“We get chocolate cake whenever we want – Mum’s splendid recipe survives to this day. Lemon tea bread, cherry pie, yeast doughnuts, just ask! We have a talking bird and priest uncle. We never have to clean our plates or finish our milk. Dad comes home every day with candy in his pockets. Father Bob, Mum’s baby brother, comes to town once a week and sometimes says the First Friday Mass, where all our friends simmer with envy that God’s young, dashing, stand-in belongs to us. Mum gives us dollars to bring to school to save the pagan babies. Last year Dad bought a 1962 sea-green Chrysler Newport, brand-new. We think we’re rich. We are rich!”


That paragraph appears on page 4 of Monica Wood’s heartbreakingly beautiful 2012 memoir about growing up in Mexico, Maine, “When We Were the Kennedys.” And while the writer in me was awed by Wood’s luminous, evocative and tender prose, the baker in me just wanted to get a hold of that “splendid” chocolate cake recipe.

All I needed was an excuse to work up the nerve to call Wood – one of Maine’s preeminent literary lights and a total stranger to me – and ask her for it. I found one: On Monday, Wood will turn 68. When she was a girl, this was her birthday cake.

“What a delightful idea,” Wood answered my email query about the recipe. “I am copying this to my sisters, who I guarantee are laughing their heads off at the notion that I could possibly have this recipe on hand. I have made one cake in my life, for my husband’s birthday in our first year of marriage. I’ll spare you the details but he has been making his own birthday cakes ever since.”

Within minutes Wood’s younger sister, Catherine WoodBrooks chimed in by email, even though she was in the thick of a retirement move to Florida. “It is HILARIOUS that you reached out to Monica on a baking query. She is VERY talented but baking … not so much.”

Another email quickly pinged my inbox. Wood shot back: “I’m about to be thrown under a food truck.;-)”

Here we go, Monica, or “Monnie,” as her sisters and friends call her.

Actually, Wood herself will cheerfully spill about her own shortcomings in the kitchen. To begin with, about that birthday cake for her husband, Dan Abbott (who is by all accounts “an amazing cook, a real artist in the kitchen,” as WoodBrooks described him):

“I call it the Spice Cake Incident of 1979,” Wood began relating the story. “You know how in some families everyone gets to pick their own (birthday) cake? In his family, everyone got to pick their cake. We all got my mother’s chocolate cake, no matter what. His was spice cake with peanut butter frosting. I thought, how hard can that be? I spent all afternoon on this cake, and it was so… so… It barely covered the bottom of the pan, that’s how not-risen it was. It looked like a mouse pad. We didn’t have them back then, but it was about the thickness of a mouse pad. I tried to disguise it by putting about 2 inches of peanut butter frosting on it. And it was inedible.

“Since then he has been baking his own cake,” Wood said. “So for my birthday he made a three-layer Black Forest Cake that was so good we are still talking about it. He wasn’t making a point but – let’s use the passive voice, let’s just say the point was made.”

This is far from the only famous, make that infamous, Monnie-in-the-kitchen story that is the stuff of Wood family legend. There are the brownies Wood made from a box mix that one time. You wouldn’t think one could go wrong with a box mix. She left out an ingredient. Maybe the oil? Anyhow, “the theme is inedible,” Wood said. There are the pancakes she attempted to cook for her sister Betty. Wood beat the batter “to a floury pulp,” according to WoodBrooks. On top of that, the pancakes “were black,” WoodBrooks said. “The smoke was flying.”

There is the smothered beef story, “which is the only time my sister (Anne) has ever lost her temper,” Wood began. “Ever.”

WoodBrooks corroborates. “I can never remember her getting mad at anything. But that really made her mad. Anne and I had decided we would go to Saturday night Mass. I remember Annie saying, ‘When the timer goes off, you need to put the sauce on the simmering beef.’ I remember her telling this to Monnie two or three times. We came back from Mass and opened the pot up and Annie said, ‘What? WHAT?!’ It must have been after Christmas. We always had plum pudding at Christmas with this fabulous, sweet hard sauce, which happened to be in the refrigerator.”

Wood, 18 at the time and “old enough to know better,” had dutifully plopped the hard sauce on top of the simmering beef.

“‘I asked you to do this one thing,’ WoodBrooks related Anne saying to Wood in a temper. “‘It wasn’t even difficult.'”

The story has a happy ending. The girls’ mother (who had recently suffered a stroke) heard the shouting from another room, and Wood’s rueful explanation, and, to cut to the chase, laughter, hilarity, forgiveness, and a priceless family story ensued. “That was a classic,” WoodBrooks remembers.

A Sunday drive at “The Height of the Land” in Rangeley. “Mum” Margaret Wood is holding Monica Wood’s face. Next to her are sisters Cathy and Betty. Photo courtesy of Catherine WoodBrooks

Their “mum,” Margaret by name, was a wonderful cook, her daughters say. Sure, she overcooked vegetables, like every ’50s cook, “but every single day we came home from school and we’d have a home-baked something,” Wood said. Margaret’s lemon tea bread was elegant, her cream puffs in demand at church, her pineapple cookies beloved. “I have the recipe,” WoodBrooks said about the cookies, “but it just does not come out the same.” Wood is still searching for, has been searching “my whole life” for, the taste of her mother’s whoopie pies. “The closest I have come is the Quality Shop on Stevens Avenue” in Portland, she says. In the Wood household, homemade raised doughnuts were an everyday item — doesn’t everybody’s mother make those? “My mother, that was her love, taking care of us and nurturing us,” WoodBrooks said.

Margaret Wood’s recipe box. “I’m sure it dates back to the 1930s,” says her daughter Cathy WoodBrooks, now the keeper of the box. Photo courtesy of Catherine WoodBrooks

An excellent cook in her own right, WoodBrooks is the keeper of her mother’s tin recipe box, a little worse for the wear, with rusted patches. It’s still crammed with recipes in her mother’s hand, which WoodBrooks still cooks. The kitchen was the first room WoodBrooks unpacked in her new home earlier this month, and the recipes turned up in the very first box she reached for. She was home.

Though the chocolate cake shows up in her memoir, Wood said she rarely writes about food. She had to think to come up with a single other instance, eventually remembering a tomato soup cake in “The One-in-a-Million Boy.” She thinks that cake came out of conversations she had with “a very elderly friend of mine” whom she talked with often while researching the novel. “It sounds revolting and yet it’s so delicious.” In a similar vein, “My husband had an aunt who made sauerkraut cake. You get to have a delicious dessert and you won’t get rickets. It’s a twofer,” Wood laughed.

Last year, the editors of a forthcoming book of essays on food by Maine writers approached Wood to contribute. “And when I got the email, I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ I had nothing. I am a person who loves my food, but somebody else has to give it to me.

“I think it’s a gene I didn’t get,” she continued. “I just wasn’t interested. And my sisters love cooking. They are great cooks. They love to entertain. My job is to be social and set the table. I set a really beautiful table.”

Her sister elaborated in an email, “Every Saturday morning my mother baked homemade bread. I was allowed to shadow her and she lovingly shared her baking tips like kneading the dough A LOT for bread as opposed to very little for pie crust. PS, Monnie had NO interest in these baking sessions. She was in a corner reading a book!”

If Wood isn’t a natural home cook, she is a joyful and sometimes very hungry eater. Wood said that when she is writing, “I am ravenous all the time. When you are thinking, you are expending energy even though I am just sitting there. Not in first draft mode, when it’s just a slog. When it’s sort of getting toward the end when you know where you are going, and you know what you want, I cannot get enough food at that stage. It’s just about how hard my brain is working. At that stage of writing, I am absolutely ravenous.”

Does Wood regret her lack of culinary skills? Does she wish that somewhere along the way she’d mastered at least a small repertoire? After all, many people consider cooking an essential life skill. Yeah, no.

“My time is better spent elsewhere for the good of everyone, believe me,” Wood says. “The few times I have said, ‘OK, I’m making dinner,’ it takes me forever and then it is not good.” Unlike her mother, “I have never had positive reinforcement in the form of ‘Yum!'”

Margaret Wood, who dressed up for her daughters’ birthdays – “Good dress, pearls. So sweet,” Wood writes in an email – is long gone. “I never smell a chocolate cake coming out of the oven without thinking of her,” Catherine WoodBrooks says. But the cake lives on, and not just in memory or in the pages of “When We Were the Kennedys,” either. WoodBrooks, who had a long, successful career in college administration, used to bake it for annual student gatherings, and bakes it, present tense, for her husband’s birthday every year. It shows up at family gatherings. The good, reliable recipe that has become a family heirloom (priceless) has also been passed down to nieces and nephews.

So splendid, so sweet.


Marion Burns’ Chocolate Cake

Monica Wood grew up in a triple decker in Mexico, Maine. Marion Burns, who gave her mother this recipe, was a downstairs neighbor. Cathy WoodBrooks, Wood’s sister, said to double the recipe and put the batter in round, greased pans to make a birthday cake.  The directions on the original recipe card are casual to nonexistent. WoodBrooks supplied them here, though as for herself she said “I have it memorized. I haven’t had to look at this recipe for a long time.” To sour the milk, you can add 2 teaspoons vinegar to ordinary milk (or sweet milk, as it is often called in old cookbooks).

1 1/3 cups flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup hot water
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup sour milk or buttermilk

Grease and flour a 9- by 9-inch cake pan and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Whisk together the flour, cocoa and salt.

Cream the shortening and the sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the egg and beat, then the vanilla extract. Add the combined dry ingredients and beat, but don’t overbeat. Pour in the hot water and stir.

Add the baking soda to the milk, stir them together, and then add to the ingredients in the bowl, giving the batter a final stir “with a big wooden spoon,” says WoodBrooks, again taking care not to overbeat.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes.


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