Saturday, April 23, 2011

Lamb Cake: It's a Tradition, I Swear


The following blog entry is a somewhat winded story about the tradition of the lamb cake. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then I guess you've never been to Chicago during Easter. You're not missing much, but it's got people sentimental all the same.

I mention her frequently in my posts, but I need to start this one by saying that my Grandma Jo was such an important person in my life. She loved holidays, and she made them special for me and my siblings. Every Easter season, she would dye eggs herself. We'd go to her house, where she lived alone, and there would be a crystal basket of dyed eggs waiting for her to enjoy. She did it because she liked it.

On Easter morning, we'd wake up and find our baskets from the Easter bunny. After enjoying our goodies, we'd get dressed and head over to Grandma's. She'd be waiting there, wearing her Easter Bunny ears, and take us out to the courtyard of her condo to hunt the eggs she'd hidden. Afterwards, we'd go in to eat, and the meal was always followed up with a lamb cake.

Her lamb cakes always came from Jewell. They were made of pound cake and stood up. The head was made of plastic, and the whole thing was frosted and covered in coconut. The cake lay in a bed of plastic, green Easter grass. It was tacky, and I didn't like coconut, but it was tradition.

When we moved to Colorado from Chicago, we were disappointed to discover that no grocery store or bakery (that we found) sold a lamb cake. We were older and no longer enjoyed egg hunts, and so Easter tradition slowly fizzled.

This year, I started to think of the lamb cake, and I thought it would be nice to make one for my mom. I looked up a recipe and did a search online for a lamb cake mold. Before making any purchases, I decided not to make the cake. I reminded myself that I don't like coconut, and it'd be a lot of work. I wasn't sure if my mom would appreciate it all that much anyway.

I spent the morning at my parents' house. Grandma Jo came up in conversation, and I thought to mention the lamb cake. My mom got excited about it and told me how much it reminded her of her own grandma (Grandma Jo's mother, my Oma). I laughed and told her how it reminded me of Grandma Jo. She explained that Oma bought one every year. I learned later (from my Aunt Jackie) that Oma purchased it from Weiden's Bakery in Chicago. Grandma Jo always bought hers from Jewell-Osco. My mom told me the lamb cakes didn't always have plastic heads as I'd remembered, and part of the fun was cutting off the head. I laughed and told her the fondness for me was how tacky the cake was, and I loved the plastic head. We then reminisced a bit. She remembered black jelly beans for eyes, but I insisted the ones we had when I was little never had jelly bean eyes (which makes sense since the head was plastic). We both remembered the coconut and Easter grass.

Before long, we talked each other into baking a lamb cake. We drove to Hobby Lobby, World Market, and Michael's. There were no lamb cake molds for sale. I called my mother-in-law who recommended a cake shop in Englewood, and so we set out. We arrived and inquired about a lamb cake pan. Success! They had four. One lady asked us if we'd called earlier. We had not, so I assume someone else was on the hunt. My mom and I bought our pan and some cake trays, and then we headed out to the store for supplies. Unfortunately, all the Easter grass was sold out, but we felt confident we bought all the remaining essentials.

When it came time to extract the baked pound cake from the mold, my dad wandered over. I told him the head was a little weak. He said, "Oh, my grandma always put a popsicle stick in the neck." Then he wandered outside for a smoke. I couldn't help but follow to hear more. I was surprised to hear that his family also had the tradition, and I was further surprised to hear his grandma (Grandma Kelly) baked the cake. My dad joked, "My brothers and I would always complain and ask her to let us eat some before she put all the coconut on it." I laughed because I thought the coconut was the worst part, too. He told me that his grandma had a very old mold that she used to bake it in.

At that moment, I realized that the lamb cake must be a tradition in Chicago. It doesn't exist in Denver, but it's so mainstream in Chicago that you can buy them at the grocery store. It must be an old tradition, too, because both of the great-grandmothers that I knew had lamb cake for Easter. When I got home, I started searching through articles online. Other than info on how to make them and where to buy the molds, there was almost no information at all. There wasn't anything on wikipedia about the lamb cakes. I found one article that briefly mentioned them and said they were Polish (my German family also shares Polish roots). However, another article said the Polish tradition is actually butter molded into the shape of a lamb (another Easter item familiar to us from Chicago but not Denver). Yet another article briefly mentioned the lamb cakes and said they were Czech.

Finally (finally), I found one blurb of an article in a Chicago dining website. Here's the link: http://www.diningchicago.com/blog/2010/04/01/easter-means-lamb-cake-in-chicago/
According to this article, it's a Catholic tradition that has taken off in Chicago, where there were many Catholic immigrants (my great-grandparents on my mother's side were some). My father's grandmother was not Catholic (at least, I don't believe so), and her family was Danish. My dad described her lamb cake mold as very old, so I imagine the tradition goes back before her time. I wonder if her family picked it up after they immigrated to Chicago in the 19th century or if their tradition started in Europe.

My internet searches led me to an editorial in the Chicago Tribune. It's a personal story written by a woman who married a man from the South Side of Chicago (where my parents' families are from). His family was very traditional, and his aunt baked a lamb cake (article here: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1999-03-31/features/9903310026_1_lamb-aunt-betty-easter). Indeed, the "tacky" lamb cake tradition must be an old one in the Second City. I continued browsing deeper and deeper into my Google search. I found a fraction of an article in the Chicago Sun-Times (http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1N1-12ECE503A28C5C40.html) that explained that the tradition is also still popular in Europe, especially in Poland.

Even though the history of the lamb cake is vague at best, I truly enjoyed learning that my family (on both sides) participated in the tradition. It was also fun to make our own lamb cake. To be honest, I couldn't even stay long enough to finish decorating it, and I find it so cute to think of my mom and dad decorating the cakes together. Yes, cakes. My mom told me that we should make two so I could bring one with me to Easter brunch tomorrow with Andrew's family. The best part is that two of Andrew's father's cousins will be there, and they're from the Chicago area. I'm eager to find out if they recognize the lamb cake, too. If not, everyone will just assume I brought a tacky cake. Too bad.

2 comments:

sándor said...

They were also available in bakeries in Milwaukee. I m sure those days are gone with Costco s around.

sándor said...

They were also available in bakeries in Milwaukee. I m sure those days are gone with Costco s around.