Cakewalk: A Memoir
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From the author of the internationally acclaimed Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath comes a funny, touching memoir of a crummy—and crumby—childhood.
Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Kate Moses was surrounded by sugar: Twinkies in the basement freezer, honey on the fried chicken, Baby Ruth bars in her father’s sock drawer. But sweetness of the more intangible variety was harder to come by. Her parents were disastrously mismatched, far too preoccupied with their mutual misery to notice its effects on their kids.
A frustrated artist, Kate’s beautiful, capricious mother lived in a constant state of creative and marital emergency, enlisting Kate as her confidante—“We’re the girls, we have to stick together”—and instructing her three children to refer to her in public as their babysitter. Kate’s father was aloof, ambitious, and prone to blasts of withering abuse increasingly directed at the daughter who found herself standing between her embattled parents. Kate looked for comfort in the imaginary worlds of books and found refuge in the kitchen, where she taught herself to bake and entered the one realm where she was able to wield control.
Telling her own story with the same lyricism, compassion, and eye for lush detail she brings to her fiction, coupled with the candor and humor she is known for in her personal essays, Kate Moses leavens each tale of her coming-of-age in Cakewalk with a recipe from her lifetime of confectionary obsession. There is the mysteriously erotic German Chocolate Cake implicated in a birds-and-bees speech when Kate was seven, the gingerbread people her mother baked for Christmas the year Kate officially realized she was fat, the chocolate chip cookies Kate used to curry favor during a hilariously gruesome adolescence, and the brownies she baked for her idol, the legendary M.F.K. Fisher, who pronounced them “delicious.”
Filled with the abundance and joy that were so lacking in Kate’s youth, Cakewalk is a wise, loving tribute to life in all its sweetness as well as its bitterness and, ultimately, a recipe for forgiveness.
foibles, and the questions about my life and my dreams that she asked with such focused interest while we worked. We played Fats Waller or the Carter Family or the Grateful Dead on the stereo as we cooked for her family, people both of us loved, Nell’s prickly Abyssinian cat, Nersy, who only tolerated the rest of us, weaving between her ankles. Nell never treated me as a beginner, although that’s what I was, in the kitchen and in almost every other way. “What do you think this needs?” she’d ask,
Willows we thought we were most like. When the waiter asked us about dessert, I hesitated. I was hoping the newspaper would pay for our lunch, but just in case, I’d only ordered a salad. “I’m not big on dessert, but you go ahead, get something,” Gary urged. “It’s my treat.” I don’t remember what I ordered or how it tasted, but the waiter brought two forks. Gary ate half of whatever it was, telling me that his mother never served anything but fruit for dessert when he was growing up. As we left
is perfectly sanitary. A refrigerated egg will keep forever. Hotels expect you to take their towels home—it’s not stealing, it’s free advertising for the hotel. Prompted by the chronically suicidal tendencies of Bonnie and Clyde, our pair of goldfish who repeatedly jumped out of their bowl and had to be scraped up off the kitchen floor with a spatula, gasping for oxygen and stuck to the linoleum, and the baby bunny that dropped dead only two days after it was given to Billy on Easter, my mom
might have secretly wanted to, he could never approach us directly, and neither could we impose ourselves on him easily, as we did without thought with our porous mother. I think of the one time he played with us, one Sunday morning in Palo Alto, when by scooting shyly over to him on the carpet my brothers and I managed to squeeze ourselves under his arms, under his cleanly shaven chin, surrounding him, making it impossible for him to continue reading his morning paper. He began to crawl around
when I was three. That melding of words and recollected sweetness is the impulse behind my favorite of Frances’s songs, the one that to me sums up not just the gestalt of Frances but maybe life, too. Who else but pensive Frances would immortalize the humble appreciation of eating the final, plain cookie, the one left behind after all the good ones have been taken? LORNA DOONE, LAST COOKIE SONG All the sandwich cookies sweet In their frilly paper neat They are gone this afternoon, They have