You can’t eat your cake and keep it too

Sometimes I get a couple of  hours, sometimes a whole morning when luminous joy bubbles into life, oxygenating a flat week.  Savour the perfection—then *pop* it’s gone. Lately, when I experience these rapturous periods, I am intensely aware of time fleeting, of the unreliability of “happiness,” of my inability to “keep” the moments, of my impotence in the face of life.

September 28 is a good day for birthdays. Two of my friends and our puppy were born on that day. Leading up to Tuesday, I was thinking about cake, how I love making, giving, and eating cake for birthdays and other occasions. But there is always the problem of excess. Do other cake bakers and eaters have the same problem? If there’s a big (9-inch) cake in the house—do you eat a slice every day for a week and gain five pounds? Or do you obsess over it, polishing it off in two or three days and feel sick? Or does it go into the compost because you can’t eat it all? Whichever scenario fits, the solution is the same: bake a small cake. Because small is practical and beautiful.

One day a couple of weeks ago, Michael and I headed to a kitchenware store, and I bought two sturdy 4.5-inch springform pans. I found a good recipe for carrot cake in Canada’s Favourite Recipes by Murray & Baird and halved the recipe. I wasn’t sure what it would yield; it turned out the batter filled the two small cake pans and three cupcake liners. 

I sliced the two cakes horizontally to fill them, then frosted both cakes and cupcakes with maple butter frosting. I put the better-looking cake and the cupcakes aside for my friends, and Michael and I “tested” the other cake, eating one slice each for three nights. I know, I should have given both cakes as gifts, but I had to test cake production. Six tiny, perfect slices of carrot cake, sweet and moist. Who needs more than a few bites of something delicious? 

Then I assembled the birthday packages. I save good boxes, so I had two shoe boxes at hand made of strong cardboard. I lined each with purple tissue paper, then went out to the garden to pick posies. Fragrant thyme, rosemary, and lavender mixed with pink, red, and purple blooms, tied with a ribbon. I put the cupcakes in a plastic container and the cake on a round of cardboard cut from an old box and covered with foil. Cakes nestled in their boxes, I added the bouquets, a small box of Eddy matches, a candle on the cake, and loose candles for the cupcakes. I closed the lids, then taped birthday cards on the box tops. 

On Tuesday morning, we fussed over birthday puppy Marvin with a new toy and some treats. Then, enjoying one of the perks of self-employment, I took off for an hour. After placing the birthday boxes in the front seat of the car, I drove along Craigflower to Vic West, listening to NPR’s jazz and blues station, window open to the breeze. The splendid fall day sparkled. Coppery leaves fell slowly from the trees, and the clear, cool, blue sky made me feel lighthearted. I parked and walked box #1 up to my friend’s townhouse door and placed it there. Then Google maps told me my other friend lived only 150 meters away. I knew they shared a neighbourhood, but I had no idea they were so close.

So rather than drive, I walked the other box through a children’s playground to my friend’s house, feeling so happy I could burst. And yet, the day before I was swimming in sadness about every little thing. I placed box #2 on the doorstep and walked back to my car, humming a song, alive to the crackling beauty of early autumn, favourite season. 

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’d been thinking about that proverb and how it didn’t make any sense. Turns out Ursula Le Guin agrees with me. In 2010, 81-year-old Le Guin (1929–2018) started a blog and wrote delightful posts for seven years. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published the collected blogposts as No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (2017), which I recently finished. Many of the posts are about her cat, Pard, good reading for cat lovers: 

https://www.ursulakleguin.com/blog.

One thing that mattered to Le Guin was figuring out weird language puzzles, including the annoying cake proverb. Of course if you have a cake you’re going to eat it! Le Guin wonders in her post about the logic of this proverb, but then it dawns on her that the verb “to have” has several meanings—a less common one is “to keep.” The order of the proverb also seems awry, so, she revises it, reversing the order and using “keep” instead of “have.” And suddenly it makes sense:

You can’t eat your cake and keep it too. You can’t have it both ways—eating and keeping.

When I got thank-you texts and emails later in the day from my friends, one of them ended her message saying she hoped we could get together more often in the coming year. I had acknowledged in my card that we had hardly seen each other lately, what with the pandemic and both of us being introverts. Her final line was, “nothing is forever.” I paused. Of course.

I can’t count on that fickle flicker that moves me to make cakes, write, sew, create. It comes, it goes, I can’t keep it, I can’t summon it. The work wants to be made, and the work—not you—chooses when and how. As I head for 63, I am keenly aware of energy slowly flagging, of a narrowing in my interests and available time, of the limits to life. All the more reason to relish eating the cake when it appears on a plate in front of you. Don’t even try to keep it.

Kitchen memories

Guest post by Judith Walker, aka Jude, my sister and a wonderful cook

Retro, old fashioned, nostalgic, comforting. These words will have different meanings for all of us, depending on our age and our interests. For me, the feelings of nostalgia, craving and comfort come from memories of meals and gatherings from my childhood in the 60s and 70s and also from early adulthood in the 80s, when I experimented with food and first cooked professionally.

When I was a kid we lived in California. Our mom wasn’t a confident cook, she was a late starter and as a young wife and mother struggled to fill her role as the family chef. Some of her meals included simple seasonal items that sound exotic but were quite ordinary for the time and place. Whole artichokes steamed with lemon and served with a bowl of mayo that we shared for dipping. After a lot of peeling and sucking on the tough leaves we were rewarded with the succulent heart. No mayo required, an amazing flavour burst that would linger on my palate for hours. Possibly my first sensuous experience. And the tacos. So basic and so good. We would all help prepare this meal, bowls of fried ground beef, chopped iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, onions, grated cheese, mashed avocado, and sour cream. And hot sauce for Dad. It must have been the tortillas that made this such a memorable meal. In Berkeley, we had many Hispanic neighbours. I think my mom was able to find fresh tortillas in the local grocery store. I know that my first bite of a fresh corn tortilla in Mexico many years later flooded me with nostalgia.

Another go-to dish for special occasions was ceviche. Mom made one with scallops, shrimp, and onion chopped up and marinated in fresh lime juice.  This was an easy dish she could prepare ahead of time and was elegant and delicious. I don’t recall what she served it with, I just ate it by the spoonful.

And then we moved to cold, Anglo-centric Toronto. No more avocados, scallops or tortillas. It was the 60s after all. So, overdone roast beef, watery spaghetti sauce and tuna casserole came into our lives. Our mother tried to teach us to cook when she went back to school. Cooking pasta (we called it noodles), chopping an onion, peeling veg, measuring, making rice and washing dishes were things we learned. I don’t think the results were great, but I am grateful for the lessons. My fave dish from those days was tuna casserole. I am serious. There is something about that combo of the salty tuna, the creamy blandness of the mushroom soup, slippery noodles and crispy edges that is the epitome of comfort food. I’m pretty sure I made this more than once on a hungover Sunday in my twenties. Better than Kraft dinner!

cook 2 cups of broad egg noodles according to instructions
-open and drain one can of chunk white tuna
 -open a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup
-drain the noodles and mix all the ingredients together in the noodle pot along with a nob of butter.
-pour into a greased 9×9” pyrex dish. If you are feeling fancy sprinkle crushed saltine crackers on top.           
-bake at 350 till bubbling and crispy.

 ( I just checked the Joy of Cooking recipe, and they recommend seasoning the soup with dry sherry! Hilarious!)

Another recipe that was easy for us kids to make and that we actually ate was hotdogs in cornbread:

 -put 6 hot dogs in a 9×9” pyrex dish
-place in a hot oven and roast till a bit brown and blistered
-mix one recipe of cornbread from the Joy of Cooking
 -pour it over the hot dogs and cook according to instructions
-serve with butter and yellow mustard on the side

I sometimes crave this meal, but know if I made it I would eat the whole thing and quickly descend down the spiral of shame.

 My mom tried, she just didn’t have much to work with and not much inspiration in those busy days. We never had Kraft slices, Wonder bread, pop or ketchup in the house. I didn’t know what pizza or french fries were till I was in junior high. I remember visiting my grade 7 friend in her wealthy parents’ fancy penthouse apartment. Their live-in cook would make us toasted Wonder bread topped with bacon and  melted processed cheese. Served with ketchup. I loved it. However, I am grateful that our mother raised us on real food and set us on the path to healthy eating.

Things started looking up in the 80’s. Mediterranean, Asian and Indian food were starting to trend. My mother was travelling a lot then and brought back recipes and fresh ideas. We thumbed through Gourmet magazine and cookbooks looking for our next dinner adventure. The more complicated the better. We would make forays to Kensington market, Chinatown and little India seeking exotic ingredients. And then spend hours in the kitchen, often at Mom’s, gathered around the butcher block on our periodic Friday night family dinners, with mixed results. It was fun and challenging and I learned much that has stayed with me. Pasta from scratch, fresh herbs, toasting and grinding spices, rehydrating dried mushrooms and peppers, fresh cheeses…risotto! So much to discover.

In the mid-80s, knowing nothing about running a business or professional cooking, I started a catering company with a couple of friends called “The Feed Bag.” It was hard work, fun, funny and pretty much a failure financially, but there were some great parties! We made hundreds of spring rolls, massive sushi platters, a ridiculous number of meat, cheese, veggie and fruit trays, with little money to show for it. One of our go-to cookbooks then was The Silver Palate. The quintessential 80s cooking guide. Every recipe has more fat then I would eat in a week now. Decadent. I recently pulled out my battered copy because of a challah recipe request from my sister. I looked back at the most raggedy pages and found one of our old tried and true recipes, chicken dijonaisse. So simple, so good. And easy. I made it recently with a few additions, some shallots, grated parmesan and fresh parsley, and ate it with egg noodles. Delish. Anything served over egg noodles is comfort food for me.

I also made a pineapple upside down cake a while ago, another childhood favourite. Honestly it wasn’t as great as I remember, I think I skimped on the butter in the caramel sauce. I did create an elevated version of this when I worked in fine dining. Individual servings baked in a ramekin with half of a ripe red plum on the bottom. It was beautiful when inverted on a plate surrounded with a creme anglaise or boozy sabayon.

I am not sure why food has been such a focus in my life. I am not academically inclined and hated school, so I managed to make a decent living and support my travels by working in kitchens. But it is more than that. Food was a conduit to my mother, a shared past, our phone conversations in her later years pretty much revolved around what we were cooking that day. And our cats, but that is a whole other story.  It was one of my favourite parts of travelling and a wonderful way to connect to local communities and their customs and everyday life. You can learn so much about any part of our world by learning about the food the locals grow and eat and the history and traditions around them.

 Researching, designing, cooking, sharing and eating food has sustained me on many levels for much of my life.

 This was the menu request for my birthday dinner when I was a kid fifty-five years ago.

 Baked chicken
 Potato salad
 Corn on the cob
 Watermelon
 Chocolate cake

I would grill the chicken now, but other than that I stand by this as my favourite summer meal.

Good food is good food.

The End

Note: I would like to give credit to Judy Gorton for the logo she created for “The Feedbag,” my first business and only adventure in catering. She has been a friend for almost 40 years and is a wonderful artist. I still remember part of the menu from the dinner party we catered for her as payment for the design:

  • Cornish game hen stuffed with basil couscous
  • Carrot sformato (an Italian savoury soufflé, my mom’s recipe)

How very 80s!!

A mother lode of feelings

 

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My mother loved this card I made for her birthday in 2016. “How did you get me so perfectly?” she asked.

Motherlode

Corns crunch as I turn the wooden grinder
over a tiny heap of grey-black grains for
pfeffernüsse, the recipe you passed to me from your
German mother.

In a clan of ginger, your dark crown pulled the eye.
Beautiful ungainly schwartz
learned to pick peaches at 6,
to drive a car at 12.
You were a barefoot child,
smoldering into life.

Your seed sprang from
hard dry loins of dustbowl farms,
you blossomed dark to light,
turned burlap sacks to rickracked frocks,
pushed hard against poverty,
ate books, ached for knowledge,
opened your scarred scared heart to love.

Passionate proud creature, you live
inside me, your pepper cutting
through my honey, brave unexpected heat
sears the surprised and happy tongue.

“Motherlode” was one of the poems in my first and perhaps last book of published poetry,  birth of the uncool  (2014, Demeter Press). Unfortunately, the first four lines of this poem are missing in the book. When the manuscript was sent to me for a final examination and approval, I didn’t notice the flaw. Without those lines, the poem doesn’t make much sense, which bothers me. I wanted to be mad at the copy editor, but truly it was my fault.

So I offer it here today in its wholeness because I have been thinking of my mother.

When a person we love dies, we measure the next year’s turning as a series of firsts.  First my mother’s birthday rolled around in April, and she wasn’t here to call, to wish happy birthday, to send a card to. Then it was the first time I visited the house where she lived, but she was no longer there, calling from the top of the stairs, “Madeline? Is that you?” Then I celebrated my first birthday without my mother in the world, and coming up is my first Christmas without her.

I spent only one Christmas with her in the thirty years since I moved with my family from Ontario to the West coast. But still, we would talk on the phone every December 25th. I sent gifts, and for a long time, so did she. I’d ask if she had bought a Christmas tree and often she had bought two tiny ones: one for the front room and another for the back room, where they would sit in front of the fire burning in the fireplace, watching the snow fall outside. Sometimes we’d talk about Handel’s Messiah, a piece we both adored and listened to over and over again that time of year. After a while, I stopped asking if she’d made pfeffernüsse because I knew she hadn’t.

She was eating very little in the years and months before she died, cooking only occasionally, and baking hardly at all. But for so many years—all my childhood years—there was the joy of making pfeffernüsse with Mama.

I remember best the warm doughy mounds sliding out of the oven on blackened cookie sheets. A happy human conveyer belt, we dipped them still warm into the bowl of milk flavoured with vanilla extract, then popped them head first onto the plate of powdered sugar, then onto a rack to cool. The powdery tops hit my tongue with a blast of melting sweetness, then my teeth sank into the chewy milk-moistened dough, meeting honey, liquorice, and pepper. We’d line tin canisters with waxed paper, packing them with layers of pfeffernüsse.

I would eat those pepper nuts until I felt sick.  And then when I had my own family, Mama sent me the recipe for “Xmas Cookies,” written in her energetic cursive.  I made them for my boys, even when they weren’t particularly interested in eating them. Eating dozens of them myself, I plumped up like a pfeffernüsse every December.

It’s early November now. Christmas is still many weeks away. But I am thinking of my mother, thinking of our complicated relationship. Acknowledging that while I followed her path in so many ways, I fiercely resisted and resented her too.  After she died in February, I spent the next seven months in therapy, trying to deconstruct the pain and grief I felt, pain and grief spiced by anger, softened by affection. Honey and pepper, pepper and honey. Mama and Madeline, Madeline and her mama.

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No candy here, but you are loved

On Hallowe’en, after eating Michael’s amazing lamb curry, we went for a walk around the neighbourhood. Dusk, and the veil between the worlds was growing thin. We saw some spectacular sights: skeletons rattling from tree branches, dozens of glowing jack-o-lanterns, front-lawn cemeteries, and even fog machines blowing eerie mists over cardboard gravestones. We saw a few costumed kids, as well, and were reminded that we had no candy in our house.

On our return home, we closed the living room blinds and turned out the porch light. My husband printed a sign and taped it to the front door so there would be no confusion: “Sorry, there is  no candy available here. Please be safe and enjoy your Hallowe’en.” We are out of the habit of distributing candy to trick-or-treaters not only because our children have grown to be men, but because we rarely eat white sugar anymore.  My body suffers when I eat sweets—I experience an immediate high then a crash with aching joints and deep fatigue. So doling out mini Snickers bars or bags of M&M’s seems cruel. (Apologies to my own children for feeding them so much sugar over the years.)

We settled down to watch a movie, a documentary about Fred Rogers called “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?”  Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood made its debut on national public television in February 1968. I didn’t watch the show as a child, but it aired until 2001 so my children watched it sometimes, and I always had a fondness for the show’s slow and gentle pace and the kindness reflected in the content.

As we watched, I found tears streaming down my face.

I cried when Fred Rogers, sitting on a low stool, angled his tall, lean body toward a small boy and listened carefully to what the child had to say. I cried when children thronged around him during his public appearances, and one little girl came right up to him and said “Mr. Rogers, I want to tell you something. I like you,” and he said “I like you too, dear. Thank you for telling me that,” and touched her arm. I wept some more when I heard him say, “I like you just the way you are” to the thousands of unseen children at home and again when I heard that the simple, scruffy Daniel the Tiger puppet spoke from Fred Roger’s own childhood fears and vulnerabilities. More tears came as I witnessed the kindness Rogers showed when he spoke to children about how confused, sad, or scared they felt about divorce, death, or war.  I cried out of sadness about my own childhood when I heard him say “Children have very deep feelings, just as everyone does.” And I cried the most when I heard him say that “Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”

It was my birthday present to myself, I realized, to release my sadness and joy through tears as I watched this movie. I feel happy that Fred Rogers created the show and made a difference in so many children’s lives. I suppose it was ironic that we hadn’t been neighbourly ourselves when we posted our “no candy” sign and shut out our young neighbours on Hallowe’en.

A few days later, I went to a craft fair with friends and found a man who carved wands out of wood.  A wand with a chisel design and a heart at one end caught my attention. After buying it for $10, I moved the wand through the air, imagining that as I waved it, love flowed from the tiny wooden heart and spread warmth and philia over those around me. I tested it on my two friends and a few of the craftspeople sitting at nearby tables. Feeling the immediate effects of the love wand, their smiles grew wide and shiny.  I was onto something.  So when I brought my wand and other purchases home, I thought back on Hallowe’en and imagined what might have transpired if I had in my possession that evening my magic wand. I would have cast a small yet convincing spell over all the children in the neighbourhood as they trudged house to house for treats. To the witches and zombies and superheroes—to all of them—I would have delivered a powerful message: You are loved just the way you are.IMG_3403

Michael’s Lamb Curry (the secret is in the onions)

serve with rice; 8 portions

2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
6 large cloves garlic and 1.5 inch knob of ginger – both minced
7 Roma tomatoes
3-3.5 lbs. lamb shoulder (boneless) cut into small cubes
14 oz. can chick peas, rinsed and drained
3 c. green beans, washed, trimmed and cut into 2 inch pieces
1/3 jar Patek’s Vindaloo paste
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
approx. 1/2 tsp. cayenne (to taste)
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. honey
olive oil as needed

Sauté onions, garlic, and ginger in olive oil over medium heat until you swear they are going to burn. Just keep turning them as they turn dark brown and you have to scrape them off the bottom of the pan. This takes a while. Meanwhile, pat the lamb cubes dry and fry in another pan in olive oil until brown, then deglaze the pan with a little water to get all the brown bits off.

Blanch and peel the tomatoes.

When onions are completely brown, add curry paste and fry into the onions, blending well.  Crush the tomatoes with your hands into the onion mixture. Stir. Add the lamb, the cut beans, and the chick peas, then mix in vinegar and honey. Add the cayenne to as hot as you like. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook 40 minutes or until the lamb is tender.

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Magic love wand: $10