Steve’s Elemental Birthday, in which Heifers and Returnable Bottles Were Involved

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA while back, I received this invitation from my friend Margy Knight: “You’re invited to a partially surprise party! Steve [Margy’s husband] is turning 60 … and we are having a BYOT  CHEMISTRY PARTY to celebrate this milestone with him. He knows about the party but doesn’t know any of the details so don’t tell! What’s BYOT you ask? Bring Your Own Trash. Duh. Bet you’ve never been to one of these before and bet you don’t want to miss this one! Step 1) Please bring as many bags of redeemable bottles with you as you can and drop them on the front lawn when you arrive–1, 2, 10, whatever you have to offer is great. The birthday boy has made it his 60th-year goal to raise enough money through bottles to buy a Heifer Ark ($5,000, read more here:, so we’re secretly enlisting your help to make his goal happen even faster than he can alone. Not only that but he just really likes trash and recyclables so this will rock his socks! Step 2) Prepare for an evening of all things chemistry. There will be a periodic table made of cupcakes, glowing beverages in beakers (did you know quinine fluoresces under a black light?), and perhaps some chemistry games (don’t worry, they won’t require too much chem knowledge)and a chemistry sing along.  Google chemistry party, chemistry food or something along those lines and you will get plenty of inspirations. Have fun with it! Oh and you are welcome to come in costume with a lab coat, goggles or whatever else you can dream up that relates to trash and/or chemistry.”

In past posts, I’ve written a little about Steve, but here’s a brief description for new readers. Steve is a chemistry teacher and a scrounge extraordinaire. He loves going to the town’s transfer station to see what might still be useful for his family and friends. Once upon a time, Steve was allowed to go into the pit to retrieve choice items, but sadly for Steve, those days are gone. The town decided it was too dangerous for pit diving, and as much as I sympathize with Steve, I do agree with the town’s decision.

Along with being a chemistry teacher and an accomplished recycler, Steve is also very concerned with social justice issues. Hence, the heifer ark, the returnable bottles, and the periodic table cake.

Unfortunately, we could not go to Steve’s party. A very special person in our family was having his 30th birthday party on the same day. (February was quite the month for parties.) But Margy told me all about the party, how Steve got over $300 in returnable bottles, and how their daughter Emilie made sheet cakes, as it turned out, to construct the periodic table cake. Margy even brought me a couple of pieces of that spicy cake.

I emailed Emilie and asked her to describe how she made the cake. This is what she wrote:  “I started by finding a triple ginger cake recipe since my dad is a huge fan of all things ginger. Unlike what most people would do / recommend, I have a tendency to alter baking recipes, especially when it comes to the flour I use. There’s this amazing new whole wheat flour coming out of the Skowhegan Gristmill that is super finely ground and makes for a better substitute for refined white flour than most of the whole wheat. So I used mostly that. It was probably denser than it would have been but I personally like the fuller taste of whole wheat (and of course the better nutrition too!). I considered getting a square cupcake / cornbread pan or just using a round cupcake pan but then realized that making sheet cakes was the easiest way to go. Three half-hotel pans later and I had 114 of the 118 pieces I needed — oops! 4 too few! So I strategically took out four pieces and made a trivia question about which elements were missing. And lastly, I topped it with a maple cream cheese frosting before doing the lettering and sprinkling various colorful and strange-shaped sugar candies all over it. Definitely not perfect from the baking perspective but was a winner at the party! It was great to see my dad’s face when he saw the cake. So fun!”

Although we couldn’t go to the party, a few days later we dropped off bottles as well as a card and a present. In addition, we pledged our returnables to Steve until he reached his goal of $5,000 for the Heifer Ark.

So happy birthday, Steve! May you have a great year of scrounging and getting returnable bottles that will take you ever closer to your goal.

An elemental cake
An elemental cake

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