It begins and ends with fire. In the middle, is cake.
On the day we arrive in Burladingen, we don’t waste much time in loading up the cars with boxes of sausages and driving up the narrow, winding road into the mountains. The landscape is brilliantly green, like a patchwork of multi-hued golf courses, speckled with tall, dark pines. Everywhere in the not-so-far distance is the upward slope of a gentle mountain thick with cover.
Here on the Swabian Jura, summer is a cool afterthought. Today the sun is shining, albeit meekly, meagerly, and I am dressed in all three sweaters I thought to pack. On the Eichland, the land of oaks, the grass is littered with pinecones and dead needles. The sun glimmers out beyond the copse. Where we are is shaded, and a naughty breeze nips the trees.
We quickly light a fire by throwing brush into the ring of stones, then adding sticks and larger logs. At nearly 85, my grandfather still fells trees up here on his two forest plots, and what we burn is the scrap from the wood he uses to fire the furnace in his valley home.
Soon, a blaze licks back against the breeze, and we creep our camp chairs closer to the flame. It’s quiet on the Eichland today; we’re a small group. Michael has taken over the task of burning woodsy brush on the fire. Livi has gravitated toward the push lawnmower, as every child who’s ever been to the Eichland is wont to do. She whirrs it industriously across the grass.
For dinner, we throw kebabs on hot coals and roast sausages on sticks over the open flame. There are potatoes with skin crisped black and dense slices of bread. It’s a simple meal: Meat. But our bellies are full as the dusk settles into night and we pack up and drive home.
The next day is rainy and gray – summer like I’m used to – and we laze around at home for most of the morning and into the afternoon. Finally, at 3:00, we pick our sloth-selves up from the eternal brown furniture and bake a cake. My father wants to learn how to bake a Zwetschgenkuchen – sweet, yeasty dough topped with a tightly-packed layer of halved plums and crumble topping.
The little kitchen flurries. We knead dough, flinging flour across the countertops and floor. My grandfather has a nifty device that spits the pits from plums faster than you can blink. And soon, the house smells like a bakery, like sugar, butter, and hot fruit.
My aunt, uncle, and cousin come for coffee and cake. They bring along an apple cake, low-slung and dense with quark, the top flaked with almonds. We make a pot of coffee and sit around the table, talking and eating and eating the cake until almost all of both of them are gone, and the coffee can’t compete with our sugar coma. We skip dinner and eat more cake instead.
We wake again to a brilliant sun and balm, the perfect kind of day for a family get-together on the Eichland, where there will be a little more of everything – more fire, more cake, more bad jokes about the Swabians.
I’m tasked with picking up a cake from Emma. She’s lived in the little house across my grandfather’s cul-de-sac for as long as I can remember, and for just as long, has made the best cakes: Linzertorte thickly layered with strawberry jam and cheesecake topped with tangerines. She always has one or the other ready when we come to visit. This cake is for hiding away and eating on our own. I slice a piece before we make the drive up to the Eichland.
This time, the car is packed to the brim with sausages – Krakauer Wurst, Bratwurst, Rotwurst, Rostbratwürschen, Bockwurst – as well as cheeses for grilling, seasoned steaks and slices of chicken, bacon wrapped around sticks, kebabs, eggplant, and zucchini. There are hot rolls just crisped in the oven, and all sorts of salads: lemony-sweet bulgur, tart shaved carrot slaw, pasta salads with little hunks of cheese and tomato slices, tzaziki, and slices of fresh cucumber.
The fire is already roaring when cars start pulling up. There are new babies to meet, cousins long-since not seen to be caught up with, food to eat.
With full bellies, we take a walk in the sun, scratchy grass tickling our ankles. We find a field mouse’s burrow, but she won’t come out again, having scurried deep into the dust.
As the weather settles into evening’s chill and people pull on sweaters, we stoke the fire higher and spread coffee and cake across the picnic tables. There’s more apple cake, Rote Grütze with pudding, and a red currant cake topped with warbling meringue. The coffee in canisters is still hot, and we fill up cups with milky drink.
Someone hauls a guitar from the trunk of a car, and we sing old songs. My father jigs on his accordion. The babies bounce from lap to lap like nearly-sentient bundles. When the fire starts to die, we stoke it again. My brother, back to burning brush. And when it finally wanes, glutted down to white-hot, we roast marshmallows in the crevices of ashen branches.
This morning, waking up early for my flight back to Berlin, I still smell like campfire – like the reek of an old tree’s armpit. In the bleary fluorescent kitchen light, I slice a last piece of Linzertorte and eat it bite by bite.