Nothing half-baked came of Mom's try at tomato soup cake

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My mother did not bake.

In row houses all around us in the 1950s, other moms served their families fresh-baked pastries. In their school lunch bags, my friends brought homemade cookies, cupcakes and brownies.

But not me. My mother did not bake.

Oh, she cooked. She made wonderful meals. On Sundays, she served you-could-cut-it-with-a-fork roast beef circled by roasted carrots and potatoes lightly crusted on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth smooth on the inside.

I remember coming home on school days in the winter and opening the door to the smells of pork and sauerkraut and knowing that they would share the plate with mounds of creamy whipped potatoes and that I would hardly breathe between bites.

My mother made braised pork chops, roasted chicken, meatloaf, stuffed peppers, oyster stew, meatballs, fried bologna sandwiches and scrapple. Oh, the scrapple (this being South Philadelphia) -- crisp on the outside and spicy rich on the inside.

But she did not bake. No, she said we were a meat-and-potatoes family. We were practical, hardworking, thrifty. We had neither time nor money to waste on frills. After all, she remembered the Depression.

We didn't have cake pans, cookie sheets, bundt pans or cupcake trays. The kitchen contained no brown sugar or baking powder, no vanilla and no almond, orange or lemon flavorings. My mother did not bake.

I loved her meals, but I yearned for baking. The smell of cinnamon, brown sugar, chocolate coming out of the oven somehow meant love to me. But my mother did not bake.

Not until that Sunday afternoon when she and her friend Annie made Tomato Soup Chocolate Cake.

I thought it was a normal Sunday until Annie walked into our kitchen carrying a can of Campbell's tomato soup and two layer cake pans. The oven was heating, but there was no meat in sight.

Instead, the table held a bag of Pillsbury flour, a small brown bottle of vanilla and measuring spoons.

What was happening? I was 11 years old and had never seen this collection of ingredients on my mother's kitchen table. Suddenly, I understood. My mother was going to bake!

I was excited. They were going to make a chocolate layer cake. Oh, joy. A homemade cake. Perhaps a harbinger of baked goods to come? After school, would I open the door to the smells of chocolate chip cookies?

But wait. Why were they dumping Campbell's tomato soup into the mixing bowl? They did not know what they were doing! Would my chocolate chip cookies have mushroom soup mixed in?

I went to my room, slumped onto my bed, drifted off. But then, sometime later, the smell of chocolate and spice slipped under my door. I sat up. Could Annie and my mother have baked a real chocolate cake?

In the kitchen, my mother was smiling as she cut me a slice of chocolate cake with chocolate icing. It was delicious -- yummy and gooey and heart-warming. For my mother this was a breakthrough. She had crossed into Betty Crocker land.

And she baked many times after. She served me gingerbread, strawberry shortcake, lemon cookies with icing and, often, chocolate cake with tomato soup in it. Even now, the sight of a can of Campbell's condensed tomato soup means love -- yummy, gooey love.

The heartwarming memory of the first time my mother baked has never lost its sweetness.

Pat Dombart of Butler Township, a retired teacher and school administrator, can be reached at

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