Cakequake by
(198 Stories)

Prompted By Disasters

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

Birthday Cake Explosion Exploding Birthday Cake Birthday Cakes Luxury How To Make An –

As this week’s prompt suggests, “disasters” are inherently subjective; they are in the eye of the beholder.  As Mel Brooks noted, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger.  Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

"[D]isasters" are inherently subjective; they are in the eye of the beholder.  As Mel Brooks noted, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger.  Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

In this vein, I recount what was to me, at that place and time, a disaster.  In some ways, it is inspired by Suzy’s post about her Home Ec class, but without the counterpoint of a true disaster (i.e., JFK’s assassination).

The time is November of 1962.  My junior high’s nomenclature was at least slightly more progressive (or more euphemistic) than at Suzy’s school.  We did not have “Home Ec” per se.  Rather, we had “PFA,” standing for “practical and fine arts.”  It was a combination of the usual art course, shop and, yes, home ec.  It was an elective and, as some may recall from one of my previous stories, my mother had noodged me to take it over a typing course, wrongly convinced (as only a doting mother can be convinced) that I had true artistic abilities and, anyhow, I could teach myself to type and, further anyhow, some secretary would do all my typing for me when I grew up and got a real job.

I actually loved 2/3 of PFA.  We had a terrific several week course on calligraphy in the arts segment.  And, in the shop segment, I constructed a large wooden model of my pet dog Lum, with a hinged, liftable rear leg (get it?) behind which lay a “secret compartment” — the perfect hiding place for one’s stash of Playboys, I proudly proclaimed (as if I actually had such a stash).

But then there was the home ec segment.  To make it more, well, appetizing to us goofily pubescent guys, Mrs. Doheny set up an all-boy cooking competition.  We were broken up into teams and each team had to prepare a certain kind of food  — main course, side course, etc. — and we would then cook, taste and compare them all and offer scathing reviews of the other teams’ pathetic efforts.

On “dessert day,” my team decided to make something called a choco-cherry cake. We considered ourselves to be a highly disciplined, division-of-labor baking machine, so we broke the team further down into sub-groups, with each sub-group responsible for a list of specific ingredients and tasks.  Unfortunately, somehow (and, to this day, I still consider the possibility of either outside sabotage or a suicide-bombing traitor within likely) we ended up duplicating one such list — the one that included all the ingredients to make the cake rise — and this ended up doubling the quantities of those ingredients in the choco-cherry cake.

Because class was only fifty minutes long, we just had time to finish mixing everything and popping it in the oven with a timer set, with the understanding that Mrs. Doheny would turn it off and take it out of the over at the correct time.  We dutifully did so with our CCK and confidently toddled off to our next class.  About half an hour into that class, Mrs. Doheny’s voice came over the PA system, instructing a small group of boys — not coincidentally, me and the the other members of my cooking team — to report to the kitchen area of the PFA room IMMEDIATELY.  This was not as bad as being told to report to the assistant principal’s office, but we were pretty sure already that it was not good news.  Sure enough, upon arrival, Mrs. Doheny showed us Ground Zero: the oven in which we had placed the choco-cherry cake, which had exploded into a burnt black, brown and red mess over every inch of the oven’s interior.  She then set us to work scraping and cleaning it out, a miserable process that required us to come back in home room period that afternoon to finish.  She kept stressing that this was not really punishment, but, rather, a “learning experience.”  Well, as learning experiences went, it really sucked.

Worse yet, due to the PA announcement, everyone in school knew that something terribly wrong had occurred to us in the PFA kitchen.  In short, a disaster.  And, as I already was a little grade grubber, I was also convinced that this disaster would cost me an A in PFA and, in all likelihood, my chances at the Ivy League school of my choice. This was my darkest day in junior high school.

That said, and circling back to Suzy’s story, I learned almost exactly one year later what a real disaster was.


Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Funny story, John. A mild disaster at best. I, too, took Home Ec instead of being in 8th grade choir (I could be in the after-school Girl’s Glee Club, which satisfied my singing itch, but wasn’t an elective during school). Given my mother’s lack of domestic prowess, I figured I needed to learn somewhere else. So sewing and cooking was attempted at school. But we did not have cooking competitions and learned fairly useless stuff life pineapple upside down cake and Welsh rarebit. Yours sounds like more fun.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Yes; mild indeed. Ironically, your reference to pineapple upside down cake reminded me that one of the other teams chose to bake exactly that, a choice that my team of choco-cherry geniuses roundly mocked. Of course, the PUDC team had the last laugh — and the clean oven.

  2. Patricia says:

    Wonderfully told story about a self-confessed “grade grubber” getting IN TROUBLE. But I was disappointed that the teacher didn’t turn the learning experience into a science one. Why did this happen? What ingredients caused the explosion? A real missed opportunity to engage young boys where they live. In my school, a feat such as this would not have caused embarrassment, but rather would have conferred bragging rights!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Good points, Patti. I know we ultimately figured out that the main culprit (ingredient-wise, that is) was the baking powder, but I am not sure if Mrs. Doheny got us to realize that or we just knew it. Again, I think her main message to us, which was not a bad one, was “If you make a mess, you clean it up.”

  3. Suzy says:

    John, I love this story, and I am proud to have inspired it. I can just imagine the teams of adolescent boys competing over their cooking projects – very smart move on the teacher’s part. And I hope you still have the wooden model of your dog with the liftable rear leg – nice to know you had a killer sense of humor even way back then. Wish my school had had a PFA course instead of boring old Home Ec.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks so much, Suzy; and thanks again for the inspiration. Though I still have some objet d’art from my early years, my model of Lum has, sadly, gone the way of Lum himself. If there is a Heaven, I am thinking that that is where I will finally be united with both Lums, my baseball cards and my electric trains.

  4. John Zussman says:

    Great story, John, and I’m grateful that the incident did not go onto your “permanent record.” I also respect your school for having the foresight to require home ec (sorry, PFA) for boys. Today that classroom would be called a “maker space” and there would be no shame in taking it. Of course, you’d probably have to print out your choco-cherry cake on a 3D printer.

    • John Shutkin says:

      I was invited back to my (completely renovated) high school a few years ago to get some award and also speak to the school newspaper editors. They also gave me a tour of the place and, indeed, the PFA space — whatever they now call it — was very much of that sort. It was right next to the “media space,” of course.

Leave a Reply