A lot of ingredients go into making a good memory, but for Monica O’Connell, it usually includes butter and sugar. Baking a rum cake can take O’Connell back to when she was a little girl, living in the south. “The memory is really literally one of me being a young kid getting to stay up later than I usually do because my parents were throwing one of their famous house parties, eating my mom’s famous rum cake on the stairs, and watching the grown folks dance.”
Rum is a crucial ingredient in the cake and the party. “There’s a little bit of rum that goes into the batter,” says O’Connell, “but there’s a lot of rum that just soaks into the cake itself.”
Part of the atmosphere was the music at her parent’s parties: 70s R&B. “The food ways and the musical traditions,” says O’Connell, “they share the same space, they influence one another.”
Food and music have influenced O’Connell all her life. At first, she thought she would be a concert musician. “While I was working on my masters in French horn performance, I started hanging out with musicologists.”
Musicologists don’t perform music, they study it as an academic field. O’Connell went on to get a PhD in ethnomusicology and the study of black music. “The ethnomusicology thing helped me think about my own folks and my own music, my own culture in some different ways.”
Eventually O’Connell became Executive Director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. “So the baking fell off a little bit. Until the job started getting stressful and then the baking found its way back in, because I needed an outlet. The baking was just this other space I could be in.”
A few years ago O’Connell married a man from Wisconsin and moved to Fort Atkinson. “Fort doesn’t have a bakery. And here I am in this position, I’m free!”
So she decided to start her own business as a baker and wanted to connect it to the feeling she got from those parties as a child. “What I want to recreate is just that feeling of deliciousness and welcomeness.”
It made sense to O’Connell to name her business after music and food, so it became Curtis and Cake. “I like the name, I like Curtis Mayfield.”
The most important word in the title might be the and because it represents the union of music and food to create a good experience. “So these ideas of culture and of hospitality, so Curtis and Cake, bring the music in, bring the family in, all of that.”
Curtis and Cake required a commercial kitchen, which brought O’Connell to rent space in Madison. Monica enjoys the relationships formed with new customers. “I like getting to be a part of these peoples’ celebrations. Even though I’m not there physically, a little bit of me I guess is there. And that’s pretty cool.”
Monica looks to bring some southern influence to Wisconsin taste buds.
Monica explains the place the kitchen holds in her life.