(Yet another chapter from The Great Hamster Land-Speed Record)
As a kid one of my most beloved treats was made by the Drake’s Company, originally known as the Drake Baking Company, located in good ol’ Brooklyn, N.Y. While all of their offerings were welcome on my table, my all-time favorite was their coffee cake, a little round cake with cinnamon streusel on top and first made in its present form in 1916.
The Drake Baking Company underwent several changes in name and structure over the years – it started off with its original name in 1896, went to Drake Brothers Bakery in 1900, and in 1913 the name Drake Bakeries Incorporated was their official moniker.
All of which is background to the coffee cake itself – a little piece of Heaven individually wrapped and lightly dusted on top with a wonderful, crumbly cinnamon streusel. My Mom knew better that to put out an entire box of Drake’s CoffeeCakes – she knew that it would be gone in minutes, and not just hidden away in my pockets – I could actually inhale these things two at a time, one for each nostril. With just three or four bites the cake would be gone and I would be reaching for the next one, so it was decided that in order to forestall my likely diabetes and weight problems I would be limited to two or three a week, hardly enough to satisfy my craving.
That’s why when Aunt Bessie (yes, Aunt Bessie – I had an Aunt Tillie as well – wanna’ make something of it?) brought a full box of these delicious little cakes to our house in November of 1965 I made a bee-line to the kitchen table, drooling like a fool and my eyes popping out on springs like a Looney Tunes cartoon character.
It was the day before Thanksgiving and we were receiving the usual conga-line of visitors at our home. Aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins twice removed, even a few unidentified hobos from the train-yards showed up every year at this time to talk, eat and watch football on the black-and-white RCA cabinet TV.
But I wasn’t about to leave my post at the kitchen table until I determined what the fate of the Drake’s cakes would be. Like a dog wanting a treat but ordered to sit, I squirmed my butt around and polished the wooden kitchen chair’s seat; my head rolled around as if my cervical bones had been severed, and I hemmed and hawed as the adults continued blithely chatting on about politics and neighbors and money and all that unimportant stuff, totally ignoring that golden box of goodness only inches away.
I may have started whining as well, I’m not sure, but it was something I supposedly did when I was impatient and really wanted something. My ankles were crossed under the table and my legs were knocking in and out, back and forth like someone in dire need of lithium, and I started making long, loud exhales in order to get my point across more clearly.
Finally Aunt Bessie glanced my way and said “Oh, Philip, I brought these for you.” It was as if a choir of angels had suddenly descended from Heaven and the room had filled with a glorious radiance. I made a boarding-house grab for the box and was ripping it open as I was simultaneously pulling it toward my gaping maw. My hands sweaty with anticipation, I wasted valuable seconds fumbling with the first pack I grabbed. It was securely sealed within its cellophane vault, a few teasing crumbs of streusel dancing around at the bottom. I could feel its heft in my hands, the unfulfilled promise of salvation and the sweet rewards of consumption only seconds away.
I finally marshaled my strength and gave one last terrific effort. The cellophane was ripped asunder as if struck by a thunderbolt and I grabbed the coffeecake and shoved it whole in my mouth in one motion.
I started munching on my treasure, savoring the cinnamon taste as it swirled around my mouth, the little clumps of streusel almost seeming to be walking around inside me. They even began to escape from my mouth, walking over my lips and starting over my cheeks, as the main army of them tap-danced inside my suddenly dry mouth …
I gingerly reached into my mouth and pulled the almost-whole cake out, peering down at it nearsightedly, only to be rewarded with a vision of abject horror: the cake was covered, nay, CRAWLING with little black ants.
ANTS! BLACK ANTS! Swarming not only on TOP of my cake, but INSIDE of it as well! There were dozens, maybe hundreds of them, on the cake, in my mouth, on my lips and cheeks and crawling now down my neck …
With a strangled scream I threw the cake with all my might at the kitchen wall just above the stove, where it impacted upon the ventilation hood and exploded with a pulpy “THWAP”. Thousands of innocent little ants, until a moment ago sharing my enjoyment of the Drake brother’s creation, were instantly vaporized upon contact with the fume hood. They fell screaming to their deaths, many of them right into the pot of chicken cacciatorre that Mom was preparing for our full house.
As soon as I had launched the spicy projectile I set about spitting ants out of my mouth, scrabbling at my lips and slapping my own cheeks and neck. I had jumped out my chair and was doing a frantic jig upon the slippery linoleum floor in my white-socked feet, and as a result I soon ended up laying on my back, where a few million of the unlucky survivors of the Great Coffeecake Affair had landed, stunned and reeling. Although my fall had ended the lives of a mere thousand or so, their surviving relatives took on the chore of revenge, quickly invading my PF Flyers and husky-sized dungarees. They even had the nerve, the unmitigated gall, to begin a forced march into my Speed Racer underwear!
I began doing The Worm on the floor, several of the more adventurous ants hanging onto my hair like miniature bronco-busters, and eventually made my way upright to the sink. I smashed the faucet on full and began gulping gallons of Yonker’s Finest, only to quickly spit it out into the drain. I felt as if I would never again be clean.
A kamikaze band of ants had made it unnoticed to my butt, but now made their presence known by chomping down with the same gusto I had exhibited only minutes before with the coffeecake. Again, I broke ground in the performing arts and created a movement that wouldn’t be released to the general public until almost 50 years later – The Twerk. My pasty-white little behind described various geometric figures as I continued to rinse and spit, pausing only several times to pour water over my head while it hung low in the sink.
Meanwhile Mom was dealing with the ants on top of the stove and attempting to ladle them out of the chicken cacciatorre with one of those little basket strainers. Later eyewitness accounts recalled not knowing whether to watch the Phil Show at the sink or the Helen Revue at the stove, her dipping and peering through the chunky brown liquid for little black nuggets being oh-so-reminiscent of a forty-niner panning for gold.
Our assembled guests, who had begun screeching with horror, were now at the stage of uncontrollable laughter where your eyes and your bladder both leak copious amounts of liquid. Sure, there was the occasional “Awww, poor Phil” but they were few and far between. Mainly they were just laughing their asses off.
Aunt Bessie actually apologized for the fiasco, but I took it with a large grain of salt. Bessie along with her husband Dom were widely known as cheapskates, and I had no doubt that she had picked up the box either at a late-season flea market or from the copious stores of foodstuffs in her basement. This horde had reached the level of a local legend, and stories were told of how she had enough food put by to feed half the population of the county. The sad part was that it was only partially true: while she did indeed have a massive stockpile of food in her basement, most of it ranged back years. I suspect that the box of Drake’s Coffeecakes that was gifted to me had come from the bottom shelf, last row, and was probably produced by the original Drake’s Bakery in 1896.
I tend to be rather narrow in my eating habits these days, now that I have reached adulthood. Those childish splurges have all but vanished now (although I still claim the right to consume vast quantities of pepperoni pizza), and the main reason is all due to The Great Drake’s Coffeecake Affair.
I have never touched a Drake’s product since that day.