“Old friends, old friends, sat on their park bench like bookends.”
When I was in college, my summer job was working as an interpreter at a living history farm in Bozeman, Montana. Looking back, I could not imagine myself landing a better job than this – dressing up as a circa 1900 woman, cooking on a wood stove, talking to visitors, learning how to crochet and embroider and sew on a treadle machine, getting to try a huge array of interesting vegetables from an ever-expanding heritage garden, and, best of all, learning from the bottomless well of knowledge that was our volunteer base. We had everything from blacksmiths to gardeners, spinners and weavers and musicians, all historians of sorts, all (or mostly) lovely, wise, fascinating people.
My favourite days on the farm were usually Saturdays, particularly early in the season when it was still a bit chilly. If it was raining out, the house would be dark (no electricity!) and visitors rarely came down the wooden sidewalk. Those were the days when I would build up the fire in the wood stove, make a big pot of cowboy coffee, and sit around the table with my boss, Dave Kinsey, and one of my very favourite ladies, Karen James. I was only a teenager, but they never, ever made me feel small. We would talk about the farm, Western history, our town, our lives, local politics, and so on. And, usually, Karen would bring a truly magnificent coffee cake. We’d sit there, cozy and pleasant, eating piece after piece of this sinfully buttery cake covered in sugary walnuts and cinnamon. We’d drink gallons of coffee, ignoring the grounds sinking to the bottom of our cups as we topped up and poked the fire. I know it sounds funny and a little naughty that I loved those peaceful mornings when nobody would come around the house looking for a tour! But it was those sweet friendships we were forging that I found myself looking forward to all week, and missing when the job was over for another summer.
A few years later, when I was working for Heartland Truly Moving Pictures in downtown Indianapolis, I formed similar bonds with many of the staff. I still remember when Kevin Swiontek would poke his head in my office nearly every morning with the same single worded question: “Coffee?” He’d usually accompany the query with a gesture of drinking a cup. I would smile, grab my purse, and join the group that also usually included my friends Claire Brosman and Kristi Gross as we walked across the street to Nordstrom’s coffee shop. Somehow, we all needed those few moments of camaraderie at the start of our long days, just a short break to get a breath of fresh air and ask how everyone’s weekends went. It brought us closer as friends and co-workers. And if it was a good day, or perhaps a particularly bad day, I would treat myself to Nordstrom’s “old-fashioned” coffee cake, which was the closest confection I’ve ever had, before or since, to Karen’s wonderful cake. This one was probably factory made, but still buttery, rich, and sweet with nuts and cinnamon. So the same comfortable association lived on, even in another time and another city.
Now, I am back in Indianapolis, as you know. Things have not been easy for me, or our family, and we are still scratching our heads a bit as to what to do next. The downtown Nordstrom store and its coffee shop are sadly gone, and none of my old colleagues work for Heartland anymore, anyway. Back in Bozeman, I hear that the Tinsley Living History Farm is running a bit more efficiently, probably for the best! But it means less time to sit and enjoy a few peaceful moments in an old wooden house with friends.
Yet, tonight, I was drawn to that coffee cake again. My Heartland (and beyond!) friend, Claire, had a birthday this weekend, and I just felt like putting together something a bit more than a card for her. We’ve both been very busy since I moved back, and haven’t had much time for peaceful moments over coffee or wine or cake… but we’re still the same old friends, nothing has changed that, and hopefully a little bit of cake will make our shared memories even sweeter. Happy Birthday, dear Claire!
From one dear friend back to another, and here is the recipe Karen shared with me years ago. Hopefully she will not mind if I pass it on to you. It’s a recipe I just feel duty bound to do by hand – from chopping the nuts to stirring the batter (which is quite thick) – but you can certainly speed things up with an electric mixer and a food processor.
Walnut Coffee Cake
1 1/2 Cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 Cup brown sugar
1/4 Cup softened butter or shortening
1/2 Cup milk
2 Tbls melted butter
1/2 Cup brown sugar
1 Cup walnuts, chopped
1 Tbls flour
1 tsp cinnamon
Grease a 9 in. square pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt and brown sugar. Add the butter and milk and beat 30 strokes. Add the two eggs and beat 2 minutes. (I also put some vanilla in at this stage sometimes.)
Combine butter and sugar for topping mix, and add remaining ingredients and mix well.
Spread half of the cake batter on the bottom of greased pan. Cover with half the topping mix, then repeat layers. Bake 30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
“Can you imagine us, years from today, sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy.
Old friends. Memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears.”
– “Old Friends” by Simon and Garfunkel