Sweetened by Sugar.
by Jo Keroes
If memoir is the literary genre of our time, then food is the ingredient that’s keeping the form fresh. Beginning with Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun and its sequels, filled as they are with recipes that lure us into thinking we, too, can move to Italy, acquire a rundown villa of our own, and prepare meals seasoned with oil pressed from our own olives, to Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, food has replaced, or at least eased the trauma of dysfunction that’s been the hallmark of the contemporary memoir. Mayes and Powell’s books are the royal icing to the marshmallow gook of most of these books. But now comes Kate Moses and Cakewalk, a beautifully written remembrance of a sadly eccentric childhood literally sweetened by sugar.
As the only daughter of a beautiful, artistic mother locked in an unhappy marriage to a rigid and equally miserable father, Kate is at first enchanted by being considered her mother’s best friend. The woman in her trademark Jackie-O shades who demands that her children call her the babysitter when they’re out in public rarely provides decent meals; instead she supplies Kate and her brothers with bags of M&Ms each time they get in the car, creates marvelous games for them to play, not to mention fabulous costumes and spectacular birthday parties and accompanying cakes. A dazzlingly self-absorbed domestic dervish of unfulfilled longing - she enlists the young Kate as her proxy, expecting the child to slip between her and her husband’s crushing domination - it’s ok with her if Kate and her brothers spend untold hours in front of the tv set consuming sweetened breakfast cereal and Twinkies. Those hours are punctuated with a frantic kind of fun, especially when their father, sullen and perpetually silent, though not reticent about telling his young daughter “you disgust me,” is away. Then, “it was as if someone had hooked up a house to our house and started pumping oxygen in. It was breakfast for dinner every night and dogs on the couch. We didn’t want to go to school? Okay, come up with a flimsy excuse: The babysitter (MOM) didn’t like to get up early anyway. ‘Sick,’ we dragged the blankets off the beds and watched reruns of old television shows all day in our pajamas under a tent in the family room. There was no clean laundry and the dishes piled up in the sink. Our babysitter, she told us, had not been hired as a maid but as a companion to the children. We ate French toast for days on end.
A friendless little fat girl in elementary school whose first fourth grade crush was on Abe Lincoln (“just thinking about him made me feel calm and protected and even hopeful, less like I was living under perpetual siege, any moment to be crushed out like one of my mother’s cigarettes”), Kate takes solace in sweets- and grows fat. At about the same time she enters adolescence, her mother resigns even those domestic duties she’d performed, not eating or serving “anything that couldn’t be purchased in a pharmacy or a 7/11,” and Kate takes her place in the kitchen, replacing Twinkies and Lucky Charms with culinary creations of her own, producing (and eating) everything from sugar cookies and her grandfather’s famous family fudge to extravagant cakes and, eventually, brownies good enough to win the approval of legendary food writer MFK Fisher. Baking offers not just sweet nourishment, but control and mastery in a chaotic, if sometimes comic world. Ostensibly the story of how baking shaped and saved her life, Cakewalk is also the story of how Kate Moses became a writer.
This is a book to be savored, its flavors sampled a few chapters at a time, as the episodes in Kate’s life unfold, each followed by a terrific recipe, and she moves from confused and lonely childhood through adolescence to a sweet and gratifying adulthood.