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  • Writer's pictureClaire Sandys

What's your Herman?

Audio version of this blog available here or look for episode 'What's your Herman?' on your podcast player.

Hi, I’m Claire, one of the co-hosts of The Silent Why Podcast.

We wanted to put together this short episode/blog to explain something you’ll hear mentioned a lot on The Silent Why.

So, one of the questions we like to ask all our guests is ‘What's your Herman?’

We understand this might sound a little strange without a full explanation or context, so here it is.

For anyone that grew up in, or had experience of the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, noughties or now, or indeed has any knowledge of the Amish community, you may have come across something called a Friendship Cake, because this phenomenon pops its head up in practically every decade.

Not dissimilar to the chain letters that frequented our inboxes over the years - offering superstitious threats, or bestowing you with three wishes if you imposed a certain number of others with the same message, Friendship Cakes were something that were passed on and effectively never died.

My experience with them was in the 90’s when a friend gave me a used Chinese takeaway Tupperware with some beige goo in it called a ‘friendship cake’. The small accompanying note informed me my new possession was in fact called ‘Herman’ (instantly meaning my parents couldn’t possibly bin it or kill it because it was already named). And apparently he had been passed through many hands, possibly even for generations (although I suspected it was more likely my friend Stacey had forgotten to feed her Herman and her mum had had to make a fresh batch overnight to save face with the other parents. We'll never know for sure).

So, here I am holding my first ‘Herman’ (apparently named after a sweet Amish cinnamon-flavoured bread.) Which is effectively a cake or bread starter passed from person to person and can, in theory, last forever, and continues to grow, owing to the yeast and lactic acid bacteria, plus the milk, sugar, flour and warm water that are added in to encourage his growth.

And his instructions were:

  1. He does no like to be refrigerated, and is most happy at room temperature sat on a worktop for the next ten days (he might be happy there, I suspect my mother was less so).

  2. Herman will 'breathe' (that's not scary at all), but basically, he just needs to be covered loosely with a tea-towel.

  3. He needs to be stirred occasionally because the yeast in him makes the mixture bubble and make these gurgling sounds.

  4. He needs to be fed.

What the note failed to mentioned was that because of the yeast he will smell strongly of beer. So it’s a bit like having a tiny fat alcoholic lying on the worktop, covered in a tea towel so the neighbours don’t notice.

Then after about four days Herman needs feeding and stirring and then you repeat this on Day 8 as well.

On Day 9, Herman, who has hopefully grown significantly in this time, through many bowls and Tupperwares, is brutally divided into five or six parts and all but one of these parts are inflicted on friends, or possibly secretly binned.

The last part of Herman, which you keep behind, is, on the tenth day, cooked or made into a bread or a cake, and everybody wonders what all the fuss was about because no one has really perfected the art of cooking one of these things, having not practised it much. And to be honest, I don't ever remember anything that came from from one of these Friendship Cakes that tasted any good.

Anyway, that's a rough history lesson, but effectively that's what a Herman is.

But if you look at it another way, you can also see it as...

  • Something that has been nourished, grown and cultivated

  • Something you can't just go and buy with money

  • It's to be shared with others and given away

  • It's alive and breathing, and even though it grows slowly, with a bit of care (you know, sharing) it will even outlast you.

And so that’s why we ask our guests, what is your Herman?

What has their loss or journey given them that they've cultivated through their experiences, and want to pass on to others.

So, tune into The Silent Why episodes to hear what our guests want to pass on to you.

And have a think about what your Herman is.

If you stop to think about all you’ve been through in life, all the losses, all the gains, all the sacrifices, all the blessings, the successes and the disappointments, through all of it, if you could pass something on to help someone else…

What is your Herman?

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