It has to be close to 30 years ago (I’m astounded that much time has passed and I’m still alive) that Helen Olson, replete with a mop of curly blonde hair and an infectious smile, introduced all of us then living at Parker’s Marina on Sauvies Island in Portland, Oregon, to mud-bottom cake.
“Mud-bottom cake? That sounds gross,” I said. My husband and I had pulled anchor enough to know the black, oozy goop that can cling to those CQRs.
“No, it’s good. You gotta try it,” Helen said, as she popped a live caterpillar into her mouth.
“Oh my gosh, Helen! You just ate a caterpillar,” I said. “They could be poisonous. You could die!”
Helen smiled. “Wouldn’t you want to know if you could survive on them if you were lost in the forest and starving?” she asked.
Stunned, I emphatically shook my head no as I watched to see if she would keel over from caterpillar poisoning. Now she wanted me to try mud-bottom cake of all things. She probably scraped some off her anchor and threw it in a pan with some eggs, I thought, as I watched her start to pick up another fat, fuzzy, crawly thingy.
“Come on over,” Helen said. “I’ll give you a piece to try.”
I figured if I drank enough wine first I wouldn’t notice any gritty sediment that the cake seemed destined to hold. “OK, just a small piece, though,” I said reluctantly.
Five bites later and no chipped teeth, I had to admit the cake was good. Actually, it was more than good. It was delicious.
“This is a great recipe for cruisers,” Helen said. “You don’t need any eggs, and it all goes in a small pan that will fit in your galley oven.”
I nodded in agreement as I had yet another piece of the warm, heavenly chocolate cake.
As the years progressed, many of us at Parker’s wandered off to the far ends of the earth. In our travels, however, I made mud-bottom cake my standard dessert, delighting all who tried its mouth-watering, irresistible flavor. Part of the cake’s success, I must admit, was my telling them of our engaging friend Helen, and her bug-eating experiment, which oddly, everyone seemed to find inspiring. The recipe was a hit at potluck gatherings and a more-than-welcome treat during long passages that offered little culinary variety, and the ingredients were easy to store on the boat.
On my 33rd birthday, while we sailed in light winds to Fatu Hiva, in the Marquesas Islands, my husband made me both a mud-bottom cake and a peach cobbler. We talked fondly of Helen and her husband, Elmer, and wondered if we’d see them while we were in Polynesia, though it didn’t seem likely since there was a lot of water out there and the islands were far-flung.
Weeks later, however, as we wandered into the bay at Hana Moe Noe, and another cake emerged from the oven, who should we see sitting at anchor but the mud-bottom master herself.
I still remember my friend Helen and I still find myself wondering if she ever developed a recipe for caterpillar cake.
1 1⁄2 cups flour
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
5 tablespoons cooking oil
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold water
Put flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, and sugar in a sifter and sift into either an 8- or 9-inch square pan. In a separate bowl, blend oil, vinegar, vanilla, and water, then pour into the dry ingredients. Mix well. Bake at 350 F for 30 minutes.