Indian Cake

One of my cousins put together a family cookbook.   It is full of people reminiscing about Grandmother’s cooking, and great recipes down through the generations.  My aunts were awesome cooks as well.  The funny thing about this cookbook is that there is not one but FOUR recipes for Indian Cake.  And I don’t even remember anybody ever serving it to me.

My father summarizes best what everybody else says about my grandmother and her baking:

“All of our family remembers how Mary could tell when the temperature was right in the oven to bake a cake, pie or bread.  This was long before gas or electric stoves were known on the farm and our kitchen stove was either wood or coal fired and the oven didn’t have a temperature gauge.

She would get the fire going and after a while she would open the oven door and put her hand in the oven.  After a few “hand” tests she would say it was ready, and put in her goods to be baked. They always came out perfectly.”

This is my grandmother’s version of the cake.

Indian Cake

  • 2 cups sugar
  • ½ cup shortening
  • ¼ cup cocoa powder
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ cup cold coffee
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup hot water

Blend sugar and shortening.  Add ingredients in order given, adding hot water last.   Pour into a greased 9”X 9” pan.  Bake at 350 degrees F for about 1 hour.  Check it at 45 mins – these recipes always say “bake until done”.  So the first time, you need to keep an eye out.

Bon appetite!

The Harvest

In 1975, I volunteered for an organization called Migrants in Action.  It was an advocacy group for the Mexican migrant workers who worked in the fields from Texas to Minnesota and all across the USA.  This got me interested in learning more about these migrant workers.  I was in college at the time and decided to apply for an independent study to write a research paper on migrant workers in the USA.  It was approved and I spent six weeks doing research and writing the paper.

Part of my research took me to the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas.  I don’t remember the details, there was a lot of legal jargon in my paper but it boiled down to:  Things were not Good for the Mexican Migrant Worker.  Here is a timeline:

  • 1920:  The Bracero Program is born. This was a contract that allowed for workers to bring their families with them, stated the pay rate, work schedule, where they would work and their legal status.  Of course this contract was written in English.
  • 1924:  The US Border Patrol was created and the “Illegal Alien” is born
  • 1942:  World War II creates job vacancies.  The Bracero Treaty was signed and this opened the door again to Mexican laborers. Between 1942 and 1964 four million Mexican farm workers came to the USA. Again the contracts were written in English and many braceros would sign them without knowing what their rights were or were not.  At the end of their contract they had to return to Mexico. As World War II ended, the jobs were taken over by returning veterans or workers displaced from wartime industries.  The program ended in 1964.
  • 1966:  Cesar Chavez leads a 250-mile march to Sacramento, California, to bring attention to the mistreatment of farm workers.
  • 1975: The California Labor Relations Act was passed; it was the first law that protected the rights of organizations of farm workers.

Today many of migrant workers are second or third generation families who have their US citizenship.  It is also possible to enter the country legally through the Guest Worker program.  Sometimes people will stay after their contract ends hoping for additional work and a better life.  In this way they open themselves up to all kinds of abuse and injustice because technically they do not exist. But even people with citizenship are living in poverty under horrible conditions.

There is a new documentary film called The Harvest/ La Cosecha which follows three children in a migrant worker family.  There are 400,000 children in the USA who work long hours seven days a week picking the food that ends up on your table.  The film in and of itself is an advocacy for this group of undervalued and mostly “invisible” people.

Learning to Drive

My father with car and dog


I am learning to ride in a car with a sixteen year old driver.  I am learning to quietly cringe and hold my tongue.  I am learning to resist slamming my leg down on the break that isn’t there.  I am learning to look out the window and observe things by the side of the road I have never had a chance to enjoy before.  I am learning to trust.  And to quietly guide.  And sometimes to shout out in a panic.  But not too often.

He is actually pretty good.  Baby steps.  He has time to learn.  And I have a built in designated driver!  There is always an up side!

I have been re-reading my father’s memoir and came across the following passage that seemed kind of relevant.  My father grew up on a farm in southern Iowa, the youngest of seven children.

“When I was about 7, I started driving teams of horses for some field work.  Dad, or someone, would harness and hitch up the horses to a wagon or a machine since I was not big enough to put on a horse’s harness.  Another of my chores in my early years was to walk to the pasture to herd the milk cows to the barn at milking time.  No one in our family drank much milk but we made our own butter and cottage cheese.  The only time I really remember drinking milk was on Sunday evenings.   I would fill a glass with popcorn and then pour in some milk.

When I was 11 or 12 (1931-32) the country went into the Great Depression.  Many neighbors gave up and sold out or were forced out because they had defaulted on their loans.  Livestock prices were very low and grain prices were the lowest on record. 

One of the things that helped my family survive the Depression was my parents started a small dairy and my brothers Bob and Floyd did the milking and delivered the milk door to door and to stores in town before school.  By the time they had finished high school, dad had purchased a heard of very good dairy cows.  I was the only boy left at home and had to take on this job.  My sister Margaret had recently been married and her new husband, Lee, helped with the chores and milking.  It was Lee’s and my responsibility to milk the cows twice each day by hand and to take care of the cows and the milk.  After Lee left, it became just my responsibility.  When I was 14, I was able to get a driver’s license and began to deliver the milk in bottles door to door in Shenandoah each morning as well as to two grocery stores before school.  Floyd had taught me to drive our Model T Ford when I was about 10 years old, so I had no trouble getting a driver’s license.  The dairy really saved us during the Depression.  When I left home to go to college, dad sold the dairy cows since it was too much for him and at that time larger dairy farms started up in our area, forcing out the small producers like us.”

When I was 16 I was in boarding school.  No driving there.

Between high school and college, I spent the summer with my parents in Ibadan, Nigeria.  Driving in Nigeria was kind of like playing Russian Roulette.  You never knew when somebody would come barreling around a blind corner straight at you.  I was not yet 18 so technically I couldn’t get a license anyway (although I doubt they checked).  An American guy I knew, Tim, turned 18 that summer and decided to get his license.  He went down to the Motor Vehicle department and an official actually got in the car with him:

Official:  Drive forward!

Tim drives

Official:  Stop!

Tim stops

Official:  Drive backwards!

Tim drives in reverse

Official:  Stop!

Tim stops

Official:  Would you be interested in a German Shepard puppy?

Tim pays his fee and gets his driver’s license and a dog.  Such a deal!

The following summer I went to live with my brother in Minneapolis, and his wife taught me to drive.  At 19, a college sophomore, I was a licensed driver!