Let Them Eat Cannoli?

What happens when a Camp Wandawega wedding hits a bump in the road.

Illustration by Toby Triumph.
Illustration by Toby Triumph.
You could read every wedding book in print, but you’d never find a section on crisis management with your cake baker five minutes before you walk down the aisle.

Yet there I was, in my tan linen suit and blue plaid tie, comforting a woman in a beret. The reason for her despondency: The wedding cake my fiancée, Mary, and I had anticipated was now a puddle of frosting.

It happened on the drive here, the cake baker explained in a trembling, apologetic voice. “I had to brake hard. The cake took a dive.”

This was to be no ordinary cake. It was more a temporary artistic installation in frosting, designed as a mini state Capitol during the raucous political protests of 2011, when thousands of boiling-mad public-sector workers overtook the Capitol to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union bill.

The now-mangled cake had featured the stately white Capitol, topped with the gilded Lady Wisconsin statue and surrounded at ground level by little reminders of those wild times in Madison: a protester tooting on a vuvuzela, a beloved old reporter smoking his pipe, a line of snowmen holding protest signs – all constructed out of frosting.

Now, I understood, all of those scenes were mush. Our baker’s dramatic arrival came as I sat in the clubhouse next to the outdoor chapel at Camp Wandawega in Walworth County. The string band had started playing. The guests had taken their seats. The sunlight feathered through the trees. A cloud or two added a nice puff of white to the blue sky.

The bride and groom, having their day at camp. Photo by Andy Manis.
The bride and groom, having their day at camp. Photo by Andy Manis.

It was exactly the scene Mary and I had in our minds when we chose Wandawega. To the rest of humanity, it’s now known as that place you see in Martha Stewart magazines and the Wall Street Journal style section, the little camp in the woods in Wisconsin with a past as a Prohibition-era bootlegging joint and a thriving brothel before finding religion as a camp run by Latvian Catholic priests.

A nephew of one of those Latvians bought the place with his wife in 2003 when the priests went back to Latvia. David Hernandez and his wife, Tereasa Surratt, did a masterful job restoring it to what it may have looked and felt and smelled like in the 1950s, raiding flea markets for bearskins, vintage luggage and fine taxidermy, plus adding structures to complete the camp vibe: Boy Scout tents, teepees and a three-story tree house.

They did an equally masterful job of inviting the world into their magical getaway through national publications and catalogs, making a little spot in the Walworth woods into such a cultural touchstone that The Land of Nod now has a Wandawega line of toys and camp wear.

Mary knew Wandawega long before its current fame. It was the place on the lake five minutes from her family’s cottage, where they’d go every Sunday in summer for Mass in the Grass, presided over by the Latvian priests. She loved it because she could wear her swimsuit under her church clothes and dip in the lake right after Communion.

Our search for a wedding spot ended quickly once we learned that Wandawega had been reborn by David and Tereasa. We could hold a ceremony in the same lakeside chapel that hosted Mass in the Grass throughout Mary’s childhood, with a reception to follow on the tennis courts. Friends and family could stay the weekend in the camp’s quirky array of cabins, lodges and tents. And bride and groom could spend our wedding night in a tree house. Where do we sign?

The dreamy scene outside the window of the clubhouse on our wedding day confirmed it was the right choice. Yet amid all of this majesty was one miserable cake baker.

My first thought: Do not tell Mary. The last thing the bride should have to deal with minutes before the wedding – our second ceremony in two days, thanks to the Catholic Church – is a distraught baker.

My next thought: this poor, remorseful woman. If anyone was more excited than us about our cake, it was her. I wanted to not care about the cake or its baker. Except I did. I’d seen the gleam in her eye while we were describing it, and I knew her pain at having no cake to present on our big day was possibly worse than mine. It was, after all, just a cake to me.

Except that it wasn’t. One experience united many of us there: the protests.

Mary and I were reporters at a newspaper in Madison when the protests blew up. She covered the Capitol and was there basically nonstop, chronicling the story of a lifetime that eventually earned a finalist nod for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news reporting. I popped in and out, spinning features about protesters schlepping air mattresses to camp out on the Capitol marble and doing tai chi high above the commotion of the rotunda.

Mary and I dated in secret throughout the era of protests and political upheaval, keeping it hidden from nearly everyone until we announced our engagement on Facebook eight months later. “A joke, right?” That was the most common response from co-workers, followed by, “But I didn’t even know you were dating!”

We planned our wedding for June 2012, naively thinking for sure that it wouldn’t conflict with elections or protests. Along came the recall election for Gov. Scott Walker, which occurred three days before our nuptials. If there had been a recount, there might not have been a wedding that weekend.

Blessedly, there was no recount, and the entire Capitol press corps, plus many Capitol staffers – we invited an equal number of Republicans and Democrats – attended. Friends and family from 19 states and seven countries were there, too. We were primed to get Bacchanalian.

The Capitol-in-frosting was to be a fun surprise for all those present who lived those wild days and nights and bonded – not quite as closely as Mary and I bonded, but still – during that historical time.

As I fumbled through cake triage with the baker, a TV reporter friend who was acting as our wedding planner entered the room. Jessica is no-nonsense to begin with and – unbeknownst to everyone, including her – was pregnant. It was also her birthday.

She got right to it with the baker. How many pieces could be spared? How long would it take? Was there a backup plan?

In minutes, she’d devised her own backup plan, one most appropriate for a Sicilian bride’s wedding: cannoli. We’d already ordered a plate of it from Peter Sciortino’s Bakery in Milwaukee as a supplement to the cake. By pure coincidence, a restaurant called Holi Cannoli is around the corner from Wandawega. Let’s order 100 or so more, Jessica said.

As she was arranging a rush order to Holi Cannoli, and the cake baker was on her way to surgically resurrect the Capitol, my nephews and Mary’s grand-niece started their walk down the aisle with Bruno, our Italian greyhound, a garland of flowers around his neck. All guests were standing. The ceremony had begun.

I was back to my role as groom. I walked my mom down the aisle, stepping over the exposed tree roots beneath a canopy of leaves. Mary walked her elderly father down the aisle last. She was gorgeous and glowing, oblivious to the cake catastrophe. I nearly cried looking at a chapel full of faces that had defined my life from cradle to that moment.

We’d had a church wedding the day before at St. Robert in Shorewood, where Mary’s parents got married, partly because the Church doesn’t recognize outdoor weddings, even at the Wandawega chapel that still hosts Mass in the Grass. The church wedding was formal and traditional, with Mary wearing her mother’s wedding dress and veil. The Wandawega ceremony was pure fun.

My friend Joey read a poem about love by Garrison Keillor. Our friend Scott read “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan. Our colleague Dee gave a funny and emotional homily about marriage survival despite the madness of daily journalism, based on her quarter-century with her husband, Andy. Together, they now run the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

By the time we got to the tennis court topped with a big white tent, all was calm. For dessert, there was cake for some – you could look at the intact Capitol dome and never know of the protest scenes that originally surrounded it – and cannoli for all. Mary didn’t know the difference and laughed off the cake malfunction when she learned of it mid-reception.

An appropriately raucous night ensued, complete with a 20-foot towering bonfire next to the tent and lit sparklers being swung about by revelers on the dance floor. A taco truck showed up as planned at 10 p.m. The night ended with rope-swinging into Lake Wandawega at some obscene hour. Mary and I finally retired to the third story of our tree house at about 3 in the morning.

There were no more nervous moments, unless you count the caterer coming to us at 8 p.m. with urgent news: The two kegs were nearly dry and the liquor cabinet was running low. Even for a room filled with Wisconsin journalists, this was a thirsty crew. Should we get more?

Of course you should! How better to forget all about recall fatigue and a mutilated Capitol cake?

We can only hope we woke the ghosts of Wandawega. I imagined a dance floor merging past and present, with priests, Chicago gangsters and ladies of the night tearing it up alongside exhausted reporters, Walker supporters and Walker haters, all united in debauchery for a night.

The toppled Capitol could be read as a bad omen for our marriage. We prefer a different take: It’s instead a very accurate metaphor for the state of Wisconsin’s politics. Nearly four years later, the Capitol’s still a dysfunctional, highly entertaining mess. And we’re still happily married.

‘Let Them Eat Cannoli?’ appears in Milwaukee Weddings, a brand new addition to the Milwaukee Magazine family.

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Daniel Simmons grew up in St. Paul, Minn., the “good twin” city. He started his writing career covering the midsection for the Mayo Clinic. Since then he’s written about human smuggling by sea in San Diego, the coyote invasion of Chicago and the political circus in Madison. He also got to write about his childhood idol, Larry Bird, for Runners World. He’s the managing editor.