Tag: CAKEWALK


Fruition

April 15th, 2010 — 6:40pm

Here’s what it looks like, at least in my life, to be a writer: there are tumbleweeds of dog hair blowing down the staircase. The sink is piled with dishes. I missed the UPS man’s arrival because I had to take Celeste to the dentist this morning and then to meet her 8th grade class at a field trip: thirteen-year-olds slouched and vogue-ing for an invisible audience in front of the Exploratorium. But when I got home, the first copies of Cakewalk had just arrived from my publisher, the package ripped open on the butcher block counter that still has crumbs on it from last night’s dinner.

It’s a strange, dislocating sensation, the physical evidence of the work of your imagination; in the case of a memoir like Cakewalk, the work of my memory and my heart. Forgive the obvious metaphor, but it really is a lot like motherhood. It’s as strange as seeing your child cross the street by himself for the first time, or, years later, listening to the grown man’s voice on the phone as your son tells you his plans for staging a production of a Sam Shepard play this spring at Oxford.  You can’t quite believe this came from you.

This time, though, I got help in believing in what’s come from me because of something else that arrived in the mail at the same time as my new book: a birthday card from Zachary. This is what he wrote:

“…I went to a fabric store in Oxford today to buy fabric for one of the plays I’m working on and it reminded me of how you made all my Halloween costumes by hand and how cool it was to have completely original, hand-made costumes, which were extra-good because they were made with mom-love, and I want you to know that every day I have moments like that.

Not a day goes by when I don’t think of how lucky I am to have the best mom in the world, who has given me so much and taught me so much. Every time I cook for my friends, which I do as often as I can, it makes me feel proud to pass on to my friends the recipes and the love of food and cooking that you gave to me, and it makes me feel closer to home. I taught Calder how to make a roast chicken last winter like you taught me, and he has been teaching all his friends, and now they’re all using your roast chicken recipe.

When I read To the Lighthouse, I imagine you reading those same words and reveling in Woolf’s language and wit. I have inherited so many of my pleasures and passions from you, as well as much of what I seek to bring out in my own character. Most of all you have taught me by example to be generous and to take joy in giving pleasure to others. I am so lucky that you’re my mom. In the card you sent me on my birthday, you wrote about all the cakes you’d ever made for me. I can’t do it this year, but someday I’d like to make you a birthday cake! Love, Zachary.”

Consider it already made, my sweetie.

Comments Off | CAKEWALK, Family, holidays, Motherhood, Uncategorized, Writing

Cakewalk, The Director’s Cut #1

March 31st, 2010 — 3:07am

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…

Peep Show!

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.

3 comments » | CAKEWALK, candy, Family, holidays, Uncategorized

Totally Fudged!

March 12th, 2010 — 6:50pm

As my daughter, Celeste, approached her thirteenth birthday this year, she had just one request: tickets to the Broadway musical Spring Awakening. If you aren’t familiar with Spring Awakening and you have even the slightest inclination toward live theatre,  electrifying music, and teenagers in period costume acting out a story of sexual awakening, repression, and grief as riveting and rich as a Russian novel, don’t miss the national tour when it shows up.

Gary and I didn’t need to be convinced: we’d been listening to the Spring Awakening soundtrack with Celeste for months, and the music was such an extraordinarily original combination of throbbing rock and sad, haunting melodies that I wanted to see the show even before I knew the story ended my favorite way: tragically. Ours is a family that loves musicals, but Celeste was born for Broadway. “Oh, this one’s a diva,” my midwife predicted, watching Celeste break out of her swaddling to flail and vogue like Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl just hours after her birth. Already, she was munching up the scenery, and she’s never stopped.

“Someday my prince will come . . .” Celeste warbled into the toilet bowl as a toddler. At three, she was already such an accomplished singer her preschool teachers told us they were sure she had perfect pitch. She’s been singing with the San Francisco Girls Chorus since she was seven, the same year she started being cast in local children’s theater productions. She’s performed twice with the city’s opera and watches Glee with the avidity of a disciple. She wants nothing more than to be a musical theatre star, and she can tell you who was playing in what at the Gershwin Theater in March 1953. Spring Awakening’s unique combination of teenage longing and compulsively croonable score crossed her adolescent radar at just the right moment.

So of course we told her we’d drive from San Francisco to Sacramento to see the show for her birthday. The Broadway run’s original stars weren’t in the national tour cast – Lea Michele, Celeste’s idol, is now starring as the insufferable but breathtakingly talented Rachel on Glee – but the male lead had been taken over by Jake Epstein, who is famous for his role as the bipolar musical prodigy heartthrob on the campy teen soap opera from Canada, Degrassi. Decompressing from chorus rehearsals in front of Degrassi has been one of Celeste’s guilty pleasures for a couple of years, so the news that we would see hunky “Craig” in Spring Awakening – not just see him but see him beat the female lead with a switch and then bed her in a hayloft on stage —  was met by the kind of earsplitting squeal only a twelve-year-old who’s a musical theatre geek with a classically trained voice can attain.

In addition to an emergency trip to Forever 21 to find an outfit sufficiently dazzling but shy of making her look like a teenage prostitute while she waited for autographs at the stage door after the show, Celeste asked me if we could “you know, Mama, make some cookies or brownies or something for the cast?”

Celeste knows me all too well: I like nothing better than any excuse to bake. In fact I wrote a whole book about baking (that’s Cakewalk, A Memoir) as an excuse to bake. But I hesitated at the idea of baking for the Spring Awakening cast. What if they had some paranoid policy against taking food from fans? What if they thought we’d hidden razor blades in the snickerdoodles or stirred some fine Colombian into the brownies? I remembered my mother’s weeping disappointment when she found the Halloween cookies she’d lovingly decorated crumbled at the bottom of our front steps when I was a little girl. I didn’t want anything to mar Celeste’s big Spring Awakening day, and we agreed to go to Sacramento empty handed.

After the show, Gary and I stood at a discreet distance to watch as Celeste stood with the other diehard young fans, awaiting their autographs. Celeste was so euphorically star-struck she could say nothing more than “This is the best day of my life!” as each smiling, generous cast member approached to sign her program – until the gorgeous and talented Jake Epstein stood in front of her.

“You were amazing!” Celeste burbled. “I’m a huge fan of Degrassi, and while I watched Spring Awakening I kept thinking, it’s the Degrassi guy!”

A flicker of disappointment crossed Jake Epstein’s handsome face. His warm smile faltered. And then the fan next to Celeste said, “Well, now when I watch Degrassi, I’ll be thinking, that’s the Spring Awakening guy!”

Okay, think about it: if you had the chance to be known as the slutty, manic depressive hunk on a crappy teen soap opera that specializes in story lines about ninth graders with testicular cancer and STDs, or as the heroic male lead of a high-class Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards, which would you want to be known for? Jake Epstein turned to the girl next to Celeste and replied, “Now that’s more like it!” and gave her a bear hug along with the autograph.

My daughter sobbed in the back seat of our car all the way home. Mostly she was overwhelmed by her brush with something she felt so passionately about, her world’s colors splashed vividly around her for an afternoon, but she was also mortified at the thought that she’d insulted Jake Epstein. Jake Epstein! I couldn’t get him out of my mind. All that night, after Celeste had gone to bed troubled and deflated despite our reassurances, I trolled the internet. I understood Jake Epstein’s reaction to Celeste’s awkward gushing, but mothers are bulldogs when it comes to letting go of something or someone they think has hurt their child. As if it were a Volkswagen I could superhumanly lift off my baby girl, I wandered cyberspace looking for Jake Epstein’s email address, his agent’s phone number, some contact to let him know my little girl was a serious fan, a real talent in her own right, and she was only a tender thirteen, so easily crushed. The closest I got to the elusive Jake Epstein was some fan site that told me he loves the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and chocolate.

Chocolate? Now I was getting somewhere. It is moments like these that make me glad for my sweet tooth. I conferred with Gary, and the next morning we told Celeste our just-hatched plan: she’d loved Spring Awakening so much, we were buying her another ticket for the next weekend (blowing our budget, but did we care?), and this time she was going to bring homemade fudge for the entire cast. Take that, Jake Epstein. You’ll be putty in my chocolate-covered hands.

Together Celeste and I shopped for ingredients and little decorative boxes, and on the night before the show we cooked up three weighty batches of the chocolate fudge I wrote about in Cakewalk, the fudge I remember my eccentric, parsimonious old coot of a grandfather making when I was a kid. We tied seventeen little boxes with red ribbon, and after her second matinee of Spring Awakening Celeste and her pal Teresa stood at the stage door in their finery, waiting to hand out souvenir fudge to the cast.

“You made us fudge? No way!” “Fudge? YAY!” “Seriously, you made this for us?”

Gabrielle Garza, Chase Davidson, and Taylor Trensch of the "Spring Awakening" cast are totally fudged

One by one the cast members gushed and hugged Celeste and Teresa as they accepted their boxes of fudge. Several of them started sampling immediately, huddling in circles and closing their eyes. Later Ben Fankhauser, cast as the demure Ernst, tweeted about being “totally fudged” by a fan. Sarah Hunt, who plays the abused Martha, called over Taylor Trensch (the tragically geeky Moritz) to ooh and aah over Celeste’s homemade Spring Awakening t-shirt. Steffi D, a Canadian Idol finalist who is the show’s runaway, Ilse, gasped, “Oh my god, it’s like a pound of fudge!”  And Jake Epstein? Jake Epstein stared at Celeste with disbelief when she told him she’d made fudge for the whole cast because of him. “Oh – that is awesome,” he said, carefully pocketing the box before leaning in to embrace her.

Sarah Hunt, Steffi D, Kimiko Glenn, and Krista Pioppi holding fudge

Jake Epstein's post-fudge glow

You too can be totally fudged: here’s the recipe for Faux Pa’s Fudge, one of my family favorites from Cakewalk.

14 comments » | Baking, CAKEWALK, Family, Motherhood

Back to top