Does the net affect our memories? Yes, but maybe not the way we think it does.
My sister and I were talking on the phone about one of the family trips we took as children. Our schoolteacher father and our stay-at-home mother hitched a tiny travel trailer up to the car to take their children to as many educational sites as possible each summer. That they managed months-long trips with two often squabbly girls and our toddler brother was remarkable. That they kept to a necessarily minuscule budget, even more so. They did this by never once buying prepared food of any kind. Every day at lunchtime we ate sandwiches on store brand white bread washed down with not-too-cold fruit drink, then got back in the car to keep driving. My mother cobbled together every evening meal using two aluminum pans, washing those pans and our plastic plates in a shoebox-sized sink. To me, an ungrateful and hermit-y little girl prone to motion sickness, these trips were a sort of educational hell.
Thankfully, one of our stops was in St. Louis to visit with my father’s only brother and his family. After weeks in a cramped trailer and even more cramped car, it was wonderful to spend the night sleeping in a roomy basement with cousins we hadn’t seen in years. We were even allowed to babysit ourselves while our parents went out to a restaurant. The adults brought us a rare treat, McDonalds, and we stayed up late talking and laughing. We showed our cousins how to draw grids on notebook paper to play Battleship. They showed us new card games. The next morning our aunt purchased some kind of St. Louis specialty for breakfast. Growing up in a household where doughnuts and store-bought cakes never crossed the threshold, this was unimaginable luxury. My sister and I remembered the sweet sticky coffee cake but not its unusual name.
After I got off the phone with her I got online to look it up. I got waylaid by flood warnings for St. Louis, so I checked maps to see if the water was rising by my uncle’s house. Then I was distracted by an article about pharmaceutical residue found in waterways. And of course I got sidelined by emails with editing questions, new article deadlines, some G chats that pleasantly used up too much time. Totally forgot my initial quest.
The next morning I saw the note I’d scribbled while talking to my sister. This time I vowed to focus for the few seconds necessary to Google it. I found the name of the confection almost immediately. It’s called Gooey Butter. I fussed around reading about how the cake is based on a baker’s mistake made back in the 1930’s and how customers swear allegiance to specific variations sold by different stores in St. Louis. I even looked at a few images, although none of them looked nearly as enticing as the cake I remember. Then I scrolled over to recipes. I was disappointed to note that nearly every one started with a yellow cake mix. I closed those screens sadly. I meant to email my sister the name of the cake but I’m pretty sure I instantly got caught up in the time flush that happens online. Probably never got around to it.
I realize with uncomfortable clarity that slurping up information online does little to deepen our experiences. It would have been better to leave the cake unnamed in our memories, held on unfamiliar plates as we clustered around a vinyl tablecloth listening to our aunt say, “You’ve never had anything like it” while we tried the first sweet bite.
I succeeded in finding links to scratch recipes. Here’s the cream cheese version and the non-cream cheese version. I made the cream cheese version for my family, marginally healthier with organic ingredients. And if you ask someone who hails from St. Louis, be careful to avoid expressing your Gooey Butter preferences. Chances are, theirs are much more fervent.