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Tasting Down Memory Lane

As an adult, have you ever been whisked back to your youth by a smell or flavor? While I’ve been able to duplicate many of the foods and dishes from my childhood, there is one taste memory that has haunted me for years.

Though I only lived there for 6 years as a child, a recent trip to St. Louis has had me thinking about the smell and flavor encyclopedia in my head that was formed during the time I spent there. And perhaps no place was more important in creating that than the small grocery store where my mother did her shopping. U. City Quality Foods was an independent market owned by the husband-wife team of Stan and Rose Kwiatek. Stan was the butcher, and while I clearly recall his pink-tinged white apron and the counter filled with cuts of meat, what I remember most were the flower-shaped butter cookies he and Rose kept behind the counter for their smallest shoppers, and the boxes of Gooey Butter Cake that lined the shelf in front of it. I’d eat it often – my mom would buy it for neighborhood play-dates.

Gooey Butter Cake experts will tell you that it is a treat unique to the city of St. Louis. It is generally believed that the cake was an accident that happened when a local baker reversed the proportions of sugar and flour in a cake. We loved them as kids – It is as good as the name sounds, with a strong buttery flavor and a texture similar to a rich cheese Danish or iced coffee cake. Upon moving from St. Louis to New York I would see other pastries with a similar look and think that they might be like the Gooey Butter Cake of my youth, but after we left St. Louis, I was never able to recreate that particular taste.

Then, a few years ago I came across a simplified recipe for Gooey Butter Cake and I jumped at the chance to try to recreate it. Everyone I made it for loved it, but it wasn’t quite the same taste that I remembered from my childhood. After a while I gave up on the recipe – partly due to concern over consuming too many gooey buttery calories, but also just because it wasn’t quite as good as I wanted it to be.

So when the opportunity arose to make a quick trip to St. Louis, I decided that this was my chance to get the real thing. When I started searching online for bakeries, I was amazed to find a wealth of information – it turns out, I am not the only one with such strong memories around this one cake. I also discovered that there are many variations of Gooey Butter Cake, which is perhaps one reason why I have been unable to find that “right” taste.

While the version I tried at the lone bakery I managed to fit in that quick trip to in St. Louis disappointed me, it reminded me of the importance of those early experiences. As I think about traditions and foods my own child is now exposed to, I find myself wanting to make sure that they are as special and meaningful as possible. Because one day, maybe he will search for a taste or flavor that will take him back to the sweet moments of his childhood. So although I might never be able to recreate the Gooey Butter Cake from my youth, the sweet walk down memory lane makes the pursuit worthwhile.