Chet Garner has made a career out of traveling the state of Texas, filming his Emmy award-winning show “The Day-tripper”—an approachable, sometimes adorably nerdy look at various characters and locales across the Lone Star State. It’s a career that’s inadvertently made him a Texas barbecue expert—he’s hit all of our local barbecue joints—but when he’s at home with his family in Georgetown, Chet and his wife, Laura, are squarely in what he calls, “the kid zone.” With four kids ranging from 2 to 9, the Garners tend to eat very simply.
“We don’t cook a great variety of things,” Chet says, “but we do make dessert.” He brushes his youngest daughter’s hair out of her eyes with his free hand, while holding her in his lap with the other. “And it’s usually Grandma’s chocolate cake.” Once the magic words are said, all four children begin a delighted chant of “Chocolate cake! Chocolate cake!” until Laura gently tells them to hush.
Years ago, Chet and Laura were high school sweethearts at Port Neches-Groves High School in Southeast Texas. When they got married after finishing their college degrees, nearly the entire town was at their wedding. “It’s a small town, and we’re related to most of ’em!” Chet says.
“We had a bit of a wrangle about what cake to serve,” he continues. “I really thought that the best cake I had ever had was my Grandma’s chocolate cake.” He grins across the room at Laura, who takes her cue, adding: “And I thought the best cake to serve would be what we called in my family, ‘Groom’s Cake.’” After going around and around about it, neither one backing down, they each got ahold of the family recipes, compared them and realized…it was the same cake.
“Both our families were making the classic, post-World War II, Texas chocolate sheet cake—sometimes called ‘1945 Cake’—made with margarine, not butter,” Chet says. “And if it didn’t get finished, it gets kept nice and cold in the refrigerator. Though in my family, there usually wasn’t any left.” Laura adds that at weddings and receptions in their part of Texas, “there were four essentials: peanuts, mints, chocolate sheet cake and punch.”
The couple decided to test whether the cake might be better made with butter instead of margarine. They tried out six different recipes, some with butter, some with margarine. “What we found out,” Chet says, “was it’s much better made with margarine! The cake has a better texture, and the icing sets up completely different—it has a shine to it that is totally missing when you use butter. Not to mention, in Texas, butter icing just melts away in the heat. Especially in the car, if you’re taking it somewhere. The margarine icing holds up.”
“So, at our wedding,” Chet continues, “we had a little bitty one…serve maybe ten people, you know, for show. People were looking at it, feeling anxious. But in the back, we had ten great big pans! After we cut up the little bitty one, we started bringing the great big chocolate sheet cakes in.” The practical joke aspect of it delights the kids; you can tell that the tiny show cake and the surprise giant sheets of cake will be passing into family legend.
“How many people you think were there…three hundred?” Chet asks Laura. “Three hundred? More like five hundred!” she counters. “Three hundred invitations went out, but you know, people brought people with them.”
I ask the crucial question…pecans or no pecans. An unsettled hush falls over the room. Chet heaves a sigh. “I’m afraid there’s not agreement on that point,” he says. “Now me, I’m for pecans, but we’ve reached a compromise: we put pecans on half, and the other half, no pecans.” I try to relieve the tension by confessing that I used to not like pecans on cake, but that I’d crossed over and now I do, so I understand both points of view. Laura turns to me and says, “I’ve crossed over, too.” “WAIT…WHAT?” Chet says loudly. He turns to me and says, “This is a revelation!” He turns back to Laura and says, “Say that again!”
By Kathleen Thornberry • Photography by Nathan Beels