Jerri sometimes thinks that my family is weird. When I object, she reminds me of the time in August when my family planned a picnic at a park near Minong, Wisconsin. It was a nice park along a flowage with picnic tables, fishing spots, enough shade to be comfortable but open enough that the bugs weren’t bad.
Unfortunately, when we got there, another family had already taken over the park for their picnic. Never mind that they were at least two blocks away or that they were quietly enjoying the natural setting. Even their kids were having fun without screaming at the tops of their voices, which was more than we expected from my younger siblings.
We drove to the picnic table furthest from the interlopers and proceeded with our picnic. However, it just didn’t feel right with other people at our park. They must have felt the same way, since they left half an hour after our arrival. I sometimes wish that I could apologize to them for ruining their picnic.
The problem is that Jerri doesn’t really appreciate the fact that when I was a boy, we made a point of having a lake to ourselves for our Fourth of July picnic. The Hayward area is blessed with some big, famous lakes. The Chippewa Flowage, Round Lake, Lac Court D’Oreilles and Lake Namekagon attract thousands of visitors every summer. The boat landings, beaches, campgrounds and parks are filled with people enjoying the north woods.
But there are hundreds of small lakes nearby for those of us who want a little peace and quiet with our picnics. Granted that most of these lakes lack picnic tables, toilets, swimming beaches and boat landings, they still have picnic spots. When I was a boy, a picnic spot was defined as a place where Mom and Dad felt that we could manage a picnic without losing a kid.
Dad would find some dead logs that he could turn into a bench and some wood for a fire. Usually Mom would choose the exact spot for the picnic, which had to include at least eight feet of fairly level ground to put down a blanket for a tablecloth in sight of the lake where we kids were busy fishing, swimming, exploring the lakeshore, hunting frogs or picking leeches off our feet. Those were glorious days!
Sometime late in June we would begin discussing where we would have our Fourth of July picnic. Dad always had the final say, but Mom could veto a choice if she felt strongly about it. “Too many bugs, poison ivy, too far to drive” were all legitimate reasons for rejecting first choices.
On the morning of the Fourth we packed the car and headed out, sometimes with Dad’s canoe on top of the old Plymouth. The lakes we headed for were not on state highways, of course, and they were also almost never on graveled town or forest roads. We braved logging roads or dirt tracks that my Dad had scouted during hunting season or when he was a young man working as a logger.
Once in a while we had to fall back on Dad’s second choice, usually one rejected by Mom but now better than nothing, when someone had beaten us to “our” lake. but most of the time, we enjoyed a picnic at a lake that only Dad in our family had seen before. Two or three times I remember someone driving up, saying hello and turning around on their way to their own lake for the day.
Our picnics were not fancy. The standard menu was wieners roasted over a wood fire, potato salad, canned pork and beans and something for dessert. There was pop for us kids and beer for Mom and Dad. If it was sunny with a breeze to discourage the bugs and if we had one of our favorite bottles of pop (Orange Crush, Nehi Grape, Hires Root Beer and Coca Cola were popular choices.) still cold from the ice box at home, we felt that we were in the best place in the world.
Mom made the potato salad and the dessert. The wieners were usually skin-on wieners made locally at the meat market, but the pork and beans, hot dog buns and ketchup were from the A & P or Co-op. We used to buy pop in returnable bottles by the case at the feed mill where we also bought laying mix and crushed oyster shells for Mom’s chickens. I don’t remember where Dad bought the beer, but it could have been from his friend Fritz who owned the Twin Gables bar.
Since Mom baked lots of beans I wonder why we always had the canned variety on our picnics. It must have been because if she brought homemade baked beans we would need to bring a pan to heat them in while she could just open a can and set it next to the fire to warm the beans.
Of course, it helps to have a can opener. I remember a couple of times when the can opener was left at home. I was fascinated to learn that a jack knife can be used as a can opener and later that some knives actually had a can opener tucked into the array of blades. I still have one of those knives with a half dozen tools on it, and it has come in handy when we forgot the can opener or corkscrew.
We often had cake for dessert, both at home and on picnics. My sister Patsy found the recipe for a moist chocolate cake in Mom’s recipe boxes for “Ma’s Salad Dressing Cake” that I am sure she made for some of our picnics. The recipe is in my mother’s handwriting, and “Ma” is Grandma Hopp, and I am keeping the name Mom gave it.
This is one of those recipes that sounds awful but turns out delicious. You can make it with either whipped salad dressing (like Miracle Whip) or mayonnaise. Salad dressing cakes were popular in the 1940’s and 50’s. I don’t know if it was because eggs were sometimes hard to come by during World War Two or whether Kraft may have promoted the recipe as a way to sell more Miracle Whip after its introduction at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.
1 cup salad dressing
1 cup sugar
1 cup hot water
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
5 T cocoa
Preheat the oven to 350º. Grease and flour a nine by nine inch cake pan with two teaspoons of flour and one third teaspoon of cocoa blended together.
Mix the salad dressing, sugar and hot water together in a large mixing bowl. Sift the flour, soda and cocoa gradually into the liquid ingredients, stirring thoroughly after each addition. Then beat the batter for a minute with an electric mixer at medium speed.
Pour the batter into the greased cake pan and bake on the center rack in the oven for about 30 minutes or until done. Use the toothpick test to check for doneness. If a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out without any batter on it, the cake is done. If it does not, let the cake bake another five minutes and test again.
Cool the cake and frost it with your favorite icing.
NOTES: Mom’s recipe called for a scant teaspoon of soda. I never asked her what she meant by scant. Obviously more than three-quarters, so I just used a full teaspoon and the cake turned out fine. Most cake recipes include vanilla in the batter, but this one does not. The cake is moist and delicious made according to the recipe, but I may try adding vanilla sometime to see how it tastes with the extra flavoring.