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I first encountered Herman when a ‘friend’ thrust an old margarine tub into my hands with an earnestness that should, in retrospect, have rung warning bells. The tub was full of a yeasty-smelling gloop covered in tiny layer of froth. ‘This is Herman,’ she said, handing me some instructions. ‘You must look after him or he will die.’

Herman, I read, is a sour-dough ‘Friendship Cake’ mix that you nurture, bake and share.

What could possibly be wrong with that? It all feels so very cook-from-scratch, chutney-and-jam, so very pantries, tea-dances and home-sewn aprons, so very nostalgically now. Austerity points to you my girl! (All you need now is an extortionate Cath Kidston tin to put it in and some carefully mismatched china plates to eat it off.)

At home, as directed, I settled Herman into a corner of the kitchen counter and periodically fed him with flour, sugar and milk. He frothed quietly, as though in appreciation of my gentle ministrations.

And he grew.

After 10 days, he was ready. I split the beery gloop into four batches. I used one to bake a sour-dough cake. I used a second as another starter. And, as instructed, I gave the other two batches away (with apologies to Kirkstall and Roundhay).

Over the next few weeks, I experimented with delicious mixed-fruit Hermans, lemon-and-poppyseed Hermans, coconut-and-lime Hermans, almond-and-sesame Hermans, date-and-walnut Hermans and chocolate Hermans. I found Herman recipes online. Herman histories. Herman photo albums. Herman nostalgia. Herman is on Wikipedia, on Mumsnet, on Women’s Hour. Man, there are even forums!

I froze Herman cake. I gave cake away. The birds’ BMI soared. And still there would be yet another little starter mix in the corner of the kitchen, bubbling innocently away. I dread to think how many starters I gave away. Most people accepted, the poor sods. One or two politely declined; they knew a chain-letter when they saw one.

Soon, though, the symptoms started to show. There were the physical ones (my trousers got tighter), the behavioural ones (stock-piling of plastic containers) and the psycho-social ones (I began to see everyone as a potential recipient).

It was in the baking aisle, shelling out for yet more flour and sugar, that the penny finally dropped. Herman’s mission, I realised, is to infiltrate as many of our kitchens, playgrounds and offices as possible, striking down entire communities before moving on to new ground. All he cares about is replication. To achieve this, he needs a constant supply of new hosts to help him grow and multiply throughout Leeds, then West Yorkshire, then…

Which is exactly what viruses do.

I rushed home and did what I any true friend should do with this so-called ‘Friendship Cake”: I sluiced him straight down the sink. But even as he gave his last gurgle, I knew that Herman had won. As far as he was concerned, I had served my purpose. He had achieved his goal – because of me, this baking virus had spread further still and was already bubbling smugly away in someone else’s kitchen.

Not yours, by any chance?


  1. TiS says:

    Hi, I love that you fought back. I have been a Herman-dodger for years on the grounds of being gluten-free (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!). Love the blog…

  2. Clare says:

    I haven’t had a Herman yet — but I have seen the howls of rage on Facebook that he induces. I think there might be a Herman-turned-bad proliferating locally.

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