Cakewalk, A Memoir
The Dial Press
Selected for inclusion in 2010 “best books of the year” roundups by National Public Radio, SeriousEats.com, and Food52.com
Finalist for the 2011 Northern California Book Award in Creative Nonfiction
“Life does not always reward us with the best cookie in the box, or the happiest family. Sometimes you take what you get and make the best of it. In my case, that’s where imagination came in as handily as learning how to bake. For both of these lifesavers, I have my confusing, painful, unforgettable childhood to thank. Which makes me wonder if my cake obsession, really, is not much more than my struggle to find a way to redeem with sweetness those moments that left, however bitter on occasion, such a lasting taste in my mouth.” –Kate Moses
From the author of the internationally acclaimed and rapturously reviewed Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath comes a funny, touching memoir of a crummy — and crumby – childhood. Written by a self-taught baker and born raconteur, Cakewalk tells the story of a girl whose insatiable appetite for sugar and stories was the key ingredient to surviving her unhappy family.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, Kate Moses was surrounded by sugar: Twinkies in the basement freezer, honey on the fried chicken, Baby Ruth bars stashed in her father’s sock drawer. But sweetness of the more intangible variety was harder to come by. Her parents were disastrously mismatched, far too preoccupied with their misery to notice its effect on their kids.
A frustrated artist, Kate’s beautiful, capricious mother lived in a constant state of creative and marital emergency, enlisting Kate as her confidante – “we’re the girls, we have to stick together” — and instructing her three children to refer to her in public as their babysitter. Kate’s immigrant father was serious, aloof, ambitious, and prone to blasts of withering abuse increasingly directed at the daughter who found herself standing between her embattled parents. Kate looked for comfort in the imaginary worlds of books and found refuge in the kitchen, where she taught herself to bake, entering the one realm where she could wield control.
Telling her own story with the same lyricism, compassion, and eye for resonant detail that she brings to her fiction, coupled with the candor and humor she is known for in her personal essays, Kate leavens each tale of her coming-of-age in Cakewalk with a recipe from her lifetime of confectionary obsession. There is the mysteriously erotic German Chocolate Cake implicated in a birds-and-bees speech when Kate was seven; the gingerbread people her mother baked for Christmas the year Kate officially realized she was fat; and the chocolate chip cookies she used to curry favor during a hilariously gruesome adolescence.
Cakewalk is sprinkled with the honeyed victories of an aspiring young writer taken under the wing by octogenarian novelist Kay Boyle, and praised for her “delicious!” brownies by no less than the legendary M. F. K. Fisher. But there is also the demise of Kate’s first marriage, met by the unexpected solace of a neighbor’s pan of blondies, and the sheer good luck of finding herself the mother of a towheaded toddler with a jones for ice cream. Filled with the abundance and joy that were so lacking in Kate’s youth, Cakewalk is a wise, loving tribute to life in all its sweetness as well as its bitterness, and ultimately, a recipe for forgiveness.