Note: I got very few pictures when my mother passed away, so I’m sending out an SOS to my family to scan and email pictures, of both the cake that started it all and her appearance on the Letterman show. I’ll do a follow-up post when I get them.
In January 1987, just a couple of weeks before I gave birth to Darling Daughter, my mother opened a bakery. She was 42, newly divorced, and unsure – or as unsure as my mother could be. Which probably wasn’t much.
Her business had been open maybe a year, and she was struggling a little, when a staff writer for the weekend magazine that came in the Sunday edition of the Dallas Morning News wandered in. He introduced himself and explained that he wrote pieces on new businesses in Dallas and would she care to be the subject of such an article?
I think her response was somewhere along the lines of “Does an ursine mammal evacuate his bowels in a densely forested area?”
During their “interview” he discovered that, among many other things, she sold decorated cakes. Not just your run-of-the-mill sheet cake with a few roses and a border either, but truly unique sculpted and airbrushed cakes. He asked her to decorate one, and said he’d send someone over to photograph it in a few days. So she did. A small, two-layer cake that looked just like the head of a little bald headed man with a fringe of hair. He even had a mustache.
The week after the article appeared with the picture of the cake, the orders began to POUR in. It was like a tidal wave. I was working for my mother by then, and we came in early and stayed late every day for who knows how long in order to bake and decorate cakes in the shape of people’s heads. It was insane, and the little bald headed man remained her signature cake for the rest of her life, although it didn’t stop there by any means.
A few weeks after the article appeared and we found ourselves awash in all sorts of cakes, plus donuts and pastries and bread and sandwiches and salads and soups and cookies and brownies and pies, some people from the State Fair of Texas wandered in and asked Mom if she would like to do a cake decorating demonstration once a day, every day, during the fair.
For the uninitiated, Texas boasts the largest state fair in the country. The grounds are located on 277 acres in one of the seedier areas of the city (yes, IN the city), and conservative estimates put annual attendence at 3,000,000 people each year. It is a three-week-long spectacle every autumn that ensures hard arteries (Fletcher’s Corny Dogs! Jack’s French Fries! Saltwater Taffy! Funnel Cakes! Just To Name A Few!), an empty wallet, and one a helluva good time. One of the big attractions is the Arts and Crafts Building (known as the Women’s Building when I was growing up), and it’s many contests and demonstrations. That’s where Mom’s daily demonstration was held.
Mom, who had more personality in her big toe than most people have in their entire bodies, was a HUGE hit. She laughed and joked with the crowd and generally kept people in stitches, and ended each demonstration by cutting the half-sheet cake she decorated into bite-sized squares and handing them out to the people who watched. By the end of the run of the fair, there wasn’t enough cake to go around by half. She was THAT entertaining.
So it was no surprise when the Powers That Be asked her to come back the following year, which she did – in fact, she made a daily appearance every year until she died. (She always decorated a burnt-orange and white cake on the day of the Texas-OU game, while she good-naturedly heckled the OU fans, who always laughed and told her how much they enjoyed watching her.) And it was no surprise to anyone – except maybe Mom – when, on the last day of her second year doing the demo, she was approached by two talent scouts who asked her if she was interested in appearing on Late Night with David Letterman.
I believe her response to that was something along the lines of “Does the Holy Father sport a piece of vertically impressive headgear?”
And so it was that Mom found herself in an NBC studio on Friday, November 24, 1989, attempting to teach David Letterman how to decorate a cake…David Letterman, whom she discombobulated so completely that he threatened her with an icing-covered spatula before her six-minute segment was up. At the end, she batted her eyelashes at and drooled all over Paul Shaffer.
It was a sight to behold.