Mom had a reputation as a very good cook, but she also had a strange fondness for bizarre and offbeat recipes. Actually, more like weird recipes that tasted good. She was the first Mom I knew to wink and serve the fad dessert, “Better Than Sex Cake.” I was too young to know if that was true, but the cake was delicious.
I especially remember a cooking fever for all things made with a fermented starter. Regular sourdough starter was too tame, and Mom soon graduated to something called the Herman Cake. This was a sweet dough mixture that bubbled and burped in a glass jar, growing gray and slimey as it grew in power. The recipes were clipped from newspaper columns and carefully copied to little decorated index cards to be traded with other church ladies.
Herman Cake was one of those miracle foods that could expand Biblically to feed multitudes of starving people. The only problem was that after the meal, Herman didn’t know when to go home. He continued to hang around in the refrigerator, demanding attention every few days. If neglected, his open face started to form a dry crust, and the bulk of his body started to separate into a watery sludge and a grainy brine. Opening the Frigidaire door to grab a glass of milk became a game. Don’t look, don’t look. Pretend Herman isn’t there begging for milk, sugar, flour, stirring.
Herman’s greatest virtue was his downfall. The sweet sourdough base could be used to make almost any kind of bread or cake — pancakes, waffles, rolls, bread, apple coffee cake, cookies, even Devil’s Food Cake and Upside-Down Cake. All you needed was Herman, and ten days. Never mind that everything tasted uniquely, well, like Herman.
Herman was a demanding guest with strict dietary regulations. On the day Herman arrived, he needed to be fed 1 cup flour, 1 cup milk and 1/2 cup sugar. Five days later, he had to be fed again. Finally, on the tenth day, one cup of the mixture was removed for baking, and the remainder reserved to grow. It was an endless cycle. After two or three rounds of feeding, baking, feeding, Mom would remove the extra cup of batter and pass it on with a recipe and a smile, “Here’s Herman. What fun.” But, at home, in the Frigidaire, Herman lurked behind the pickles and milk, a reminder of parental responsibility, “Don’t forget to feed Herman.” “Oops, how many days has it been since we fed Herman?”
Mom’s original recipe for Herman Cake is a typed version with handwritten reminders.
6/22 Tues. Feed Herman
6/26 Sat 5th Day! Feed
Typically, Mom seems to have added an interim feeding every-other day. She never could stand to see anyone hungry. Or maybe, she just wanted to speed things along and have more wonderful Herman starter to share with her friends.
Eventually, Herman outgrew his welcome, and moved on to other refrigerators. I thought he was a relic of the past until almost twenty years later when I was married and the mother of two always-hungry sons. I wondered, What ever happened to Herman? Mom still had the recipe, but the directions only covered care and feeding, not how to create the spark of life that was Herman.
Twenty years must be some kind of life-cycle for food fads and recipes. Suddenly, in 1982 Herman was splashed across the newspaper food section, “Sweet Herman’s Fans Growing and Growing.” Herman was back with not only one original starter recipe, but three versions: one to create a five-day starter and two for ten-day mixes. It was Herman Heaven.
Excited to recreate this memory from my childhood, I dutifully stirred together flour, sugar, milk, and yeast. As promised, and as remembered, the soft mass came to life, bubbling, burping, and and growing. We ate Herman pancakes, Herman Cake, Herman bread. And then, one day, Herman was pushed to the back of the sleek double door fridge and lost behind the orange juice and olives. By the time an unpleasant and unnatural odor led to the discovery of his jar, it was too late for Herman. May he Rest In Peace.