A Writer Writes: Experiences from Afar: A Most Delicious Cherry Cake

Peter Drew (Philippines 1977–79) has worked overseas continuous since 1977, first as a PCV, followed by 9 years working in the Indo-Chinese Refugee Program out of Manila. In 1989 he joined the Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer. As an FSO, he has served in Ougadougou, Swaziland, Kathmandu, Singapore, Brussels, South Africa, and now he is in his final tour in Bangkok. Recently he sent me this short piece.

Experiences from Afar: A Most Delicious Cherry Cake

MANY 3RD WORLD COOKS hired by expatriates or diplomats can be male. They often have hard earned quality repertoires, like French cuisine or what have you, yet as often as not they have at the same time limited menus.

For those lucky travelers who’ve had the benefit of being supported by these seasoned hired hands, who likely grew up in the harsh outer lands with no education and worked hard to get where they were going, the discerning connoisseur can well appreciate new found dishes however limited the chef’s secrets may really be. As for sit-down dinners for either family or visitors embraced with more representational flair, I can attest personally to concurrent amazement and appreciation for these often illiterate but talented people. It’s the former noun — “amazement” — that can abruptly turn to a more active yet guarded word such as the seldom seen “nonplussed.”

Close-knit groups of Embassy spouses, who with their working partners are assigned to any one of those dusty or hot, tropical and remote nations where entertainment is scarce and the cost of Kellogg Corn Flakes exorbitantly high, depend upon some kind of sanity massage to cope through 120 degree summers, seasonal dust or monsoon storms, dirt roads, intestinal threats, anti malaria medication and bad thoughts about tainted blood supplies. Touring tea parties and gossipy lunches make for good fare in those far away, hardship places, and tasting new things and learning and swapping recipes encourage close-knit camaraderie. I know for certain this can on occasion make coming home at night a bit less challenging for the working family member.

One particular story stands out for me. Among all the spectacular dishes one can encounter in these circle gigs, it’s always a family treat when someone learns a new dessert and dinner communions throughout a diplomatic mission can benefit from such a rise in culinary repertoire. It just brings a little better human touch to our events. This was indeed the hope of one circle who, during one coffee and cake event, marveled at one member’s new cook who piqued the pallets with a marvelous maraschino cherry cake with the proverbial mouthwatering vanilla icing.

Praise erupted into some disorder when the group realized the cook couldn’t read or write and they feared loss of his unique secret. The hostess brought control to chaos when she spoke the obvious. “Hey, I have an idea, why not we do this again next week and you all come over when Jamaladoo prepares the cake? You can write down all the ingredients and his procedures!” This was praiseworthy leadership indeed.

All the participants eagerly waited the next week’s repeat round and at the appointed hour everyone showed up to see Jamaladoo make forth his secret cherry cake recipe. With pens and papers in hand, they all pressed closely around the kitchen work table, watching his every move, noting every ingredient, how much, how long for this and how long for that. The chef poured the batter, spread it evenly with all those fancy spatula wrist movements leaving waves on the batter like Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker could do no better.

I can only picture the knowing nods around the group as he poked evenly spaced holes with his finger. He reached for the maraschino cherry jar, twisted the lid and laid it on the table. Particularly pulling out the first cherry by its stem, he tilted his head and gently sucked off the juice from the cherry. He then placed it into one of the holes and deftly but proudly removed the stem without staining one wave of batter.

Thinking about that technique, I easily appreciated how important it must be to minimize the affects of cherry juice. And now, every time I see a jar of maraschino cherries, I can’t help but think back when I worked my way through college as a novice bartender. I took out a lot of cherries for drinks I made, but I never stopped to think about the affects of the cherry juice.

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