Mother's Day cake sale is slice of town history

Since '63, Douglas has marked day with big auction of baked creations
2013-05-12T00:00:00Z 2013-05-12T18:09:47Z Mother's Day cake sale is slice of town historyPerla Trevizo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 12, 2013 12:00 am  • 

DOUGLAS - Shasta Holguin could barely see inside the mixing bowl, even if she was standing on a chair, when she and her mother started baking cakes together.

She loved to pour the eggs into the batter and watch them swirl into the mix.

Now the 31-year-old mother of four shares that same passion with her own children. The three generations - Holguin, her kids and her mom, Vicky Merritt - spend the weekend leading up to Mother's Day cooking together for the town's annual cake auction.

For 50 years, mothers and daughters, and mothers and sons, have baked together to auction off cakes of all shapes and sizes inside the lobby of the historical Gadsden Hotel. The annual event benefits the local nonprofit Douglas ARC, which serves people with disabilities.

Three moms started the organization in 1957 to make a difference in the lives of their own kids. People with mental retardation were mostly kept hidden away in those days.

The three were good cooks, and in 1963 they cooked up the idea of the cake auction to help fund the organization, which now focuses on finding employment for clients.

Over the last decade, the cakes have brought in more than $200,000, an astonishing amount for a town of about 18,000 people with a median income of less than $28,000.

"It's supposed to be an economically depressed community and yet people find the money to step forward," said Douglas Mayor Danny Ortega Jr., whose wife and sister also bake cakes for the auction. "It's probably the biggest fundraiser in Douglas in one day."

Douglas ARC Executive Director Gary Clark calls the auction haul seed money. Every $20,000 becomes $100,000 when funds from matching grants are added.

Merritt's cakes are among the most acclaimed - her famous chocolate-chocolate cake with chocolate-covered strawberries brings in as much as $500. The cake weighs 20 pounds - she knows because she weighs it every year.

Merritt, 54, starts thinking in April which five or six cakes she'll bake for the auction.

This year the assortment includes a 10-pound tray with seven types of brownies - which she hasn't made in eight years because of the work involved. She also baked up a pineapple upside-down cake and a German chocolate cake.

She never had the opportunity to bake with her own mother, who died when Merritt was just 5 years old. But her grandfather, a professional baker from Philadelphia, taught her all she needed to know - even how to make parchment-paper cones, she said as she squished the paper cone and squeezed out pink frosting in swirly loops on top of her strawberry cupcakes.

Merritt first heard the auction live on the radio when she was 12 years old. The following year she baked her first cake to be offered to the highest bidder.

She wouldn't necessarily call that first attempt a success.

"I was trying to make a daffodil cake, and it collapsed the day of the auction," she said. "Baking is a science, and I wasn't very scientific then."

Not knowing what to do, she went to the store, bought an angel food cake bar and "fixed it up."

She doesn't know how much it went for, she said, "but as long as it brought something in, that's all that counts."

It's fair to say that 41 years later, Merritt has come a long way with her baking skills.

"This is my no-fail glaze recipe," she says as she reads from a Betty Crocker cookbook she got as a wedding gift in 1975.

She's made it more than 100 times and never screwed it up, she says as she stirs the pot with the glaze that will be the final touch on her chocolate bundt cake.

In the adjacent dining room, Holguin piles up four layers of chocolate cake one by one, adding coconut frosting in between each one to make a nearly 7-inch-tall tower of German chocolate.

Besides spending all of Friday and Saturday baking, Merritt and Holguin are also auctioneers, something they've done for 20 years.

They arrive early in the morning on Mother's Day and take turns with other teams of mothers and daughters or sons. Their challenge is to describe each cake in such a way that listeners' mouths water - and they keep bidding.

The auction is broadcast live over KDAP 96.5-FM.

Over the years, some local bakers have become so legendary that their cakes always spark a friendly bidding war.

Barbara Grijalva's famous upside-down pineapple cake.

Deanna Hyatt's carrot cake.

Nancy McAvoy's pecan pie.

And, of course, Merritt's 20-pounder chocolate-chocolate extravaganza.

The auction is a true community affair, Clarks said.

He used to love sampling the cakes, but since he's gone up three pant sizes, "my wife won't let me do that anymore," he jokes.

Now he just enjoys the camaraderie of it all. "It's like a big family, and that's our living room."

Neither Merritt nor Holguin can picture spending Mother's Day any other way.

Not only do they get to give back to their community, Holguin said, but they also spend time together they otherwise wouldn't have.

One of Holguin's first memories of the cake auction was when she was about 5 years old, barely as tall as the long tables with dozens of cakes lined up around the stage.

The auction immediately became her favorite community event, and more than 20 years later it's something her children look forward to every year.

The oldest, Agustin, 10, likes to bake and help carry the cakes.

Lucas, 8, gets creative with the flavors.

Sebastian, 6, loves helping make the strawberry cupcakes with cream cheese frosting.

And Alyzabella, who is not quite 2, likes to climb on top of a chair, peek inside the mixer and watch all the ingredients slowly swirl together.

If you go

Mother's Day Cake Auction

• When: 1 p.m. today

• Where: Gadsden Hotel, 1046 G Ave., Douglas.

• Live stream: The auction is broadcast live over KDAP 96.5FM

Fun facts

• Vicky Merritt's signature chocolate-chocolate cake with chocolate-covered strawberries weighs about 20 pounds. Wells Fargo Bank bought one last year for $480.

• Elizabeth Ames' three-layer German chocolate cake was sold to Dr. Alfred Wu last year for $305.

About Douglas ARC

• Founded in 1957 by three mothers of children with disabilities.

• The original names was Douglas Association for Retarded Citizens, but now is known only by its acronym.

• It began as an organization for children but evolved to serve only adults after 1974, when it became federal law that all school-aged children, with or without disabilities, had the right to public education.

• Clients provide ground maintenance throughout the city and cook more than 300 meals a day for the program Meals on Wheels.

Source: www.douglasarc.org.

"It's supposed to be an economically depressed community and yet people find the money to step forward. It's probably the biggest fundraiser in Douglas in one day."

Douglas Mayor Danny Ortega Jr.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo

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