Category Archives: St. Louis-abilia

The $1500 Gooey Butter Cake: NICE!

IMG_1423I’m still in a bit of shock about this year’s fundraiser results. It’s not like I was unaware of the power of the cake, but when it went for $1000 more than the highest bid for indoor skydiving and only $500 less than two primo tickets to the finale of “Dancing with the Stars” I realized that there was more to this story than a box of cake mix, some eggs, a stick of butter, powdered sugar, and cream cheese.

Each year during my school’s annual benefit season, teachers are asked to donate their time and talent in experiences that are put up for auction and bid on the night of the gala. Last year when my initial offering of gooey butter cake appeared, it was bought straightaway for the suggested price of $200. (The $200 Gooey Butter Cake) It went so quickly that this year I knew it would be put up for auction without a ceiling.

A week before this year’s big event, when it was time to make my sales pitch at morning chapel for my “Teacher Experience” that wasn’t an experience at all, I knew I’d have to update my approach.  That meant just one thing. I had to come clean. The previous year I’d ended my presentation dramatically, reminding students that gooey butter cake was NOWHERE to be found in southern California and that their best chance of having it again was in asking their parents to bid on the one I’d bake for them, St. Louis-style.

As it turned out, this was not completely true.

‘In the interest of our school policy of honesty in all things and truth in advertising, I come before you today to set the record straight,’ I confessed as I stepped up to make my pitch. ‘A reliable source informs me that gooey butter cake can now be found in southern California!’

Stunned silence as the following picture appeared on the overhead screen:

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When the gasps of horror and giggles died down I explained that I’d done some investigative research and this is what I’d discovered.

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More gasps.

I compared and contrasted the two products, pointing out that despite its claim as the ‘Gateway to Flavor’ and the friendly price point of $1.49 or 2 for $2.50, the extensive list of ingredients on the Walgreens’ brand of gooey butter was nearly unpronounceable as compared to the simplicity of ingredients in my homemade cake. I tried to be as kind as I could about the inferior imposter and closed my pitch with this call-to-action plea:

‘I’m sure the folks at the NICE! company mean well, but wouldn’t YOU rather have a gooey butter cake baked just for you by a NICE teacher like ME?’

Apparently, that clinched the deal. The rest was gooey butter history.

In hindsight I’ve realized that along with the sheer power of the cake there were some basic sales principles at work here that, despite the fact that I nearly failed Econ 101 my freshman year of college, I have finally understood:

  1. Create a buzz. Because I use gooey butter cake as an example of my favorite dessert in class when I teach expository writing, students are inundated with knowledge about it, intrigued by its foreign Midwestern origins, and curious to sample it, which leads to…
  2. Don’t underestimate the role of the stomach in decision making. After we complete the writing unit I bring in samples of GBC for the students to taste. Their heightened anticipation from hearing all about it along with its pure deliciousness creates further buzz.
  3. Limit supply, increase demand. Now that gooey butter cake is a benefit item I no longer share the recipe with students and their families. Big deal, you might be thinking. Anyone can get the recipe in a hundred places on the internet. True, but not one baked just for them by their writing teacher. Which returns us once again to #1.

There’s one more principle that renders my list pretty much irrelevant because it’s the one that really matters. And that’s the generosity of the parents who purchased this St. Louis-born treat to help our school and make their daughter and her classmates happy.

Now THAT was really nice.

 

The $200 Gooey Butter Cake

ImageWhat price gooey butter cake? I found out last month at my school’s annual benefit and fundraiser.

Every year teachers are invited to offer “experiences” to raise money for various programs at our independent school. Imaginative offerings run the gamut from after school Zumba classes to splashy high ticket items that are usually put up for bid at live auction. They have titles like “Disneyland with Your Teacher, 2 Friends, and All the Churros You Can Eat!” or “Limo Trip to the American Girl Doll Store for High Tea with Your Teacher and 3 Friends!”

What did I have to offer? I racked my brain for inspiration. I felt a bit like the little drummer boy without the frankincense, gold, or myrrh. I had no Disneyland season pass upon which to draw. And I’d raised a boy, so I didn’t know from the American Girl store.

What is it that students really want? I asked myself. And then the answer came to me. They want gooey butter cake.

Each fall when I teach my fifth grade students how to write the dreaded opinion essay, I draw them in by way of their stomachs. I model the classic five paragraph structure with my own topic, “My Favorite Dessert.” Once they write their essays, I bake a gooey butter cake and bring it to class for them to sample. They swoon. They rhapsodize. And they beg for more.

If you’re not from St. Louis, you may not be familiar with this simple, yet irresistible confection made from cake mix, eggs, butter, cream cheese, and powdered sugar. If you are from St. Louis, no explanation is required.

Two weeks before this year’s benefit, I donned my chef’s hat, took up my wooden spoon, and made my pitch during morning chapel. A dramatic PowerPoint presentation, “The Gooey Butter Cake Story,” recounted the legend of how it came to be–by accident of course, as all great discoveries seem to–during the Great Depression in St. Louis. I reminded my current and former students that this delectable treat could be found all over my hometown, but NOWHERE in southern California. That seemed to clinch it.

A parent reported to me afterward that her son predicted my gooey butter cake would “…go for thousands!” and urged her to get there early. 

The event organizers apparently weren’t clued in to the word on the street, so put it up for silent bidding with the option to purchase outright for $200. As instructed, my student’s mother got there early and snapped it up.

I wasn’t able to attend, but heard that there were quite a few disappointed people. The gooey butter cake was the talk of the evening. I was proud of my hometown. SoCal wants St. Louis gooey butter cake! Next year? Live auction!

Only connect…

imagesNot long ago, on break at a writers’ conference, I sat down with a sigh as I checked email on my phone. Discouraged that my manuscript for a children’s biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, which had won two prizes including “First Place Work-in-Progress Picture Book” at this same conference the year before, had not yet found a home (“You write beautifully, but you need to cut 1,000 words!” was a common refrain), my thoughts were beginning to spiral into the black hole of my-writing-efforts-are-for-naught.

Just one well-timed email later, the veil of self-doubt lifted, and I was reminded that this was not necessarily so. The subject header on the email was: “From Sue, Fellow Lindbergh Graduate.” Sue was a classmate I hadn’t known well growing up in St. Louis many years before, despite having shared close mutual friends in junior high. The gist of her surprisingly long email was that she wanted me to know her recent discovery of Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh more than ten years after its publication and, subsequently, Anne’s own Gift from the Sea, had made a profound impact on her.

“Why did Anne’s book and your book resonate so much within me? Because I have struggled to ‘find myself,’ to stand up for my right to create space and time for myself without feeling guilty or selfish most of my life…(and) that this was essential, as you say, to happiness, inner peace, spirituality, to more rewarding relationships with others…” Sue had more to say. She shared quite openly with me, a virtual stranger despite our common hometown origins, about herself and how her choice to grow in self-awareness has affected every aspect of her life.

Deep calls to deep. My openness in sharing my own struggles in Gifts had elicited this beautiful and heartfelt outpouring of honest expression from her. Sue’s words were a gift to me in that moment, lifting me out of my dejection and reminding me that my writing effort does make a difference. Several emails later we met in St. Louis for lunch and nurtured the seeds of a growing friendship. In reaching out to me, Sue also became the catalyst for reconnecting me with mutual friends whom I’d lost touch with years before.

The gifts continue coming.

The chapter in Gifts titled “Reading to Know You’re Not Alone” could have a corollary: “Writing to Know You’re Not Alone.” As I look back over the years since its publication, I realize a theme is woven through my post-publication experience.

There have been other correspondents, not unlike Sue, who have touched me with their response to my book. And there have been occasions, like the afternoon I had the honor of delivering a keynote lecture at the Missouri History Museum, marking the 75th celebration of Charles Lindbergh’s epic flight, an experience that connected me with the hometown I loved and the museum that meant so much to me as a child. I have also been the guest of a dear friend on Captiva Island, where together we walked the same shell-strewn beach that inspired Anne’s Gift from the Sea.

One of my most cherished memories was the day I met Anne’s daughter Reeve Lindbergh for lunch in her hometown in Vermont. After our meal Reeve could have bade me farewell and sent me on my way, but she didn’t. Instead, she invited me to her farm to see the A-frame chalet that her husband had built on their property for Anne, where she spent her final days. Moments of connection like these are electric. I was reverberating for days after the experience of seeing Anne’s home, with the seashells she had scooped up on Captiva Island lining her mantelpiece. These are the moments that tell us we are fully alive.

A writer friend once gave me a card with an E.M. Forster quote on the cover that said, quite simply, “Only connect…” I keep these words close by, and it’s in this spirit that I am pleased to launch Gifts from the Spirit:Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh once again.