it would be my mother's idea of a joke to die right up against Mother's Day. Every couple of years, her death anniversary falls on Mother's Day. Lots of laughs.

Well, not exactly. But I did make the cake for her funeral lunch.

Being Christian, I don't find it necessary to go to the graveyard to honor my parents. They are not there. Instead, I prefer my own ritual, one that thanks the living, one that reminds me that there is laughter amid sorrow. One that involves food - always a plus.

Even making the cake is a comfort. My mother's pastry blender, with its worn wooden handle, reminds me of her. It was her mother's - a grandmother who died before I was born. When my sons, now 24 and nearly 22, were little, they liked to "help" me, digging their hands into the bowl of flour, sugar, and butter to make the crumbs.

That's my home family, but, with this cake, I want to thank my work family - who supported me as I very unbravely coped with my mother's death.

And so, twice a year, I make a molasses cake for them, in honor of my wonderful parents, Frederick and Lorraine Von Bergen. One cake comes in November, near my parents' birthdays, the other in early May, near the anniversary of my mother's death.

It's actually quite clever on my part. I write something lovely about my parents, tell the tale of the cakes my neighbors brought, e-mailing it to my colleagues with this subject line: Let's eat cake!

Because they want the cake, and because they are genuinely nice people, my colleagues read the e-mail. Some hug me. Some send me a nice message.

Everyone loves the cake and I love the love.


Molasses Cake

Makes 16 to 20 servings

4 cups flour

2 cups sugar

1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, room temperature,  cut into cubes

2 cups boiling water

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 cup molasses

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

2. Combine flour, sugar, and butter into crumbs in a large bowl, using two knives, a pastry blender, or your fingers. Reserve one cup of crumbs for the topping.

3. In a separate large bowl, add the baking soda and molasses to the boiling water. Stir until fizzy.

4. Pour the liquid mixture into the bowl with the butter, flour, and sugar. Stir to combine. Pour combined mixture into the prepared baking dish. Top with the reserved crumb mixture.

5. Cook for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Check if it is done by inserting a knife. If knife comes up wet, bake for a few more minutes.

- From Helen Moore, the mother of my best childhood friend, Diana Moore, who lived across the alley from me.

Per serving (based on 20): 279 calories, 3 grams protein, 51 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, 24 milligrams cholesterol, 288 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Contact Jane Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

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