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  • Writer's pictureClaire Sandys

What's your Herman?

My Why audio version of this blog available here.

Hello, I’m Claire, one of the co-hosts of The Silent Why Podcast, on a mission to explore 101 different types of loss (not just bereavements) to see if hope can exist in all kinds of grief.

I wanted to put together this short episode (and blog) to explain something you’ll hear mentioned a lot on The Silent Why.

The last question we ask all our 101 loss guests is this - ‘What's your Herman?’

Now, I 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. This phenomenon has popped its head up in practically every decade.

It’s not dissimilar to the chain letters that frequented our inboxes in the early internet 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. But we'll never know for sure).

So, here I am holding my first ‘Herman cake’ (apparently named that by the Europeans, but based on a sweet Amish cinnamon-flavoured bread.) It’s 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:

  • He does not 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).

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

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

  • He needs to be fed.

What the note failed to mention was that because of the yeast he will smell strongly of beer. So it’s a bit like having a tiny, fat, beige, hairless brewery worker sleeping on the worktop, covered in a tea towel so the neighbours won’t see.

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

On Day 9, Herman, who has hopefully grown significantly in this time (annoyingly 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 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. Then everybody wonders what all the fuss was about because no one has really perfected the art of cooking one of these things, because no one is practising it, and very few even remember what the outcome tasted of, if it was even cooked at all. To be honest I don't remember anything that came from one of these Friendship Cakes tasting any good, certainly not to warrant all the effort and washing up put in to make it possible.

Anyway, that's a rough lesson on what a Herman is.

But there’s another way to look at it. And if you spin it around you can also see it as...

  • Something that has been nourished, grown and cultivated

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

  • Something to be shared with others and given away

  • Something that’s alive and breathing, and even though it grows slowly, with a bit of care, and most importantly, sharing, it will eventually even outlast you.

So that’s why we ask our guests, what’s your Herman?

What has their loss, grief, experience, or journey given them that they've cultivated, fed into, or appreciated, or that’s nourished them, and now they want to pass it on to others.

So, tune into The Silent Why 101 loss episodes to hear what our guests have shared and what they want to pass on to you, and those going through similar losses.

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?

UPDATE 2024:

In January 2024, two years after the Herman question was invented, the concept of ‘Herman’ grew yet again. Our guests had fed so much into the idea of a Herman that I wanted to make him more than just words that we pass onto others, I wanted to make him a physical companion for people. 

So I did.

After a year of thinking, tweaking, planning, and crocheting - I developed Herman. The handmade gift (by me!) that you can give to someone else to help them know that they are not alone in what they’re going through.

To see his comforting little face, to buy a Herman, or find out more about The Herman Company visit: 

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1 Comment

May 10, 2023

I love this and remember "Herman" well. The recipe still sits in my top drawer..just in case. I made it often back in the mid 80's and 90's. Always very good and everyone seemed to enjoy it. As Bob Hope used to say, "Thanks for the memories!" Rosie

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