Trading memories as we lick the spoon
By Andrew Hornick
Can we travel back in time through a crumb of chocolate cake? Let the tongue open up the imagination, then sit in wonder as a piece of history unfolds — as it did for Proust who conjured up the Belle Epoque while savoring a madeleine? This is a story about a recipe handed down through several generations and about the memories we can recover through the medium of taste.
My grandfather, Morris Hornick, was born around 1891 in the agricultural region near Przemyśl, Poland, the second-oldest city after Kraków. If you don’t know how to pronounce this name with six consonants and one iffy vowel, you can listen to a rendition here.
The town dates back to the 8th century and is the site of an early Christian monastery. The surrounding mountains and fertile lowlands are known as the Przemyśl Gate, and the San River connects this city to Central Europe, ensuring its early prominence as a source of trade. When Morris was born, this land was known as Galicia and was part of Franz Joseph’s Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In 1912, my grandfather fled to America to avoid conscription into the Polish Army. For a Jew, that was usually a life sentence. And even if he managed to be released from military service, there wasn’t much that he could do. Though he was born in a farming region, Morris, like other Jews, was not allowed to own property. So, in the dead of winter, he took a steamer from Hamburg to New York, hoping for a better life.
Settling in Brooklyn, Morris worked elbow to elbow with other immigrants ironing shirt collars in a local laundry. When America joined the war in Europe, he decided to enlist, even though the US was fighting his homeland. Why the change of heart? He wanted to make the world safe for democracy and thank the nation that had given him a chance. Morris served in the trenches with the 77th Division of the US Infantry and later as a truck driver with the 89th Division and kept a letter in his pocket just in case — saying farewell to his family and donating his body to medical science (offering his head alone, if the rest of him did not survive intact).
After suffering through four German gas attacks, Morris was discharged in 1920 and returned to New York where he contracted typhoid fever. While recovering, he was visited by three young ladies who took a taxi from Brooklyn out to Long Island – a very expensive proposition at the time. One of them was Lena Strauss, the woman he would later marry.
Morris knew Lena from the old country and it was good to reminisce about the family and the traditions they’d left behind. After the war, the couple had two children, Beatrice and my father, Eugene. When Gene was about five, the Hornicks moved to the east Bronx. But they couldn’t take possession of their apartment right away. Federal agents were investigating the prior tenant, Leon Trotsky.
For a while Morris and Lena ran a candy store, from which Gene disappeared one day, to be recovered after a four-hour manhunt. Throughout the Depression, Morris always had a job. He drove a cab in the early morning hours, then went to work in a laundry, where he took the family’s clothes, returning at night with what was called a “Wet Wash.” My grandmother then had to dry and iron their apparel. She was also an excellent baker, known for her cookies, cakes, and apple strudel.
Growing up, my father had a close friend, Paul Stern. Together they went from elementary school in the East Bronx to the City College of New York. At the start of World War II, they enlisted in the Army, then came back to complete their education.
At the graduation ceremony, their families met for the first time, and it turned out they had much in common. The Sterns used to run a bakery in the same Polish town where Morris and Lena had lived before coming to America. Mrs. Stern later shared her chocolate cake recipe with my grandmother who passed it on to my mother, Harriet. My very first memory is of licking the batter from the mixer blades in our apartment in Woodbridge, New Jersey.
After college, I became an engineer and travelled throughout the world, building power plants in Turkey and highways in Romania, and also working in Abu Dhabi and Indonesia. When my wife, Jennifer, and I were invited to dinner, we’d often bring this cake as a house gift.
For my family, this offering is more than pastry. It’s the taste of home, and it comes with hand-me-down memories that have tied us together for five generations. Three years ago, our grandchildren went to their school’s Immigrant’s Day, dressed as Morris from Poland and Bessie (my maternal grandmother) from Russia. They baked our family’s chocolate cake for their classmates and told them how we got the recipe.
At age 5, Gwendolyn, the youngest of our grandkids, learned to make this dessert as well, and with all the hours we’ve spent in the kitchen, she’s become well-versed in the family history.
We make this chocolate confection on holidays, and every chance we get. Each bite tells us who we are and where we came from, and calls up all the friends we’ve made along the way. Only time will tell if the Internet can do half as well as an aid to memory.
Our Family's Chocolate Cake
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup milk
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. sour cream
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
2 squares of melted unsweetened chocolate*
* In the old days, melting chocolate was a chore. It was done cautiously over a double boiler. By the 1950s, Nestle’s sold a semi-liquid you could warm in a glass of hot water, then add to the cake batter. When it was no longer on the market, I came up with the vegetable oil/powdered cocoa mix alternative that appears to work just as well:
Mix 3 level tablespoons of Baking Cocoa Powder with 1 tablespoon shortening or oil, then add to cake batter.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Mix ingredients in large bowl in order listed above. Mix by hand or machine.
Pour into a greased bundt cake pan, then bake.
Check after 35 minutes. Not all oven temperatures are calibrated accurately and if yours is on the low side, it may take up to an hour, total. I stick a long carving fork in to check the progress. If you push it in to the bottom of the pan and there is no wet batter on it when you take it back out, the cake is done.
Andrew Hornick spent 35 years working on engineering and construction projects throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He retired early and now spends a lot of time in his family kitchen in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.