watergate cake with impeachment frosting, from the 1970s

Watergate Cake with Impeachment Frosting…
an essay mostly about the 70s.

The 70s was a strange decade. In some ways I think of it as a bridge between the America that was and the America that is. Politics became more aggressive, fashion became less formal, music became darker, the drug culture flourished, and food began breaking out of its Betty Crocker mold in typical 70s patchwork style – not yet gourmet, but creative nonetheless.

During this time, there was a convergence of new and old ideals- with half the country resisting tradition and the other half holding on with white knuckles. It was the decade of Roe v Wade, the decade that saw the birth of Apple Computer Inc., the decade that hosted the political scandal of the century, and it was the decade that pudding cake became a ‘thing,’ and along with it, the Watergate Cake… however, nobody’s exactly sure how, where, or when –  it made its debut.

Pistachios pudding?

To make a Watergate cake you need a pistachio pudding component, the cake itself, and the whipped frosting and topping

Recently the 70s have been on my mind due to a design project I’m putting together. So when I was perusing Pinterest for reference images of egg chairs, earth tone graphics, and macramé planters, my interest was piqued when I came across something else altogether – a recipe for Watergate Cake.

I didn’t click on it, but it reminded me that I had seen this somewhere before. It was in a book I have titled, Vintage Cakes, and it was sitting within a pencil’s toss of my present locale. I made the short four-step commute from computer to cookbook, and pulled out the tome in question. 

All because of Jell-o?  

There are many adaptations of the Watergate Cake floating around the web, but from what I gather, it generally came about when Jell-O introduced cake recipes made with boxed pudding mixes in the early 70s. Some say it became known at the Watergate Cake because it was full of nuts with a cover-up of fluff (the Impeachment frosting is also known as Cover-Up frosting in some circles).

The cake is indeed nutty – with pistachios. In fact, the boxed pudding mix used in many recipes is pistachio flavored. There’s also a theory that the cake was named after the Nixon scandal because of the President’s love of that particular nut. No matter what the origin of the name, the cake is intriguing.

Many of the recipes online differ slightly – for example quite a few instruct to use both a boxed cake and boxed pudding mix, with the addition of seven-up or a lemon-lime drink to further moisten.  These are probably the more ‘authentic’ recipes because novel and time-saving foods were popular in the 70s. The ‘frosting’ used in these versions is often Cool Whip, another convenience food… I mean seriously, with some of these you could almost make the cake just by turning on your oven.

The Vintage Cakes Version

Anyway, decade-authentic as those recipes may be, after I decided to make the cake (because it’s from the 70s, and the cake’s namesake is back in the news again with unfortunate comparisons) I chose to go with the cookbook version wherein everything is made from scratch. I mean, I’ve had Cool Whip before, who hasn’t? It’s fine in a pinch. But compared to the book’s Impeachment Frosting made with whipped Mascarpone cheese, heavy cream, and pistachio… well, there just can’t be any comparison. 

Sorry Cool Whip.

And I’m sure the caramelized pistachios with chunks of sea salt are going to be far tastier than the handful of chopped nuts tossed on the finished product as suggested in many online recipes…but we’ll see.

So began my Watergate cake-baking foray.

I made the pudding and set it to cool in the fridge, then pre-heated the oven to 350F, lined my pans with parchment, and put on some 70s music to get me in the mood.

This was a mistake.

I don’t know why, but there’s something about 70s music –or the 70s in general – that brings about a twinge of melancholic depression in me.

No Patchouli please!

Maybe because it’s the decade I most recall in terms of change – going from early elementary school to my junior year in high school and all the drama that comes with that territory, or maybe because it symbolizes a youth now far removed, or maybe, in the case of much of the music, it’s the sort of drug induced beat that conjures up images of people sitting around on stained throw pillows, candles lit, with the smell of pot, patchouli, and sandalwood intermingling in the air. I detest the smell of any of the ‘woodsy-musky’ scents, and recall having to put up with it in waves as it wafted from beneath my sister’s bedroom door. Incidentally, she wasn’t fooling anyone with her incense burners working overtime to mask the ‘organic’ smells emanating from her locked room.

It’s not just that though, the music reminds me of the turmoil that was going on in the country in general – war, politics, women’s rights, and a wave of divorces that left few of my friends with original parents intact, including my own.

I decided to change gears.

All the President’s Men

I turned off Stairway to Heaven, and put on a movie from the era, while preparing to sift my dry ingredients.  As I did so, pounding typewriter keys rang out – a dramatic pause between each strike- and spelled out JUNE 1, 1972. The movie commenced with the break-in at Headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, the location – The Watergate Hotel. 

Despite my melancholic feelings about the 70s, it has produced two of my top fifteen favorite movies – The Good-bye Girl, and the one I chose to watch, All the President’s Men.  

Though they’re a bit vintage today, both were contemporary to their time, and as such are good reference sources for clothing, and design styles. The Good-bye Girl especially, but I’ll leave that for a later essay, except to say that I love the apartment in the film, as my personal style could be politely described as ‘cluttered eclectic.’ Plus, I like apartment living – don’t ask me why, I just think it’s artistic, youthful, and independent.

All the President’s Men I like for different reasons. One – I love political thrillers, two – I feel a certain connection to it.

I remember quite vividly watching the news of the real Watergate unfold. I was in an experimental class taught with a team approach in which two grades were mixed together, and we had a set of teachers rather than the usual solitary figure. Our school was progressive and so were the majority of its faculty. Though I didn’t really know what progressive meant at the time, I do recall one of my teachers lived in a geodesic dome house, which kind of gave a clue as to her lifestyle.

I mean, traditionalist don’t live in odd shaped houses made of glass. Also, the fact that she preferred to be called Ms. Tate was telling. The title Ms. had only just been approved for use on government documents in 1972.  

I also remember my art teacher, Mr. Smythe, who wore a kitchen-style apron with ‘McGovern’ stenciled all over it in red white and blue. He would wear it while slicing up big loaves of rust colored modeling clay into individual slabs with dental floss, his shaggy beard acting as a magnet to whatever bits of material were flying about. These pieces would later morph into irregularly shaped paper clip cups or ashtrays.

Smoking, Politcal Opinion and Liberalism

Yes, ashtrays. It was the 70s. Smoking was prevalent, and the Marlboro Man was still allowed on billboards, though after 1970, no longer on television or radio thanks to Nixon. As for his political attire, I’m not sure if teachers can still show that kind of partisan support anymore, at least in the lower grades.

However, the image of Mr. Smythe came back vividly when my dad recently confided that he felt all of his kids’ teachers were too liberal. This was his reasoning as to why we were all Democrats despite growing up in a staunchly Republican household.

Anyway, during the Watergate investigations our teachers would roll a TV in and we would watch the midday news to keep abreast of all the political goings-on. I don’t believe I really understood it, or maybe I just wasn’t interested at the time – I was ten.  And ten in the 70s is not the equivalent of a ten-year old today – we were more kidd-ish, for lack of a better description.  

We didn’t have technology and social media guiding us as to what to wear and what to care about. But it did leave an impression on me. In my mind I can still see the boxy television set with its two turn-dials sitting atop a high cart.

The 70s Hot School Lunch

We watched the ongoing Watergate investigation while desk-dining, and to this day, the name Nixon brings to mind visions of hot school lunches covered in foil, and in particular the spaghetti that arrived in four or five stuck together S-curve clumps.

It was served with canned green beans on the side, and if we were lucky, a sherbet cup for dessert – orange and vanilla, with the added flavoring one gets from the short, wooden spoon sticking to your tongue upon initial contact. The year was 1973, the average cost of a house was $32,000, the average salary was $13,000, and a hot lunch at my school was .35 cents.  

Though I said I wasn’t going to bring current politics into this piece, it’s hard not to look back on those days through a political lens in the current environment.

Especially with the animosity our sitting president holds toward the free press, and all his ‘fake news’ accusations aimed at everything but the actual fake news. However, setting 2017 politics aside, I move us back to the 70s, cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs and vanilla, and pour myself a cup of decaf, since it’s late in the day…though if I was really back in the 70s, I might be drinking Sanka.

Speaking of my Dad, he used to have a saying back in those days, and it went something like this:
“If you see a guy and he’s tan, it means he’s a hard worker. If you see a girl and she’s tan, it means she lays out in the sun a lot.”

Even though I realized it was sexist, it was a little hard to argue with him since I was tan and it actually was from constant sun-bathing.  Back then tanning wasn’t associated with the risk it is today, and my suntan ointment of choice was pure baby oil without any pesky SPFs. And since he was constantly working in the yard on the weekends, and he had a tan, like I said, it was hard to argue. Still, his comments reflect a certain time, place, and way of thinking.

Women’s Rights

A few years ago I was in a writing group, and there was a member who had been one of the few female law students at Columbia University in the 60s. She ended up being a trial attorney on the Watergate Special prosecutor’s staff, cross-examining several people during the court proceedings. Just years out of law school, and already so accomplished, yet what she was most remembered for was her attire. I believe she told me she was referred to as the ‘mini-skirt’ lawyer, People magazine ran a story about her alluding to this.

Women’s rights were being fought for, but they still had a long way to go (as they do today in many cases).

Pondering the past, I fill my cake pans, and put them in the oven. The timer is set for 25 minutes. The movie is now to the part where the Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, is talking to Ken Clauson on the phone about his meeting with Sally, a young, female journalist…in her apartment. The end of the response is amusing.

Please, listen, now, if you’re going to refer to that alleged conversation with Sally Aiken, you can’t print that it took place in her apartment. I have a wife and a family and a dog and a cat.

Anyway.

After Watergate, the phrase ‘The cover-up is worse than the crime,’ has been uttered many times over the years. That may be true of the current happenings too, I guess we won’t know until it all plays out. But at the moment, I have baking needs to attend to, and I’m tired of the constant barrage of miss-dealings in the White House. It’s all getting to be too much. Thank goodness for cake.

Out of the Oven

An hour or two later and my confection has cooled, the Pistachio Mascarpone Cream frosting has been spread, and the caramelized nuts and sea salt have been sprinkled. I cut a slice and take a bite.

 The cover-up is worse than the crime…well, if I use the analogy that the Watergate Cake is a calorie crime, then it’s true the Impeachment Frosting cover-up is worse than the crime, I mean, c’mon – its heavy whipping cream plus Mascarpone cream cheese, plus pistachio cream.  Don’t even bother to calculate the calories because in those terms it’s passed being a crime, it’s a downright deadly sin, but a delicious one. And unlike the actual Watergate, the cake version won’t leave you with a bitter aftertaste.

Plus the reality is, cake was here long before Nixon, and will be around long after our current President is gone…unless, of course, there’s no one left to bake it.

The recipe I used was from the book, Vintage Cakes, by Julie Richardson

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