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Cakes & Curiosity

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I used to give a monthly Company Values talk for all new staff, during which I'd tell this curious story about cakes:

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One morning, a friend was helping to bake cakes with a woman who comes from a long line of black Southern cooks. When it was time for the cakes to go into the oven, the woman first put in a panful of water. The friend didn't ask why; she figured it was probably a secret for making the cakes more moist. After about an hour, the cakes were done -- and looked incredible. Pleased, the woman and her friend wrapped them up and then headed to Grandma's house, where there would be a huge family reunion later that day.

At Grandma's, after a massive feast for something like 25+ relatives, it was time for dessert: the cakes! While placing a glistening slice of cake in front of each person at the table, the woman proudly pointed out that she had baked the cakes using the old family trick -- putting a panful of water in the oven first -- just as she had seen her mother do years before. Sitting nearby was the woman's mother, who had absorbed the tradition in the same way from observing her own mom. Mother complimented her daughter on remembering, and then took the first bite of cake. "Perfectly moist!" she exclaimed. And with this, everyone eagerly dug in. That is, except for a little boy, about 7 years old, who said with curiosity and a little confusion : "I don't get it, why do you put a pan of water in the oven with the cakes?"

Grandma, who was out on a walk earlier, had returned just in time to hear the boy's question. With a look as confused as his, she glanced questioningly at her granddaughter, and then over to the kitchen. Her eyes widened, and her puzzled frown slowly became an ironic smile as she said to herself, "Ahhhh, I see now." She then walked over to the boy, turned him around so he was looking directly inside the kitchen, and said: "Child, you see that old oven? I used to put a pan of water in there because my racks were uneven!”

Here's to never losing the curiosity of seven-year-old boys, nor the straight talk of seventy-year-old grandmas!

Jesse McCarthy is the founder of jemslife, an educational resource offering personalized teacher and parent coaching.

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