When Summerville resident Jan Weaver married her husband Dean she already enjoyed baking, but had no experience preparing a meal.
However, she had a goal to be able to take care of her family and she slowly overcame that obstacle.
Her marriage to Dean brought a list of family cooking recipes that had been passed along on his side of the family – a tradition that Jan greatly embraced.
Jan is friends on Facebook with her husband’s cousin’s daughter Maddie Herec Poirer, a Boston filmmaker and creator of The American Recipe Project.
In 2012 Poirer sent out a request via Facebook for family recipes, as part of a thesis project she was working on for her masters degree in media art at Emerson College in Boston. Jan sent her a bunch of family recipes, and Poirer ended up travelling from Massachusetts to do a short film story on the family’s Swedish meatball plate – a dish that, Jan said, literally dates back hundreds of years in her husband’s family.
While Poirer was visiting Jan happened to make a popular dish called Crazy Cake, a typical dessert within the family. Poirer had heard of other people making this delicacy and took a lot of footage of the cake, and it ended up being the feature of her film. She labeled her documentary “Crazy: A Story About Cake and Other Things.”
“She’s also working on the meatball one but the Crazy Cake has just taken off,” Jan said.
The film has since been featured in a couple of festivals. In April Poirer traveled to Charleston for the Charleston Food Film Festival, with “Crazy” as an official selection.
The film was screened at the High Wire Distilling Company on King Street in Charleston on April 25, and the film won the Audience Choice Award for Short Film. The Weavers attended the screening.
“Since then we have been hearing about all the other people who have Crazy Cake recipes,” Jan said. “It’s been really fun watching this story grow and move.”
Poirer’s husband Justin shot the video for the film. Aside from the Audience Choice Award the film also earned the Rule Boston Camera Award at the ItsAllTrue Documentary Festival in Boston.
Poirer earned her masters in May 2013 and also received the Graduate Program Award from Emerson.
“I passed for sure,” Poirer said.
Both Jan and Dean are featured in the film, which is nine minutes long and shows Jan preparing the cake, as well as the couple being interviewed about the family history about the cake. Their two daughters are shown in the film as well.
Crazy Cake is a recipe for chocolate cake, which is eggless and contains vinegar. Jan said she and her husband do not know where the recipe originated but they hypothesize that it may have come about during the Great Depression, as people did not have eggs and other ingredients. The cake is mixed right in the pan; it is very moist and in Dean’s family the cake has been the go-to delicacy for birthdays and family gatherings.
Dean recalls how often times the frosting on the cake would gather into the corners of the pan so everybody would always want a corner piece.
“It was the cake we had during all the special occasions,” Dean said.
Jan obtained the cake recipe from Dean’s mother Alice, who used the recipe a lot. Alice died of cancer 1977. Jan tried asking Alice’s brother where the recipe came from but he did not know; he said his own mother never made it, so in the Weaver family the cake originated with Alice. The family is 51-percent Swedish but the cake does not have any Swedish roots.
‘We have since learned it is all over the country – a lot of people have it,” Jan said.
Jan recalls during the filming she and Dean were asked about the cake’s history within their family, and what kind of memories they had associated with the cake. Before Alice passed away she had made multiple Crazy Cakes, wrapped them and put them in the freezer (“It’s a cake that freezes very well,” Jan said.). Alice always had multiple cakes in the freezer and whenever company showed up they would pull one out and get it ready.
When Jan was asked during the film about her memories behind the cake she said she immediately started crying. Several months after her mother-in-law died she and Dean visited his dad Bill’s house, and Jan remembers Bill came out of the basement and set a wrapped-up Crazy Cake on the counter and said, “Here’s the last one that Alice made.”
“We all sat down and ate Alice’s Crazy Cake,” Jan said. “It’s been 36 years and it still brings me to tears. It’s just a recipe that showed how much she cared for her family. It was quite something to eat that last cake.”
Poirer added she enjoyed getting to know the Weavers and being able to see Charleston while she worked on the film.
“The biggest thing I learned is to not underestimate the power of food to bring people together,” she said. “Dean talked a lot about how the smell of the cake reminds him of his mom.”
Jan prepares the cake the exact way it states in the recipe – although Jan usually doubles the recipe and makes a bigger cake. Jan’s two daughters make the cake for their own families as well.
The film was, basically, about the Weavers and a sacred family tradition.
“The outcome was just fantastic,” Dean said. “It was good to see the other entries in the Food Film Festival too.”
Dean said at the screening the various food pieces were prepared for guests. Everyone enjoyed a slice of Crazy Cake.
“There wasn’t any leftover,” Dean said. “I think my mom would have really liked it. I didn’t think something as simple as Crazy Cake would get so much noriety.”
Poirer now works as a freelance editor and videographer. She said she loves working for the American Recipe Project, which features short documentary films or “episodes,” a blog and a recipe-sharing web app. Poirer calls working for the American Recipe Project her passion, and feels people who have watched the Crazy Cake footage have an overall positive reaction.
“I think, for people, it reminds them of their own families,” she said.
Both the Weavers agree that it was neat the way Poirer put the Crazy Cake film together.
“It was just a beautifully put-together film,” Jan said. “It was fun to revisit family traditions and highlight the importance of them. It was a bit emotional remembering some of the history of the recipe, and it was fun to reconnect with Maddie, whom we hadn’t seen since she was 10 years old. She has grown into a beautiful and talented young lady.”