Why, you may wonder, would I so debase my MacBook with Easter candy that only the experts at Apple’s Genius Bar will be able to return it to its pristine, pre-decorated, unsticky state? It’s because this is the first installment of my Cakewalk outtakes, the stories and recipes that didn’t make it into the book because my life seems to exert an excessive, even gravitational pull on sugar in every form. Some people remember what they wore or what the weather was like during the important episodes of their lives; I remember what I had for dessert.
So here, just in time for Easter, is the story of how a passion for Peeps — those squat chorus lines of yellow marshmallow chicks — ended my age of innocence…
In part because of its close proximity to my April birthday, Easter was my favorite holiday. In my child’s megalomania, the glories of Easter were an extension of my birthday’s centrality. I also loved the new itchy dresses and lace-cuffed socks and slick pairs of white Mary Janes and the big fat basket overflowing with bad candy. I fervently believed in the Easter Bunny as well as every other assorted magical agent of childhood bounty. Thanks to the zealous example set by my Irish Roman Catholic relatives, I’d turned into an extremely pious little girl who took First Communion early because our parish priest in Sonoma had singled me out to the nuns and the rest of the catechism class as a true student of God. Nevertheless, in a bizarre theological misapprehension, I had decided that the Easter Bunny was some sort of understudy for the Lamb of God, who I assumed was too frail and bandy-legged to make the Easter egg rounds.
I felt the great, self-aggrandizing weight of my holiness when I became a communicant, and I remember lying in my bunk bed on Saturday nights, the sparkles in the cottage cheese of the asbestos-sprayed ceiling winking an arm span from my face as I concocted bogus confessions designed to make me look noble in the eyes of the Lord: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I planned to save my artichoke heart for my little brother, but I was so weary from helping my mother change the cat litter that I forgot and ate it myself. What should my penance be?” This was the kind of spiritual subterfuge I used to mask the overarching corruption that I feared was really inside me.
Our priest had admonished me one day as we watched my uncle arrive on his new motorcycle for dinner at our house. “Oh man!” I’d chortled as Uncle Bill rolled into our cul-de-sac on a shiny chrome Harley Davidson, twisting his wrists to make the engine roar for the benefit of all the kids squealing on the sidewalk. “Don’t say ‘man,’” our priest corrected me, his voice stern and disapproving. My face flamed. “You’ve just taken the Lord’s name in vain,” he continued. “Say ‘gee’ or ‘gosh’ instead. I think you’d better perform the Act of Contrition.”
A few months before, near Christmas, I’d been daily inspecting the pile of presents growing under the tree, and one day noticed a paper shopping bag had been left sitting out on the sofa, probably unintentionally. I knew my mother had taken my four-year-old brother shopping; I couldn’t resist peeking inside the bag, hoping I’d find something for myself. I did: a set of inexpensive metal bird pins on a sheet of flimsy cardboard, the kind of thing they carried at the Sprouse Reitz five-and-dime a couple of blocks from our house. My first reaction was an internal this chintzy thing?, swiftly followed by my mortified conscience’s chastisement – my brother John-John was little and he had no money and his two front teeth were black from falling on his face at the last Fourth of July picnic, but still he’d thought to get me a present. I slipped the sheet of pins back into the bag and told no one, but on Christmas morning I fought back hot guilty tears as I exclaimed over John-John’s gift.
For months after my First Communion I practically hummed with anticipation on Sunday mornings, because I loved the taste and texture of the Host, and I prayed, literally, that the hippies wouldn’t ruin church again. A couple of times the dawning of the age of Aquarius had too much infected our liberal winemaking parish community, in my estimation: somebody had gotten the idea to pass around real bread and real wine during communion instead of the flat pressed wafers I jonesed for all through the week. I didn’t mind the guitar strumming to “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” but handing me a cube of sourdough instead of a cookie was just not okay.
One weekend when my grandmother was visiting, communion had been normal, thank God, and I was swinging my legs in the church pew, watching as everyone else made the circuit up to the altar and back to their places, heads bowed in transcendent gratitude. For my part I was grateful that children had been invited up to the altar first. As my parents and grandmother shuffled through the line I was thoroughly and privately appreciating my Host, which was stuck to the roof of my mouth, spongy and thin like a Swedish wafer or the last bite of a waffle cone. I knew it was a sin to chew the Host. I didn’t want to – I wanted it to last as long as possible, like a Tootsie Roll Pop. But instead of finding a chocolatey surprise at the center of the sucker, I was going to heaven. All of a sudden my arm nearly jerked out of its socket, and my scandalized grandmother snapped at me, “That’s the body of Christ. You’re not supposed to enjoy it.” The ensuing taste of shame was all but confirmation that deep down, I really was probably bad. What could I do but pray I wasn’t?
We spent every Easter at the sprawling, relaxed home of my mother’s Aunt Helen, who lived at the top of a hill in a sun belt across the bay from San Francisco. This was my “other” Aunt Helen, one of two, but the good one: related by desire rather than by blood. She was married to my grandfather’s best friend from college, and she’d come to California from Georgia as a war bride. Aunt Helen earned her title as my mother’s favorite relative by painting my three-year-old mom’s fingernails with bright red polish the day she arrived. A couple of times a year I was invited to Aunt Helen’s for a sleepover by myself, and she and my teenage cousin Peggy would paint my nails and take me out for a ladies’ lunch of Waldorf salad, followed by a trip to the local toy store. While I played with my new Little Kiddles dolls, Peggy played with my hair and Aunt Helen made my favorite dinner, buttery lima beans with bacon and even more buttery pecan pie, its thick caramelized filling heady with bourbon, Aunt Helen pouring herself “a finger or two” of the Four Roses she used in the pie.
On Easter there was a massive hillside egg hunt for the kids before the whole family and lots of friends and neighbors gorged on a buffet of ham and scalloped potatoes and more pecan pie and what Aunt Helen called “your mother’s heavenly ambrosia,” purring the word ambrosia in her susurrous Georgian drawl, even though it went by the more prosaic title Five Cup Salad on the recipe printed on the label of the requisite canned pineapple chunks my mom used. Later in the afternoon, everyone stripped off their holiday finery and lounged around the pool, the adults holding their sweat-beaded cocktail glasses out of beach ball range and surreptitiously lifting malted robin’s eggs and jelly beans from nearby baskets, the kids wrapped in sopping towels reading Archie comics on the scorching pool pavement or playing loud, splashy games of Marco Polo.
Easter at Aunt Helen’s was, to my mind, genuinely miraculous: when I was four, my older brother Billy found a trembling black-and-white bunny in his basket – the memory of its impossibly soft fur and pale, twitching nose was far more indelible than its almost immediate expiration. Another year, Peggy got a long-legged baby goat wearing a wide satin ribbon and chewing through the rope that tied it to the pool house door. Another time my big cousin Mark took us one by one into his bedroom, where a Great Dane puppy was sleeping in a wicker dog bed, safe from the hubbub of the egg hunt outside, its tawny ribcage peacefully rising and falling.
The year I turned seven I was sure it was my big Easter year. I’d had my First Communion triumph and something profound was sure to happen to me. At the very least it was my turn to get a real live animal. Whether my family needed an addition to its ever-increasing menagerie was irrelevant – I was the next oldest kid in the clan, and as far as I was concerned I was entitled. My grandmother had driven me up to Aunt Helen’s on Good Friday, and until my mother arrived on Saturday I’d been too fawned over to indulge in potentially disquieting contemplation of the holy trinity of my flawed character – greed, lack of impulse control, and illicit curiosity – let alone to snoop around for muffled bleats and chirps from behind closed doors, or to look for any other telltale clues that I was indeed the most virtuous, deserving and rewardable child in the family.
Somehow I found myself unchaperoned late on the afternoon of Holy Saturday. My mother had arrived and she and my grandmother and Aunt Helen had huddled off together somewhere within the spreading, tiled expanse of the Mediterranean-style house. Who knows where my uncle was, I don’t recall even wondering; I was still at the age when grown men were mere passing satellites to the more attractive orbit of females. My cousin Peggy had gamely painted my fingernails and then wandered away to “check on” something mumbled vaguely about as she escaped me. And this is where memory becomes distinct: the late sunlight banding through the glass slats of the bathroom window next to Peggy’s bedroom. The cool shaded green of her floral wallpaper. The frilly blue tuxedo shirt and lumpy neck acne of her junior prom date in the photograph on her vanity dresser. The collapsing stack of Teen Beat magazines on the floor of her dark closet, and behind them, me poking around until I found a grocery bag of plastic eggs and, on top, the cardboard carton of marshmallow Peeps, which I was holding when I heard footsteps approach and grow decidedly louder and suddenly I was trapped unseen in Peggy’s bedroom with my mother and my grandmother, and my mother’s voice was moving into the accusatory register of a conspiracy gone sour.
“But Mother,” my own mother whinged, “how could you lose forty Easter baskets?”
The family apocrypha regarding my grandmother’s absent-mindedness reads like this: her children once watched her measure out and dump an entire cup of whole black peppercorns into a pot of stew as she was quizzing them on their homework. More than once she unpinned her hat and put it carefully away in the icebox. When the family moved from San Francisco to Pennsylvania, my grandmother boarded a cross-country train alone with her two small children and didn’t notice until she was in the dining car that she was wearing a slip but had left her skirt behind. She once made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle for driving her car with calm but unfathomable concentration straight through the plate-glass window of a Venetian blind store. In the newspaper photograph, she is holding her face in her hands, her hat daintily askew, her mouth open in an astonished, perfect O, like a doddering old-lady version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” This is how I picture her looking as my mother interrogated her about the missing forty Easter baskets, which had somehow dematerialized from the trunk of my grandparents’ car.
Finding the Peeps in the closet had already muddied the filtered waters of my innocence. Snooping had netted me a bagful of Easter candy I hadn’t really wanted to find. I tried to convince myself that the Peeps I’d seen were just, well, maybe Peggy’s surplus candy from last year . . . but the conversation I was overhearing was really testing my faith.
My mother and my grandmother left the room, my mother sputtering that the stores were already closed and she didn’t know how they would replace forty baskets let alone all that candy, and I started praying. Dear God, Saint Jude and Baby Jesus, I prayed, please let that whole scene be a bad dream and I promise to stop being such a vain, terrible child. I know it’s all my fault. You can forget the pony – just let there really be an Easter Bunny and I’ll be good forever. Or something to that effect.
Needless to say that a dark sleepless night in Peggy’s trundle bed finally faded into a rudely bright and suspense-plagued Easter morning, and when all of us kids were assembled that afternoon for the annual egg hunt, fresh from church in our stiff dresses and cinched-up seersucker pants, we found – under the bushes, down the crumbling chimney of the brick barbecue, tucked onto windowsills and hanging from the rafters of the covered patio – Easter baskets, but not the wide-rimmed, beribboned wicker extravaganzas we usually got. That year’s baskets were improvisations cobbled together by the clever but desperate: grass-filled colanders and green plastic strawberry containers, scuffed sand pails and crêpe-paper covered shoeboxes fitted with twine handles. There were plenty of colored hard-boiled eggs in the flowerbeds, and here and there a lonely marshmallow Peep or a plastic egg rattling with two or three pitiful jelly beans inside. I lugged my sagging grocery-bag-cum-Easter basket up and down the hillside, grief stricken, while Peggy’s goat gnawed its way out of its pen and slipped into the house unobserved, where it ate an entire toilet seat.
They’d asked me to accept that a sticky wafer sprinkled with wine was the body and blood of Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of the world, including my own. Yeah, right, said my sinful, disappointed seven-year-old self. But somehow, nearly four decades later, I can take one bite of sugar-sprinkled marshmallow and remember what it tasted like to believe.
. . .
…Sorry. I just can’t give you a recipe involving Peeps. As an adult, they make the enamel on my teeth curl back like wood shavings, though one of my cats likes them.
My feline secretaries cleaning up after the photo shoot.
Minerva, head of the secretarial pool, adjusts Peeps placement for regifting.
"Hmm, this one seems a little dirty. I'll clean it up..."
Stick your Peeps on cupcakes if you really have to. But if nostalgia is your favorite flavor for Easter, here’s the recipe for my mom’s Five Cup Salad, aka Ambrosia circa 1969.