Some people measure their years with a run-of-the-mill calendar. Others by events in their lives.
My new friend Larry Hodek and I have another system: baked goods.
Hodek grew up in the 1950s on sweet rolls and coffee cakes from Dressel's Bakery in Cicero. After he turned 10, his mom put candles in Dressel's whipped cream cakes for birthdays -- either the chocolate fudge or the yellow with strawberry filling. In high school, Larry and his wife, Jean, rushed to the Morton West High School cafeteria to buy Dressel's cream-filled cupcakes for 10 cents as a fundraiser. And after the couple married in 1971, they kept a grocery-store version of Dressel's cake in the freezer at all times.
"They were a birthday cake tradition and mandatory at my celebrations," said Hodek, 61. "Then (Dressel's) closed. Vanished. What happened? When?"
Because I share Hodek's bakery fixation, I know it can be hard to move on without closure about a bakery. Thankfully, Dan Dressel, who I tracked down in Lake Forest this week, could relate.
Dressel's father, the late Herman J. Dressel, helped to make the family name synonymous around Chicago with "chocolate whipped cream."
Herman Dressel was 5 when his family left Germany for Barrington in the early 1900s. In 1913, his older brothers, Joe and Bill, founded a bake shop at 3254 S. Wallace St. in Chicago.
At 14, Herman Dressel joined his brothers. The bakery became a neighborhood institution at its original location, another one in Cicero, and eventually the large manufacturing facility at 66th Street and Ashland Avenue in Chicago.
"In the original stores, you'd come in and smell all the wonderful bakery items," said Dan Dressel.
In 1963, the two older Dressel brothers retired, and Herman Dressel stayed on as American Bakeries took over. The new owners wanted to take Dressel's local popularity and make it national. Soon after, Dressel's cakes began appearing in red and white boxes at major groceries across the country. Although Herman Dressel had only two years of high school education, he played a key role in creating recipes for whipped cream frosting that could freeze well, and jellies that could write "Happy Birthday" smoothly, Dan Dressel said.
Each day, Herman Dressel went to his office in regular clothes, changed into the all-white bakery uniform, and spent hours managing production and bonding with loyal employees, some of whom were his brothers' children. At night and on weekends, Herman Dressel brought home new recipe samples for his family to judge and kept a note pad in his pocket to keep track of baking ideas.
"We were kind of his tasting panel of different things. It was fun," said Dan Dressel. "He was a well-known person in the industry and very sought after as far as his knowledge and innovation."
Herman Dressel stayed on at the bakery until he was 82, overseeing the production of most of his grandchildren's wedding cakes.
In 1987, American Bakeries sold the company to Pain Jacquet, a French company. The company went on to incur insurmountable debt and went bankrupt in 1995, Dan Dressel said.
Herman Dressel died in 1997.
Dan Dressel, 67, went on to work 22 years for Kraft Foods. His brother, Allan, became an elementary school teacher. As the years went by, fewer people recognized the Dressels' name when they heard it. But when people did make the connection, they'd gush on and on about the chocolate whipped cream.
"That was something people always comment on," he said, "how we had a special whipped cream there that nobody could even come close to."
Though Dressel's Bakery was long gone when his only daughter was married in 2001, Dan Dressel took an old cake photo book to The Drake Hotel in Chicago so the pastry chef could create a replica.
"We didn't have a Dressel's cake, but we had something pretty close to it," he said.
"What Ever Happened To ..." runs Fridays in the West Chicagoland Extra. If you have a fond memory from the area that you'd like reported and updated, send it to Vikki Ortiz Healy at email@example.com. Read past columns at chicagotribune.com/vikki.