“I’m scared you’ll never forget, that you’ll remember all of the bad things forever,” Kate Moses’ brother admits to her just before she leaves for college. Luckily by then Kate knows she wants to be a writer, and her memory is the very thing that gives her purpose. Her new book, Cakewalk, is the fruit of her remembering—a memoir of life and baking, recipes included.
This plump book begins and ends with marriage. Though sprinkled with sweet recipes, the bitter moments are plentiful: as a child Moses is jammed between an overbearing, dramatic mother and a nonverbal, resentful father. With two brothers, her mother tells Kate (who she calls Cis) “We’re the only girls. We have to stick together.” Happy memories include a Coconut Layer Cake for her fifth birthday at the Howard Johnson’s across from Disneyland. But it isn’t long before her mother pleads “Cis you have to help me. You have to help me get out of this.” In the year that follows, her mother puts a deadbolt on her door, locks herself in and bails-out on her domestic duties altogether. “My father ate nothing but Campbell’s alphabet soup and toast for about a year . . . My mother hadn’t eaten in years, subsisting on Tab, cigarettes, thyroid medication, and over-the-counter diet pills. I baked.” For Moses, baking represented a brief reprieve from the relentless tension between her parents.
Finally, they divorce. After Moses’ nervous breakdown at college, the book really begins to motor and take shape as an energetic coming of age, with delightful stories of literary celebrities, romance, and freedom. Moses recalls this period in her life with such aplomb that her joy is immediately transferred to the reader. Her talent for lyricism and whimsy comes in handy as she describes falling in love with her college boyfriend’s family, particularly with his mother, Nell, a fantastic cook. “Nell had baked aromatic Bosc pears with curls of lemon zest and dots of butter, then served them in a pool of warm butterscotch sauce. Everyone at the table scraped their plates clean, moaning with happiness.” For her birthday, Nell bakes Kate a spiced pecan cake. At school, her college professor Arlen Hansen, takes her under his wing, encouraging her to write. “It wasn’t Paris,” Moses writes, “but between my weekends at Nell’s and sitting under the columns with Arlen, my life felt like a moveable feast.”
Meanwhile, her parents’ roles have flip-flopped. Her father apologizes to her and they move towards reconciliation. Her mother, on the other hand, slips into a reckless life of neglect fueled by psychosis. When Moses goes to visit and cleans out the refrigerator, her mother responds, “How dare you! How dare you touch anything that’s mine! I paid money for this food and it’s mine!” Though Moses tries to explain that the food was rotten and that she’s replaced it with new food, her mother throws her out of the house. As she leaves, Moses realizes she has to let go of any hope for a relationship. In her rearview mirror she sees her mother “In reflection—just as she had always seen me. And then I could see only the hillside of forgotten strawberries . . . I saw them there as I drove away: small clotted hearts struggling to survive, dangling on their stems among the weeds.”
While there are triumphs, picnicking at M.F.K Fisher’s house (including a recipe for her Persimmon Parfait with Walnut Black-Pepper Biscotti), at twenty-six Moses is devastated by a failed marriage and her new role as a single mother. “I honestly couldn’t remember who I had been before motherhood . . . Whatever accomplishment, talent, identity I’d finessed in the last few years had evaporated into thin air, leaving no trace.” Struggling to survive, she finds a job, but her income is so precarious she doesn’t eat when her son is with her husband for the day. No doubt Moses drew on this experience to write her last book, Wintering, on the final weeks of Sylvia Plath. She wonders: “Could you die from this? Could you die from being this afraid and lonely and forsaken?”
In these final chapters the message of the book reveals itself. Moses remembers the people who helped her, women from her neighborhood who baked her Blondies and dried her tears, striking up a friendship with her famous neighbor Kay Boyle, the man who would eventually become her second husband, walking through the door, ecstatic at the fact that Moses’ son is glad to see him. She forgives her father, who by now has begun a new family. At her wedding Moses remembers: “I turned from my new husband, flushed with a stunning joy, and there was my father. I saw him as if from behind the lens of a camera—the individual frames of his approach to me, his arms opening, his pale blue eyes glistening with tears, the roughness of his beard against my cheek.” Moses has captured a brilliant moment of forgiveness, which culminates in a recipe for “My Father’s Favorite Cheesecake.”
Though the book is a bit unwieldy and long, it is beautifully written. And while Moses’ story could certainly stand on its own as a straightforward memoir, the baking reflects her “struggle to find a way to redeem with sweetness those moments that left, however bitter on occasion, such a lasting taste in my mouth.” The presence of the pastries reminds us of the importance of experience, that through work and forgiveness, one can make life into something sweet.
In Sophie’s Choice, Stingo recounts Sophie’s return to the pleasures of eating after barely surviving Dachau and the sickness and anemia following her journey to America. On her day off from work, she enters a deli near Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The following description is an exercise in food pornography: “The privilege of choice gave her a feeling achingly sensual. There was so much to eat, so much variety and abundance, that each time her breath stopped, her eyes actually filmed over with emotion, and with slow and elaborate gravity she would choose from this sourly fragrant, opulent, heroic squander of food: a pickled egg here, a slice of salami, half a loaf of pumpernickel, lusciously glazed and black. Bratwurst. Braunschweiger. Some sardines. Hot pastrami. Lox. A bagel, please.” Styron’s mouthwatering description is proof of his talent as a writer, savoring each descriptive word to make us feel Sophie’s hunger. But it is more than hunger—he reveals her appetite for life.
M.F.K Fisher was the high priestess of culinary writing. Her ten books on cooking and eating are chiefly literary, a delight for foodies and similarly entertaining to those without food knowledge. Fisher considered eating well to be one of the “arts of life.” In Fisher’s writing there’s no division between food and life—the two run together as if there were no better mixture. In the last ten years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in food, diet, and food culture. The New York Times and The New Yorker constantly dedicate large parts of their publications to writing on food: how it makes us feel, what to eat, why to eat, and where. Michael Pollan’s books, on food politics, meat eating and more sell thousands of copies. Food writing, it seems, reveals what we are interested in, what we’re afraid of, and what we want from life.
The economy has a huge influence on food writing. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf focuses on cooking on a tight-budget during WWII. Last year, the recession closed down Gourmet magazine, the monolith of food culture. More and more people turn to the internet for everything, and food blogs are some of the most popular on the web. Cathy Erway, a frustrated twenty-something decided in 2008 that she felt sick to her stomach and to her pocketbook on her frequent restaurant meals in New York, and created a blog called Not Eating Out in New York, which is now a book called The Art of Eating In. Emily Gould, of Gawker fame, spends more time updating her food blog Things I Ate that I Love, than her regular blog, Emily Magazine. She also recently began a web show called “Cooking the Books,” where she invites writers to come and discuss their book with her while they cook a dish inspired by the book. Dominique Browning, the former editor of House and Garden, writes in a piece published in the New York Times Magazine that “only food could ward off the rage, despair and raw fear” at her newfound unemployment. “I became obsessed with eggs, gazing on their refined shape in wonder. Perfect packets of nutrients. I ate eggs all day long. When I had a job, I never thought about eggs.”
Food is sustenance, but it’s also a physical manifestation of culture and emotion: one that is tangible, one that you can taste. For some, cooking and baking is a way to think, to work things out, and to comfort oneself and others against strife. The olfactory pleasure of baking your mother’s recipe calls forth memories of home and security almost immediately. The food consumed on a first date (that goes well) can be recalled with delight, and repeated.
In books, descriptive passages of food and eating trigger an emotional response to the text. Reading Sylvia Plath’s journal embeds the reader in a flux of feverish sensuality and a compulsion to record every feeling, sight, smell, taste, and thought. In college, Plath describes an afternoon “reading critical books about Yeats all day today, meals in bed, and the good corn-thickened soup and tuna salad, lush with mayonnaise and pink succulent laced shreds of meat, and sliced quarters of hardboiled egg, sliced rubbery white crescents cradling the brilliant powdery yolk, cool long gulps of milk, the savory brown resilience of ginger bread, and tonight the warm glutinous cheese-curded macaroni, green lima beans mealy and good on the tongue, a sweet syrupy mash of peach slices.” The indulgent nature of this meal is also connected to its description, and the activity of reading critical books about Yeats all day, cross-legged on our college dorm bed, retiring to the cafeteria for the very Macaroni and Cheese she describes: this is living, this is life. Moments of Being. Plath gets it, and now, so do we.
In Leonard Michaels’ “Black Bread, Butter, Onion” eating offers up a moment of reflection, doubling a recent sex act. The lust of eating and fucking entwined: “The tender, powdery surface of the bialys is dented by your fingertips, which bear odors of sex; also butter, onion, dough, tobacco, newsprint, and coffee. The whole city is in your nose, but go outside and eat the last bialy while strolling on Cherry Street.” Michaels’ hands serve as his reminder of the events of his day. He continues to consume before going back out into the world for more.
Gould, unable to sleep, writes on “Things I Ate that I Love” of dreaming up the perfect dinner party. “I woke up at 3 am and couldn’t fall back asleep without the peaceful white noise of the BQE outside my window, so I lay there planning a fantasy dinner party. The morning of the fantasy dinner party I would go to The Meat Hook and get a chorizo-type sausage and a beautiful free-range chicken. Then I would come home and roast the chicken Laurie Colwin style in a 325 degree oven for two hours, first coating it with a spicy rub, and I would baste it sometimes with butter. Then when it was done I would cool it, take the meat off the bones, and make stock with the carcass. I would use the stock to make a black bean soup with chorizo, which I would serve with lime juice and sour cream that had been whirred in the food processor with a small can of smoked chipotle peppers. Then the main course would be chicken tacos made with the roasted chicken and pico de gallo. For dessert I would make Katherine Hepburn brownies and maybe add a tiny bit of cinnamon to continue the Mexican theme. In this way I lulled myself back to sleep.” There’s no doubt had Plath been born in time for the internet age, she would have taken up on her Tumblr to update us on her writing, her eating habits, and her long luxurious hot baths as she does in her journals.
One of the most touching food memoirs is Judith Moore’s Never Eat Your Heart Out. Moore, a writer for the San Diego Reader, sadly passed away in 2006. Her collection of personal essays focuses on the emotional recall from food and its influence on her life. In “Breakfast,” she recalls her mother and grandmother force-feeding her oatmeal at the table—her last morning spent in her childhood home. Her mother was leaving her father and would eventually divorce him. “Memories come back to you in your mouth,” Moore writes. “Decades passed before I ate oatmeal again.” In another piece called “Adultery,” Moore describes the effect of an affair on her cooking: “I don’t think I ever better got the feel for that complicated business of insinuating cold butter into flour and thence into a high-pitched oven that produces milles-feuilles pastry, don’t think I ever stirred, sniffed, and tasted my way to a more provocative lime-ginger-soy-molasses marinade for duck than during the year I went out on my husband.” We know as well as Moore by the end of the piece that it is the swell and excitement of love that produces her newfound confidence in her cuisine: “About adultery, I don’t recommend it. I also have to confess for that year I was happier than I’d ever been before or have been since.”
Writing in itself is a sort of cooking, a combining of ingredients: sometimes the finished product turns all corners of our tastes, filling us with joy, other times, we’re not so lucky. And many writers, Plath included, cooked or baked as a reprieve from the arduous hours of writing, returning to their desks refreshed. Kate Moses, when struggling to finish her novel Wintering about Plath, followed her lead and took to spending time in the kitchen working out her ending. If one reads for pleasure, it’s no surprise that these authors end up on the reading list. M.F.K. Fisher said it best: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one.” In writing about food, the themes of love and sex abound, and the current of living, the never-ending search for security propels us into the writers’ world. Gastronomy functions as biography. For meaning in literature and in life, the deepest pleasures often come from our plates.