A Cake for Hilton Felton

The weekend started out on an auspicious note. My mother blew into town Friday afternoon to be part of a pre-wedding shindig on Saturday. We lunched, we shopped and, as we always do when Mom is in town, we made a pit stop at Kinkead's, a well-known restaurant/bar in Foggy Bottom.

Marble cake. (Kim O'Donnel)

We bellied up to the bar for more than a drink and a nosh, a ritual that has been part of my life since 1997. We came to say hello to "H."

That was my shorthand for Hilton Felton, a world-class jazz musician who preferred to play at home rather than on the road. Five nights a week since 1993, Hilton played the piano at Kinkead's, where barflies and jazz lovers like me would fall under his musical trance.

When I walked into the bar on Friday night, I was oblivious to the absence of music and was more concerned with finding a few free seats. As I settled in, I got the news. Earlier in the week, Hilton had died.

The news knocked the wind out of me. Just two weeks ago, I was sitting right here, on the same stool, shooting the breeze with my buddy pal. Like we always did for the past 10 years, we talked about love, movies, our crazy families and the cycle of life.

It was the fall of 1997. I had been working long hours at a new job at washingtonpost.com, covering restaurants for the site's first entertainment guide. As such, I would stop off at a restaurant on my to-do list before going home, and one night I found myself at the bar at Kinkead's. Immediately, I felt at home because of the music. As a native of Philadelphia, I was accustomed to listening to good jazz without paying a cover, a rarity in Washington. While I studied the menu, I danced in my seat, and Hilton noticed.

During his break, he parked himself next to me, and said in a very low monotone, "I like dem shoes." I was wearing lime green Hush Puppies, oxford lace-ups. I knew this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Over the years, we shared heartache, fried fish, dirty jokes and tales of romance. He met many of my boyfriends and disliked every single one of them. I'm still not sure if he was jealous or protective. Maybe a little bit of both.

When he met Mister Groom two years ago, he gave him the once-over and was a bit aloof, but slowly Hilton warmed up to him, as he could see that I was finally in a stable, loving relationship.

Just after the New Year, Mister Groom and I went to see Hilton, and he talked about the wild, wonderful experience of playing at the memorial service in December for the late New York Times reporter R.W. "Johnny" Apple, who died last fall. He smiled as he told the story of surprising his wife, Imelda, with a morning matinee of "Dream Girls," a movie she had wanted to see. (He was more partial to thrillers and gangster movies like "The Departed.") And before we parted ways, he said to Mister Groom, "I hope you know you've got a good woman right here," and he patted him on the back.

On what would be our final in-person encounter, Hilton told me how happy he was for me and that "you've got yourself a good man."

As the reality of his passing set in over the weekend, I wanted to make something in Hilton's honor. Although fried fish, one of his favorites, would have been most appropriate, I decided to postpone such a feast, after things quieted down. Instead, I made a cake. I know, Hilton, I never baked you a cake while you were alive. I'm sure he's wondering why I waited until he was dead to do so.

In her cookbook, "Feast," Nigella Lawson has a chapter earmarked for funerals, which includes a recipe for a variation on Jewish marble cake, a simple, homey breakfast-y sweet that goes great with coffee or a glass of milk. Lawson likes this cake for its multi-layered symbolism -- for some, the marble may refer to a headstone; for others, the circular yin-yang of the chocolate and yellow swirled batter represents the circle of life, the continuum that never ceases to mystify.

So, H, I baked you a cake, and when I'm at your funeral in just a few hours, I'm gonna share it with those who knew and loved you.

There's a song that keeps coming to mind, Molinary and Butler's "Here's To Life," as sung the late jazz singer/piano player Shirley Horn, who was also a friend of Hilton. It goes something like this:

No complaints, and no regrets/ I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets/but I have learned that all you give is all you get/So give it all you've got

And, that is exactly what Hilton did. He gave it all he got.

Here's to life. Here's to Hilton. And now, let's eat cake.

Marble Cake
Adapted from "Feast" by Nigella Lawson

1 1/2 sticks soft, unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
4 eggs
zest of 1 orange, plus approximately 3 tablespoons juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon espresso powder
1 tablespoon milk

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a ring mold 9 ½ inches in diameter with 5 cup capacity (alternatively, use a Bundt pan).

Put butter, sugar, flour, baking soda, baking powder, eggs and orange zest into the bowl of a food processor and whiz until combined. While motor is running, pour orange juice and vanilla through the funnel of the processor until just combined.

Spoon batter out of processor and divide between two bowls. In a small bowl, combine cocoa and espresso powder and whisk in milk until creamy. Fold this mixture into one of the cake batter bowls; color will darken. Pour batter into greased pan, alternating between dark and light batters. When pan is filled, swirl batter with a rubber spatula to further create the marble effect.

Bake for 35 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Allow to cool for about 10 minutes before inverting. Cool cake completely before serving. Makes approximately 20 slices.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 20, 2007; 10:14 AM ET Kitchen Musings
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

What a sweet tribute to your friend - thank you for sharing!

Posted by: Sarah | February 20, 2007 12:10 PM


how awful to hear about your friend. i hope everyone enjoyed the cake.

my oma (grandmother in german) used to make a similar cake, but didnt use the orange flavors and added chocolate chips. i never bake, but would love to try this. what stage could i add chips?


Posted by: cooking club president, local 508 | February 20, 2007 1:26 PM

Cooking Club President, if I were to add chocolate chips, I'd do so at the end, just before pouring dividing dough into two bowls. I also think, in retrospect, that this cake would do well with applesauce as a partial substitute for some of the butter. Keep me posted on your adventures.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | February 21, 2007 7:52 AM

What does "espresso powder" refer to? I've never found a product under that label and usually substitute instant coffee. I'm sure this is wrong. Please help!

Posted by: Ann | February 21, 2007 12:11 PM

Ann, espresso powder is instant espresso, sold in jars. You most certainly could use instant coffee, but I might try one that has more of a punch -- French Roast would be a good choice, for example.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | February 21, 2007 12:22 PM

Damn if you aren't as sweet as usual. I thought I had cried enough yesterday. There will never be another "H".

Posted by: ebassic | February 21, 2007 3:58 PM

Kim, What a beautiful tribute to your friend. I'm so sorry for your loss. I've never been to Kinkead's but realize I missed out on the opportunity to have experienced a great artist and person. My condolences to you and his family and other friends.

Posted by: Sean | February 21, 2007 5:36 PM

As a former Washingtonian now living in NY I get the Post on line. I got to your blog via a Post link. I wasn't able to find your blog address, could somebody please provide it so I can visit more often, JustPeggyNY@aol.com Thanks

Posted by: Peggy | February 22, 2007 11:28 AM

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