You can learn a lot about a person from stepping foot inside their car.
My dad, for example, has a car which smells of pipe tobacco and coffee. The console is usually littered with notepads covered in all caps handwriting, and never once have I gotten in the car without at least one book on tape falling out first. I can practically hear the plastic boxes hitting the driveway now.
As a locomotive engineer, my dad is always on the go. He’s incapable of sitting still for a board game unless it’s cribbage, he usually eats his dinner standing up, and that man has run more errands than anyone I know.
Some of my favorite memories are traveling places near and far with my dad when I was a little kid, because it shed light on the greatest mystery of all time: what your parents do when they’re not at home.
Mostly we dropped the mail at the post office or filled the car with gas. But on special occasions, I’d help grocery shop. And if I was grocery shopping, you know I’d turn it into a bargaining deal and ask for a treat. No matter what errands we ran or how many secret cream puffs we’d enjoy before we got home, you could always count on making a special stop at the library (don’t worry, dad, I’ll take your meager overdue library book fines with me to the grave).
These were the moments when I really got to know my Dad. I could talk his ear off with reckless abandon, and I still felt like there was no other place we should be than in that moment.
And because I remember being on the go so fondly, I was originally dead set on baking something transportable for If my Dad was a Dessert. A chocolate cherry pie sounded like a good option. I’ve only seen one person balance a cherry garcia waffle cone in one hand and maneuver a steering wheel with the other. Plus it would be a fitting dessert for the man who turned us all on to those insanely caloric but oh-so good mini pies in the crunchy wax paper wrappers by Hostess.
But my dad is a working man who makes meat and potato stews, smokes a pipe in the rain and can chop a block of wood with one ax swing. I couldn’t make a pie! I needed to find a recipe that was hearty. A workin man’s dessert!
So then I was thinking I’d make rosemary thyme crackers. A sensible snack. Not to mention it was hard to keep Ritz crackers in our house for long. I was always jealous of the mini travel cooler my dad packed for lunch every day not only because it looked bottomless, but you could always count on finding was a sleeve of crackers. An entire sleeve! My dad made adulthood look downright delightful.
But nothing captures the feelings I have for my old man quite like poppy seed cake.
To know my family is to know our poppy seed cake. We make this cake for funerals and birthdays and every occasion and sometimes non-occasions in between. There have been poppy seed cakes with top halves precariously balanced because they stuck to the bundt pan. Some poppy seed cakes have needed more chopping on the walnuts. Others set the fire alarm off.
There have also been poppy seed cakes which are nothing short of perfection. And no one in my family makes a poppy seed cake as good as John Grdina. Sorry, Mom! (Though I’d like to think you too would agree.)
The story goes that my grandma shared her poppy seed cake with my mom when my parents got married almost forty years ago. I used to joke that you had to marry or kill a Grdina for the recipe, but I once told that to a friend and my mom replied, “Oh! You want the poppy seed cake recipe? Yeah, let me write you a copy!” I had no idea we had such little regard for our family secrets. (My Dad once owed the library fifteen cents. If he owes more than this, I won’t believe you.)
My dad is a dependable, trustworthy, kind man who is the hardest working person I know. And as much as I wanted to roll out the chocolate cherry red carpet, there are no flavors more fitting to represent him than the cake which has seen our family through it all.
You can grab a slice on the go, with a little bit of butter or cream cheese on top, while listening to The Greatest Speeches of All Time audiobook. Poppy seed cake can be enjoyed on a paper napkin while you pick cards to discard during cribbage. It is most definitely never enjoyed with a fork.
But most of all poppy seed cake tastes the best when my whole family is together – exactly the way any parent would have it. Making it at our respective homes is the next best thing to sitting down with a cup of tea and our Winston Churchill quoting, tea party loving, book fanatic cool dad.
We love you, pops! Happy birthday!
If my family was dessert series
p.s. I used the New York Times poppy seed cake recipe because I didn’t want to spoil this surprise. I thought about making an east coast elite joke here, but the truth is this recipe is scary similar to the Grdina family recipe with the exception that ours calls for milnot and walnuts. And maybe sweetened condensed milk? I can’t remember. I’ll have to ask my parents. Heavens knows we have no secrets.