I’m officially on a diet and have been counting calories the way scrooge counted out coal for the stove. The goal is not ‘skinny;’ it’s simply to fit back into my old clothes. Frugality supersedes body image. I hate the idea of spending any more money on things that look better in the warped dressing room mirrors of the department stores than they do in the random group photos that friends take when I’m front, center and feeling particularly bloated or even just thick in the arms. Please leave my arms out of the photographs.
The closet, a holding space for my varietal A-cut linen dresses and busy floral prints, has its corners stuffed with the jeans whose zippers can’t close and pants whose seams threaten to give way. The shirts with buttons that struggle to hold things together are tucked behind the oversized boyfriend style sweaters. Going up yet another size in any of the afore mentioned is not on my to-do list. It’s just not an option so I am going to count calories and exercise-ish myself back into my old clothes.
I just wish I liked my old clothes better.
I also wish I could remember how to hula hoop.
Counting calories during the work week is easy. My Monday thru Friday is so repetitive in its routine that looking up the caloric content of every single hunger pain craving is a form of entertainment. Coffee with honey has 76 calories. Coffee black has none and ruins the joy of having coffee in the morning altogether, so that’s 152 calories every 7am that I kiss goodbye like the lover I wish I had.
Six ounces of white wine has 145 calories whereas a white wine spritzer knocks 38 calories off but is only available in a plastic cup, costs $15, and sides with festival favorites like smothered fries, funnel cake and a hotdog with everything.
A slice of cheesecake has 401 calories whereas cheesecake flavored yogurt only has 180. Woo.
It’s fair to say I tried the yogurt. It tasted like Frankenberry cereal and for a moment, I was eight again and sitting in my grandma’s kitchen, wishing I had had a bowl of Count Chocula instead. The artifice of crunchy, tiny, berry balls fooled no one. Better luck next time, Chobani.
It got me to thinking about the cost of things. Is a slice of real cheesecake worth the additional 221 calories? Those extra calories are equivalent to a three-mile walk or forty-five minutes of hard yard work. Add both chores together and not only do you have a slice of cheesecake with twenty calories left over, but also a cleaned yard and a happy dog. A resounding yes to the worth of it all and a Saturday well spent.
A glass of wine is equivalent to one-half an hour of housecleaning. This is calculus I can do.
The math mission is designed to squeeze the allotted calories each day into a single digit pair of jeans. Comfortably.
It’s adding and subtracting to balance out proportions of satisfaction and self-worth. I love the bounty of beautiful, curvy flavors but prefer them to not impact where my denim rips or why.
It means exercising like I mean it instead of renaming my regular chores of folding laundry as “yoga”, vacuuming as “calisthenics”, or cleaning gutters as “working the stairmaster.”
Though all these things count in the calorie bonfire, none of them, even added together, amount to a single donut or a piece of coffee cake, so Saturday mornings kinda suck now. Just like that, a lifelong tradition gets thrown out along with the stuff left behind from last year’s boyfriend. (To be honest, it’s been closer to 18 months and the stuff got thrown out by day two of the breakup).
To be clear: I’m not losing weight because of him. He has nothing to do with the dynamic duo of a diminishing metabolism and poor will-power. Those are all mine. Where he has influenced me, however, is that there was some part of me that attracted and accepted a very unhappy and self-defeating person into my life. As much as I hated to admit it, in the closet behind the baggy dresses, was hidden a part of me that aligned with this. People meet in their broken places, and I met that guy.
It was a reflection that I certainly didn’t want to see but could no longer un-see.
Frugality, it turns out, was a creative way to disguise my unworthiness. It looked a lot like a busy floral print.
Self-repair, in the time since, has looked like a dog, a new pair of running shoes, a yoga video, a therapist, a self-help book or two, fifteen or so amazing girlfriends, roller skates, a hula-hoop, highlights, whiter teeth, a longer patio table, more chairs, and a quest for a low-fat cheesecake recipe.
I’ve been adding and subtracting the sums of what I want, what I don’t want, how I want to be and how I’m going to get there. There’s no calculator involved. It’s pretty simple math that starts with knowing that no matter what size is embroidered into the label on my clothes, I am always worth a full slice of real cheesecake with real strawberries on top and that the crunchy little berry balls will never cut it in a life inclined towards happily-ever-after.
It’s time to clean the closet. My jeans are counting on me.
I got my first hater. Initially I was curious to know who it was and why he/she would send me a negative remark and then I realized that it didn’t matter. The post was as follows:
“I know you hate men. Too bad.”
It was sent by anonymous. There was a photo on the profile but that was taken down right after the message came through. “The contents of this profile are no longer available” was the message that appeared instead.
He knew I hated men. And like any good victim in a psychological thriller, I wondered what else he knew. Did he know how much I hate to fall when I rollerskate? Or how much I hate 8:00 a.m. on Mondays? Did he know how much I hate going to the dentist? Or how much I hate to admit I’m wrong? Or how much I hate to think about the possibility of my book not being a success but that I wrote it anyway and am working on two more because my determination is stronger than my fear or I’m just thick that way?
Hate is a strong word, and it isn’t an often used one in my world. I may not like that my dog randomly and sporadically barks loudly for no reason but that doesn’t mean I hate my dog. Sometimes my recipes turn out awful but that doesn’t mean I hate baking. Sometimes my heart has been broken but that doesn’t mean I hate men.
Clearly that person read no further than the page name, got insecure, and lashed out. It’s happened before.
About a year and a half ago I attended a fund raiser at a friend’s house. She was helping her church raise money for their music program and I agreed to come and offered to bring a cheesecake. Whether I wanted it to be or not, cheesecake has become my thing. I get it. I own it. And I’m happy to oblige. I brought one of my own recipes: Pear and Elderflower.
My friend, the hostess, was sharing with the guests that this cheesecake recipe will be in my book when it’s published and, by the way, the title of the book is “Cheesecake loves my thighs and 27 other reasons why cheesecake is better than men.” The women laughed the loudest and invited me to read at their book clubs. Some of the men agreed. One man, however, protested. He took offense, he said. His wife suggested he “zip it” but he didn’t. He felt the comparison was demeaning, objectifying, and so on. As he politely held his ground, as people do at church fundraisers, my friend handed him a slice of cheesecake and said, “try this and then tell me what you think.” He took a bite and then another and another. He returned the empty plate and said, “I stand corrected. Young lady, I can’t compete with that. Good luck with your book.”
I don’t hate men. If I did, I wouldn’t continue to date them. I’d stop dipping into the dating pool and definitely stop looking for my happily ever after. I actually love men. I just happen to love cheesecake a little more.
I also love ice cream but love frozen custard a little more. I love going for long walks but love going for long bike rides a little more. I love getting dressed up and wearing heals but I love wearing my overalls and pigtails a little more.
There is no hate in these equations.
I have loved the men I’ve dated, and I hold no grudges that things didn’t work out. I have loved and I will love the next man in my life a little more.
I recently drove to the everglades from Charlotte, NC. It was an 11-hour drive, eight of which was just Florida.
As I neared the everglades with a final destination of Everglade City, I drove through the orange groves. They were in bloom. If the trip had nothing else but that experience, it would be enough. Musk and citrus drip into a floral undercurrent the way humidity holds time in summer. It is slow and seductive and slightly coy. Windows down, I took my foot off the gas and allowed the scent to carry me through.
Beyond the orchards was the panther reserve where, for miles, signs instructed drivers to look out for large cat crossings. I saw no panthers, only people fishing in the moats that separated each side of the road from the tall fence of the reserve. Alligators pepper those waters and though I didn’t see any, I kept the video recorder on my phone ready in the event that God decided to thin the gene pool.
I drove through alligator alley and, like the panther park, saw no wildlife to write about.
Everglade city was not what I expected. City is definitely the wrong descriptor word, although, given the environment, it is probably apropos. Pulling into town, there was a gas station that was also a restaurant and gift shop that sold bait & tackle, t-shirts, and ice cream. The draw to return to this place, decked to the nines with fish nets and foam floaters, was akin to the carnival freak show tents that tagged along with the travelling circus when I was young. All I needed was to be a certain number of inches tall and show my ticket. Little brings me greater joy than a well-placed contradiction like cotton-candy ice cream and buckets of worms sold behind the same counter.
A block beyond the gas station was the Southern version of the Bate’s Motel. Ravaged by a hurricane, it sat in a purgatory of disrepair, a fate to be determined between either tourists or the weather. Insurance money was most likely spent on a vacation elsewhere.
Each city block housed only one building as though each structure was preparing to expand. It was like Everglade City knew my mom. She always bought us shoes that were two sizes too big because we were intended grow into them. Her economy was our social nightmare. Resourcefully and as an effort to not become fashion fails, we dragged our feet, kicked dirt, and picked at the rubber of our shoes until they reflected a poverty that was unacceptable to my mom. She would buy us new ones. Everglade city was long overdue for a trip to the K-mart with my mom.
The motel was on a round-about. Directly across from it teetered a bank building from the 1880’s that withstood the onslaught of torrential winds and rains but died in any number of financial crises since it’s heyday. It was last known as a bed & breakfast but by the decay of the building, that seemed a polite way of saying crack-house.
The one building with a fresh coat of white paint had four tall columns reaching to the sky-high Greek inspired pediment and looked remarkably like a courthouse. It was and showed the four-hundred residents of the city that law and order was still intact.
Following the circle around, past the courthouse were the new tennis courts and beyond that, was the city’s museum, a Pepto-Bismol pink structure with impeccably painted dark pink trim. That’s where I turned left, down the quiet street to my friend’s new home.
The cottage itself was a former schoolhouse. The charm is as undeniable as the interior is quirky. Clearly there was some updating and remodeling that happened over the years that left the place a hodge-podge of aesthetically uncomfortable yet likeable spaces; easy to navigate but hard to understand. Cozy.
One more recent addition to the cottage was the lanai. It was one step lower than the rest of the house, screened in and brimming with furniture. There were two small glass and metal outdoor café tables, each with two armchairs made from PVC piping. There were two lounge chairs, made of the same, that were separated by a plastic Ficus tree. There was one random chair near the entry to the house. All flat surfaces held baskets of silk flowers and marine themed nick-nacks. The house was tidy and intentionally decorated.
My friends had closed on their snowbird’s dream just hours before my arrival and the previous owners left the home full of stuff; innumerable baskets of silk flower arrangements, entire white wicker bookshelves of grocery store romance novels, all of the furniture ranging from Floridian wicker to federation bureaus stuffed with linens and board games. They left soaps, towels, cleaners, and a kitchen full of food, some of which had expired in 2003, 2006 and 2014. They left closets full of clothes. My friends purchased more than they realized.
As we sat on the lanai discussing the evening plans, a golf cart puttered past with a large leg hanging over the side as though it was preparing to counterbalance the immediate and unpredicted turn into the drive. The owner of the cart and his little scrappy dog dismounted and walked to the patio.
Dave, a Michelin man of a figure at over six feet tall and almost equally wide, hobbled as a man of that weight would, and yelled out to the new homeowners a hardy, “hey friends!” as he yanked another can of beer from the plastic loops that he used as a carrier of the remaining two cans of the former six-pack of beer.
Our conversation stopped as Dave entered the porch. His voice matching his heft, the bulk of his personality squeezed into the quondam space of our bird-chirping friendship. We fell silent as he, uninvited and cumbersome, seated himself in the PVC chair as though he were a man a third of his size and an old, welcomed friend. The plastic tubes squeaked, crackled and bent against his gravitational pull as my friends and I got into alert positions, prepared to jump into action and aid the man from his inevitable fall. The chair held its own though no one but Dave relaxed into trusting this.
He filled the space with noise masked as conversation that ran on without contribution by anyone else. The consequent cans of beer brought more bite to his banter as we were informed of everyone’s income, marital status, affairs, and political affiliation. We were enlightened to Dave’s beliefs and habits which could be identified with a lot of ‘ist’s’ at the end. Eventually, his beer gone but his mouth still motoring, his filthy little dog peed on the rug.
He said nothing as the dog looked to finish the job it had begun. Without apology and without taking his empty cans, he scooped up the little hydrant and left the premises.
We all sat there, jaws slacked open, as though we had just been slapped by a stranger. None of us seemed to know what just happened or who that guy was.
He fancied himself a realtor of sorts. He owned a couple of condominiums with his mom, and they were selling off an extra one, having given up on making it an addition to their conjoined condo. Prior to buying this cottage, my friends had taken a look at Dave’s condo as a listed property in town. In less than five minutes, they knew it wasn’t the place for them and in that same few minutes, Dave found himself a couple of kind-hearted Midwesterners who were too polite to sidestep the steamroller he mislabeled as friendship.
The second night, as we sat down to discuss dinner plans over booze and munchies, we heard the put-put of the golf cart. It was a repeat of the night prior: leg out, cart crawling past and taking an immediate right angle turn into the driveway. The grey, dreadlock, sticky white dog bounced into the lead as both made way to the lanai, Dave with three remaining beer cans dangling from the loops in his hand, yanking one down and popping it open with a hearty, “hey friends!”
In he came, same size, same noise level, same amount of beer, sitting in the same unprepared chair, and the three of us frozen like deer in the headlights of the oncoming mac truck. Dave picked up his conversation where he had left it, somewhere between his held conspiracy theories and his rancor for absolutely everyone but his mom, his dog, and the neighbor’s cute girlfriend. The squall of his bitterness even pummeled the makers of Joe’s beer that he polished off after slamming his own anyway and regardless.
Dave’s volume matched his density, and it became clear that the only things little about Dave were his mind, his thread bare shirt that exposed his girth as if the top was a punchline to parody on fashion faux pas, and his etiquette.
He made it known in several punctuated statements that it was mating season for him. He smelled my status like a bull in rut. I was cornered prey. The alcohol enhanced his fervor.
Had my foot been caught in a trap, I’d have gnawed it off.
He drank his beer. He drank our beer. He ate ALL of the snacks that my friend had placed on the table prior to his arrival. And then he went for the wine. My friend’s husband offered it to him under the great and immediate protest of we women. The wine was ours and we were not willing to share it. Not with Dave. It got shared anyway and Dave drank it down with the same wild abandon which he drank the beer and ate the food. He drank it down without regard. He chugged it like the sweet little lanai was Animal House and this was a kegger, all the while keeping his eyes on the prize growling in the corner. My tolerance for toxic testosterone is very low.
The shaggy mutt hopped up on the lounge chair of my friend. As she touched the dog, she whispered to me that we ought steal the dog and give her a bath and a shave. As sweet as this little creature was in demeanor, she was unpleasant to touch and had a stench of garbage.
Dave saw his dog on the lounge chair and boomed out, “That one’s taken! The pretty one belongs to Joe. You need to sit with the other one.” He referred to me as the other one. He hoisted himself up, wrapped his hands around the little critter and relocated the dog to my lounge chair. He then commanded that I pet it. Over and over again he made this demand, even as he re-assaulted the innocent chair that auditorily objected this man’s oncoming ass with the sound of stretched plastic and splintering.
My objections, like my newly reinstated chastity, were under lock and key. I was trying to not smell like bacon to a famished beast.
He called me the other one.
“Hey—Bunion…Bunion…yeah, you.” His focus on me, he said, “Why don’t you come back to my house so I can shave off that bunion for you?!?”
If there was a line that was crossed, it was long before this but certainly this reached a new low. Almost everything that he verbally vomited was offensive. This offense simply had direction and intent.
He referred to me as “bunion” for the remainder of the bottle of wine that he consumed without the benefit of a glass. With the bottle thrown back, tongue out, and him trying to catch every last drop, I put on my best Southern lesson to bless his heart, and politely offered that he go home to his mamma and have her make him a salad.
My friend’s husband knew that I didn’t just poke the bear, I whacked it on the head with a stick. He jumped to his feet with a “whoooooa now” as he dipped quickly into the house. I assumed he was going for his pistol because the tension was immediately palpable. I silently prayed for a tranquilizer gun. We would need Fentanyl, and lots of it, to take this mess down. My friend gathered up the empty cans and bottle and plates like she was running for shelter from the storm.
Dave heaved himself to a standing position and teetered like the bank building down the block. He thundered three steps across the room and hovered over the nylon and PVC chaise lounge in which I was seated. He extended a fist.
He wanted to fist bump. Of course, he did.
As Joe returned to distract the bull like a clown in a barrel, I slid out of the chair and scooted into the house without returning the fist-bump. Of course, I didn’t. I’m not a fifteen-year-old boy and nothing about this guy was okay enough to concede to his dismissal of his own behaviors. The other one doesn’t fist bump.
With Dave gone once again, we hopped on our bikes and peddled to the nearest bar for some ring-catching, cocktails, and to chide Joe about giving away the wine. Every last drop of it.
Dave didn’t come back for the remainder of my time in Everglade City, providing proof that vegetables really are good for you. We three friends watched the sunsets, kayaked the mangrove keys, and biked to the gas station that first caught my eye, before I headed back home, making the trip, once again, through the orange groves, taking my foot off the gas and allowing the scent to carry me forward.
Discovering that cheesecake cured a broken heart was better than finding a twenty-dollar bill in your coat pocket at the start of a new season. It was better than a snow day during exams and better than that time when my professor in undergrad had an unfortunate something happen mid-semester that took him out for the rest of the school year and we students all received A’s for a class we could no longer attend. It was graduation good. It was the edible version of a dream job and brought friends together faster than half-priced wine for ladies’ night at the dance club.
We all had experienced that broken heart. The paroxysm of emotion had us each, at some point, seeking solace in each other, in booze, in isolation, and in food.
Like so many others, I ate my emotions.
I cooked. I baked. I stuffed, stirred, crammed and jammed every unforgiving feeling into the wide-open crevasse where my heart used to be. Some foods were better than others at providing comfort and, surprise of all surprises, salad was not one of them. Comfort came with the stuff that sticks with you: sugar, fat, yum, and delicious. The biggest comfort, the one food that embodied comfort the most, and the one food in which the process of making, sharing and eating held the greatest meaning and provided the greatest pleasure was cheesecake.
As true allies do, the cheesecake just showed up one day and it let me know in so many ways that it was going to stick with me. That’s when I knew. So, like a general recruiting soldiers for battle, I gathered the broken-hearted and the disillusioned love-lorn friends for a march against an entire gender and for eternal validation that we were right, and they were wrong. If hell hath no fury like A woman scorned, then imagine a room full of us.
Every Monday night for what may have been years, as if we needed more fuel in the pack of our verbal cannons, we jacked ourselves up on coffee, wine, and sugar and the fatty goodness of cheesecake. The common ground of disappointment had been established. We drew the battle lines. We placed blame with all fingers pointing outward, and cracked jokes at everyone’s expense but our own. We cried, laughed, and ate more cheesecake before making the logical leap to comparative values. What felt like a million reasons why cheesecake was better than the guys we had dated rang out around the kitchen like fireworks after a battle had been won: Cheesecake is rich, we said. Cheesecake is sweet. Cheesecake loves my thighs. The size of your cheesecake doesn’t matter. The list was endless; the laughter loud.
And in the aftermath of an empty plate, dating resumed. Some friends got married and stayed married. For some who tied the knot, the vows resembled the bowl-cut-and-bangs haircut that we thought was cute and edgy until we got one for ourselves and realized it was the same cut we had when we were eight and then we had to wait for the bangs to grow out before anything could be done with the do that did nothing for us but make mom jeans look appropriate. Others moved to Argentina and never had husbands or boyfriends, only lovers.
I was mom jeans. I was the regrettable haircut. I gave marriage my best shot but missed the happily-ever-after target by forever minus nine years and ten months. Back to the kitchen I went, stand mixer ready, cream cheese at room temperature and oven on, to bake away the bad feelings and stuff my gullet with better-luck-next-time cheesecake.
There has been a long line of cheesecakes coming out of the oven. There was the liar-liar-pants-on-fire cheesecake, it’s-not-you-it’s-me cheesecake, and I-deserve-better-than-that cheesecake to name a few in repertoire that has expanded like my pant size over the years.
The disenchantment of dating gone wrong gets a water bath while my eternal well of hope bakes at 350 degrees for between sixty and seventy-five minutes. I wait. I bake. I walk my dog. I try again, optimistic that this next cheesecake will finally offer the sweet aroma of yes-and-always.
Making the leap from a sugar laden, cool whip infused refrigerator cake to a REAL cheesecake was an accident. It wasn’t like a fall down the steps accident or toilet paper on your shoe accident, rather it was an unwillingness to question, speak up on my own behalf or even utter full words that left me spiraling into an abyss of dubiety, questioning everything I thought I knew and then some accident.
In the last two years of my five and a half year stint in undergrad, I found my new Donny—my new “cutest boy in the room” crush. I didn’t want to date him. I just wanted to look at him, but he wore me down. He just kept showing up and doing things right.
After almost one-hundred Sundays together, the two of us went out for our typical Sunday brunch: there was a buffet; there were mimosas. He began the conversation by talking about the taboo topic of my impending graduation. I wasn’t having it. I wasn’t going to entertain the idea of growing up by talking about finishing college. I postponed graduation indefinitely. The boyfriend wanted to talk about that. He wanted to plan for a future. I wasn’t ready for a future. I wasn’t done with college. I hadn’t taken basket weaving yet. African Dance was only offered in fall. I had to go for one more year. The student loans were waiting for my deferment plan.
There was no way he could have ever seen the panic overwhelm me. Inside my head were next year’s offering of classes, each one flashing like a vacancy sign in the eternal vacation of delayed academic achievement. The words were building up pressure like a shaken can of soda. The top popped. I looked at my perfect boyfriend and said, “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” He froze like a deer in the headlights the moment before the Mack truck runs him over. I kept on truckin’ and told him something along the lines of “this just doesn’t feel right.”
He sat motionless for a long time. Not one for arguments, with a subtle nod and a quiet, “okay” he left. As the restaurant door closed behind him, the dam broke. Head in hands and salty tears running down to my elbows, I wailed. I never saw that coming. I continued to wail long after the waiter asked me to leave.
The boyfriend never looked back. He was gone. I didn’t see that coming, either.
It was my first major break up and I was miserable. I was young. I didn’t believe that love would come again so I stayed in my misery wondering why he didn’t come back.
The saying is that misery loves company. I discovered that misery doesn’t love company. It loves cheesecake.
One dreary Monday in Wisconsin, I had learned the cure for the broken heart.
I lived in an old Victorian house with four other co-eds. Aside from Ruth, who was studying to become a nun, the rest of us were routinely in and out of relationships. Two of those relationships ended up in marriage (three if you include Ruth’s vows to God).
For months after the breakup, while my roommates were all out with their dates—except for Ruth, who was in her room courting God-I disguised myself as a lump of blankets and used tissues in the loneliness of my bedroom. Monday nights the blanket pile that was me relocated to the living room to watch Northern Exposure. Each week, as I waited for Joel and Maggie to break their tension with a kiss, hope emerged that THIS week John Corbett would cure my sadness by climbing through the television and taking my heart ache away.
Watching Northern Exposure meant ordering pizza. One fateful night, dessert came with the pie. They had cheesecake said the guy on the phone. It was included.
Recalling the cheesecake from my childhood, I was in no mood for sugar and canned cherries but saying ‘no’ took too much effort.
The pizza arrived along with another box bearing cheesecake. To my surprise, the cheesecake was not square! In all of my 20 some years, I had only known cheesecake made in a 13 x 9” pan and cut in squares. There were no cherries on top. My mind was blown. All my life, cheesecake and cherry cheesecake were as synonymous as prime rib on Saturday night and ham sandwiches on Sunday after service church gatherings.
I stared at the cheesecake for quite some time contemplating all that was wrong with this picture. This wasn’t cheesecake. This wasn’t what I didn’t agree or didn’t not agree to have delivered free with my pizza. But it had redemption values: free, and covered in chocolate.
A fork made its way to the chocolate, skimming it off the top like something sacred. Then I tip-toed the fork prongs into the cheesecake like it was Brussel sprouts and I was five. Into my mouth it went, eyes closed, and face already scrunched up, prepared to hate it.
Here’s what I learned: This was BAKED cheesecake, and it was divine! It didn’t come from a box labelled “Jell-O”. It wasn’t made with Cool-Whip. This was creamy and rich and unlike anything I had ever tasted in my entire life. I fell in love—truly in love—for the first time….with cheesecake.
I became obsessed. Questions came up: What made this so heavenly? Why was it shaped in a wedge? Could I make this? What ex-boyfriend?
I had a new mission. Answers to my cheesecake questions were out there. I just had to find them. This was pre-internet 1991, which meant I picked up the only phone that existed and physically dialed numbers. I called everyone in my address book and asked for cheesecake recipes. Recipes came in the mail by the dozens, each with a note claiming this recipe to be the best.
I’ve yet to master the original bliss of that first cheesecake. It’s like trying to re-create a first kiss. Even without the anticipation or the romantic tension, each recipe mended my heart a little more. The more I baked, the better I felt.
The boyfriend vanished forever, but cheesecake…cheesecake has been with me ever since. This is love.
For most of my life, I thought cheesecake sounded rather disgusting. As a kid, Cheesecake Factory wasn’t around to make the over-the-top, highly-sugared, and indulgent introduction to what would later become the love of my life. No. Not even close. At that time, it wasn’t boys who had cooties. It was cheesecake.
A natural Wisconsinite, cheese was a savory addition to any meal and sometimes even the meal itself: Macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese soup, and on daring days, cheese soup with broccoli. A gravy boat brimming with melted cheese donned almost every mealtime setting and bribed us to eat cooked vegetables or broiled fish with a promise of a pour.
For everything we didn’t like, cheese was the solution. As I knew cheese back in those days, it was orange, slightly salty, and came in two varieties that I liked: American and Velveeta.
If we were having a fancy dinner, a green, shiny cardboard tube of Kraft powdered parmesan was on hand and was accompanied with a curt reminder that one cannister needed to grace all the plates at the table.
Cottage cheese was for people who dieted like my mom, or people who were old like my grandmother. Dieting cheese wore dots of pepper and was spooned out of a bowl with slices of fresh veggies. It was still cheese and could be tolerated if you, for some reason, had to eat it.
Cheese was never part of dessert.
My grandma Dorothy almost ruined cheese in its entirety for the grandkids one year. She lovingly took my brothers and I to a cheese factory to witness the miracle of curds. The glory of our proud dairy heritage was just behind the brown steel door and I thought it was going to be like visiting Great Uncle Guido at the Ambrosia Chocolate factory in downtown Milwaukee. The air at the chocolate factory smelled so sweet that you could walk with your mouth open and feel cavities forming on your teeth. It made you want to lick all sorts of surfaces to see if the whole place was made of chocolate. It was what I imagined heaven smelled like.
No one can prepare you for the smell of a cheese factory. You definitely want to keep you mouth closed walking into one…probably your eyes, too.
The fetor branded my memory like an iron right out of the fire and I swore off of cheese for a longer time than it took my tiny little nose hairs to grow back.
It’s fermenting milk—an entire building of it.
The idea of cheese and cake in one flavor was about as appealing as a fish cookie, possibly even in that same factory.
My grandmothers, Dorothy and Mary Anne, who didn’t necessarily get along, had a shared recipe for cheesecake that, for whatever reason, I didn’t know was cheesecake until an age where I should have been embarrassed not to know otherwise.
They called it refrigerator cake. It was a non-bake version of what I now know is cheesecake and it had enough sugar in it to give the air at the chocolate factory a run in the cavity competition. This cheesecake showed up at all special occasions such as birthdays, reunions, marriages and divorces. It was there for many a counseling session as I learned all the things love wasn’t and it was a favorite and sought-after dessert by anyone who had ever had a slice, including me.
I learned to make this cheesecake according to their recipe and finally figured out that cheesecake does not have cooties nor is it disgusting. The recipe has since been modified to meet the particulars of my adult palate, and dare I say it’s even a bit better than its former self.
The grandmas’ cheesecake, even my rendition of it, was nor is the kind of cheesecake that would inspire a young twenty-year old college kid to declare war on a gender, find truce in the kitchen, and spend the next thirty years threatening to write a book about it. The cheesecake was good but it wasn’t “who needs men anyway” good. It was nostalgia good. It was a simple life good. It was a hug from grandma good.
It was the only cheesecake I had known and almost made it to the alter with me, except by that time, I had found another cheesecake…
Regardless of wondering how I came to the conclusion around cheesecake being better than men or why it took so long, know that these ponderings reflect both the very nature of love and the irrefutable deliciousness of cheesecake. The book-to-be isn’t about hating men. It’s about loving cheesecake a little bit more.
Love is a wonderful thing. When you have it, when you are in it, when it is all around you, nothing else seems to matter. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, says that love is the highest achievement we can reach and that in the worst times of his imprisonment it was love that got him through. He ascribed love as our highest goal, our deepest meaning, and our Truth.
I thought it was a spotless house and a blemish free complexion. I feel I may have been misguided somewhere in my youth.
Donny was my first love. We were in the second grade and he was the cutest boy in the class.
Donny and I, upon the first day of second grade, became almost inseparable, sitting next to each other during reading time, playing together at recess, saving each other a seat at lunch, and even playing together after school and on weekends. My eight-year-old heart had found its twin flame. I felt inspired to do things like write our names with swirls and arrows, wear nail polish, and beg my mom for “nylons…not tights.” I was clear to let her know that this was not the puppy love of first grade. This was the real thing. My mom catered to my insistence so far as to agree to purchase tinted lip gloss from an Avon lady who lived next door to Donny and his family.
The Avon lady had a small light blue cottage with a laundry line connecting the front of her house to metal cross in her front yard , beyond which was a white statuesque Virgin Mary birdfeeder. The Avon lady seemed to always be out there, like round floral angel, taking down and putting up more laundry. She was what I imagined Kansas to look like.
News spread of her fruit scented lip glosses and peel-off cucumber masks. She was flocked by elementary aged girls on the regular. We were like kittens lapping up milk in a kitchen that smelled like lilacs and lily of the valley, vying over make-up selections. She was kind enough to give us all our own catalogs to peruse and samples to take home to our mothers. I would be hard-pressed to imagine that my mom ever saw a single sample of make-up.
The heckling from my brothers around my little crush was as endless as my browsing that Avon catalog in an effort to up my love game.
At the end of third grade, still enflamed and starry-eyed in my now long-term relationship with Donny, I learned a little more about this love thing. I was nine. I remember it like it was yesterday.
We lived in what used to be the country but is now puzzles of paved and treeless streets packed tight with McMansions and SUV’s. When I grew up, the subdivision was just a field with corn. Our houses were about two miles apart by my adult estimate. As a kid, it was no more than a bike ride.
I’d bike through the subdivision on one side of the field, past Kimmie’s house and David’s house and Carrie’s house, through a small forest and along the edge of the long corn field, to cross the country highway to Donny’s house, where everything was as picture perfect as one could imagine.
Two years of peddling this route back and forth left no surprises. I knew every rock, pothole, object and house along the way. I knew when I got to Donny’s house, which was vertical wooden clapboard painted green with a brown front entry door and silk wreath for every season, the Avon lady would be on my left and Donny would be sitting on his front step waiting for my arrival.
In the bliss of this momentum, I saw what I never thought possible. Donny’s house was empty and a “For Sale”sign stabbed the front yard.
The Avon lady, tending to her laundry, yelled out, “They aren’t there, honey. They moved.” They were gone. I stared for a long time, noticing what was missing. There wasn’t a ball in the yard or a flowerpot on the front porch. The wreath on the door was gone. Everything was missing: Donny, his bike, and a note to say good-bye. Right there, on his front lawn with one leg as a kickstand and the other still on the peddle, I felt my little heart shatter in my body, and it came out my eyes as painful little shards of water called tears.
Slowly, I turned myself around, shocked and dismayed, and cried my nine-year old eyes out all the way home.
So began my love life.
The days, weeks, and months after this devastating event did not impress any memories into my squishy little think tank of a brain, but I know my mom well enough to imagine that she probably supplied me with dessert as consolation. It was her way. It was her mother’s way. It was her mother’s mother’s way. Bakery was the generational cure for all of life’s ails; lost dogs, failed tests, upset tummies and broken hearts. I loved deeply, hurt all the way through, and filled my feelings with food.
Though Donny was never seen again, the desserts arrived in abundance and I eventually moved on to have other childhood crushes with Randy, Pete and Dusty. I learned that love is a phoenix and that broken hearts can mend. I also learned that sometimes life’s bitter moments can be made a little sweeter with a bit of cake…cheesecake, especially.
It’s been a while since I’ve made a cheesecake. I’m overdue.
I may have overdosed on cream cheese a while back. I’m still in recovery.
Two years ago, when I opened up my kitchen to become the test kitchen for cheesecakes (all self-proclaimed and not state certified in any way), I was unaware of the aftermath. For almost a year, I made a minimum of two cheesecakes a week, sometimes three, occasionally more. I was testing flavors as well as liquid-to-cream cheese ratios. Baking is delicious science. Only one out of the over 130 cheesecakes could be listed as a ‘fail,’ and I’ve already blogged about that one. Most were pleasant and there were a few, approximately 28, that nailed it. Those recipes are in the book.
As fun and scrumptious as it all was, I didn’t expect a few things that hindsight says maybe I should have.
A proper cheesecake is baked in a water bath. A pan of water in the oven creates a steamy environment, allowing the cheesecake to rise to its full potential and generate a texture that is not too unlike a kiss. The steamier the better on all accounts.
An occasional oven full of steam has no long-lasting impact on your appliance. Daily steam, however, does. The interior of my twenty-year-old Maytag oven looks like road-side debris long forgotten by special pick-up. It’s rusty and has a calcified crust on parts of it. The temperature stopped being consistent about twenty cheesecakes in. I nurse this stove like it’s on life support, in short, because it is.
I pray for my oven. May she last until the book is published and the proceeds can give her a proper send off. May I, at that time, convert to gas and live happily ever after with a La Cornue.
I’ll start practicing my French to properly welcome the range.
Another unintended consequence of baking so many cheesecakes goes beyond dish-pan hands and right into pants that no longer fit. This goes past muffin top and into carrying-twins-to-term weight. I tried shifting blame on 2020, pointing fingers at the pandemic and charging menopause with aiding and abetting, but the last notch on my waist-strangling belt tells me that this is the result of 2019 and close to 135 cheesecakes. Merde.
My padded chin keeps my head from dropping too far in shame. It’s like I have a built-in head rest. Enfer.
I bought new running shoes with high hopes that I might actually run. The good intentions were there but running with a bowl of pudding strapped to my midsection only distracts from the punctuated bounce of my ass each time a foot hits the ground. Putain Je deteste courir.
The last consequence of so much baking is expectation. I’ve been dubbed “the cheesecake queen” and people have been asking for more. I get it. If I hadn’t eaten enough cream cheese to build summer homes for at least a third of the employees at Philadelphia Cream Cheese Company, I’d want more, too. I’ll bake again when my arteries clear and my pants fit. Until then, qu’ils mangent de gateau. Just not cheese cake.
It’s cuffing season. If you don’t know what that is, Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it this way:
Cuffing season refers to a period of time where single people begin looking for short term partnerships to pass the colder months of the year. Cuffing season usually begins in October and lasts until just after Valentine’s Day.
This year it started late. Global warming, I’m certain. Or maybe I just live too far south. Either way, it has begun.
Last year’s prized Cuff came crawling out from under the rock he found himself under shortly after February. Yup. Blindly cuffed. And now that it’s cold outside again, he wants back in the good graces. There are so many things I want to say about that (and to him), but it all sounds remarkably a lot like ‘duck cough.’
Did I know it was cuffing season? Ever? No. I had never heard of it. I thought it was fall…as in “fall in love.” Little did I know that it was “fall for this crap again.” Once enlightened to this magical season and all of its wonders, I did a dear-diary review with the lightbulb brightly lit above my head. The Ah-ha moments thereafter were shaken off with self-degrading thoughts. Idiot came up a lot as did eternal ducking optimistic fool.
I have had consistently single summers for many summers in a row. I blamed an ill-fitting bikini.
About a month ago, text messages began to appear offering well wishes and a chance to catch up. I found myself on calls with multiple past haunts, playing nice in conversations that were tinged with the scent of baited hooks; plans to talk more or get together soon. Fly 1,700 miles or just drive nine all came with a side of “it would be good to see you.”
I began to notice an array of men at the grocery store lingering in the produce section and attempting uncomfortable eye-contact, or worse, conversation. I put the squash and beans down and went to the back of the store for a pound of bacon. Giving up vegetables was never so easy.
Shorter days mean longer nights and winter means snuggling up and staying warm. This is a lethal combination for the hopeful hearted. All animals have this season and it’s called a rut. And like the doe chased by the buck in my back yard, I have been on the unwelcomed receiving end of short term “relationships” that sneak up from behind and have you wondering what the hell just happened.
I haven’t been in a rut. I’ve been cuffed.
This season, I’m not playing the cuff-and-release game. I have a dog now and she keeps me company just fine. The pandemic (the stay-safe-at-home order) is wrapping me up in feeling good about staying solidly solo for a while longer…maybe until just past Valentine’s Day. Let the joy of this season be about the holidays, good friends, loud laughter, long-lasting scented candles and cheesecake for everyone.
As a self-identified list maker, I find lists incredibly helpful. For many of us, weekday obligations suck the living daylights out of us and render us relatively useless until Saturday mornings, when we awaken the superhero for her two-day, death defying feat of household chores.
Saturday mornings the pen hits the paper: wash the dishes, do the laundry, vacuum, pay bills, garden or shovel (season dependent), dust, sweep, recycle, garbage out, scrub the toilets, change the furnace filter, wash a window, pick up dog poop from the yard, grocery shop, go to the hardware store for that one thing you forgot last weekend, et cetera, et cetera, and ending with what you really want to do such as go for a hike, ride bike, be social, paint, and write.
Items get crossed off the list just as quickly as new items are added on. The fun stuff gets moved to the bottom of page three.
Work starts after the second cup of coffee and ends when my back screams for a salt bath and some pain relievers. Sometimes it ends when the couch calls and the last bit of news has wrapped up and it’s time for the late show which I never watch because at that point, going horizontal means going to sleep whether I want to or not.
Put Sunday on repeat. Notice what hasn’t been done on Saturday and work to finish off the list, again, putting the best stuff last like it’s a reward for the punishment endured by what is now day two of hard physical labor.
Lists have helped me to focus. They helped me to break down the steps for remodeling the kitchen, landscaping a yard, and have kept me in clean clothes. Without the list, I’d free-fall into the chaos of the untethered mind, and wonder what to do first so I could get to the part of what to do last.
The unfortunate reality is that the stuff that is last on the list, the good stuff—the fun stuff—the stuff we actually enjoy doing—never gets crossed off rather relocated to the next week’s list with a promise that NEXT weekend I’m going to have some fun.
The glaring err in this habit was that the fun stuff, the creative stuff, never got to happen. Writing the book took a lot longer than I had planned because getting the dog poo off the lawn took precedence over what felt like an indulgence in creativity. Eradicating the dust bunny population was more important on Saturdays than working on my book.
In an effort to shift the defeating paradigm of what had become an uncreative life, I decided to go list-free for a day. The goal was to engage in writing and art making first and then see what happened. Here’s what happened:
Got up. Fed the pets. Made coffee. Drank coffee. Journaled while drinking said coffee about not having a list. Put the dog outside on a yard lead. Threw in a load of laundry. Forget about the load of laundry and the dog. Pulled out the vacuum. Remembered to not do chores first. Decided to walk the dog instead. Short walk because noticed weeds in cracks of driveway and sidewalk as we left the yard. Upon return from walking the dog, noticed (again) the weeds. Decided to pull weeds. Put dog in the house. Swept the back patio instead of pull weeds. Pet the cat. Consulted with said cat as to what I should be doing. Cat said meow. Went to studio to dismantle current project. Left it quasi-dismantled. Remember the coffee pot was still on. Walked to kitchen to turn off coffee pot and remembered that I wanted to build a shelf for the kitchen to put my cookbooks on. Pulled out cookbooks. Found a recipe that looked good. Pulled out ingredients for recipe and put them on the counter. Felt heat of coffee pot. Remembered that I forget to turn it off and finally turned it off. Decided I was hungry. Put ingredients away for recipe. Made a bowl of oatmeal. Ventured outside to the shed. Pulled out power tools and set them outside to build shelf. Pet the cat. Walked around the yard. Made mental notes (not a list) of places where weeds had sprouted. Walked in the house and made an internal lap. Decided to clean the toilets. Washed mirrors. Remembered oatmeal was still in the microwave. Ate oatmeal. Gathered wood for shelf. Came in house for tape measure, forgot tape measure and made the bed. Brushed my teeth. Finally remembered the laundry and switched loads. Cleaned sinks. Visited studio. Rearranged mess in the studio. Consulted cat once again. Visited writing desk. Saw a list of agents to contact and walked away from list. Walked outside, pulled a weed and wondered if I’ve turned off the coffee pot. Walked inside and noticed dishes in the sink. Did dishes. Noticed power tools outside. Measured wood and made a few cuts. Brought wood inside. Dog wanted to go out. Put dog on back patio.
At that point, it was only 10am and I was confused, disoriented, and a bit tired. Not making a list was not helping me to re-join my body, mind and soul with the fun stuff I had promised myself I’d do. I continued.
Another lap around the inside of the house. Another lap outside. Pet the cat, pulled some weeds, decided a tree needed to be trimmed, pulled out extended saw and leaned it against tree and came to the conclusion that I needed a nap. Napped. Woke to a crack of thunder and heard rain. Remembered that power tools were not only outside but plugged in, ran outside to amend this err. Got the wet power tools into shed and used my wet hands to unplug them in haste. Thanked God I lived to tell about it and then watched lightening and heard the incredible silence as the power went out in the neighborhood.
I stood in the rain, eyes closed, and tried to rationalize that there was no way this was my fault.
In the silence of the powerless and diminishing day, a thought occurred to me that not having a list was not the solution to solving the problem around not having enough creativity. The issue was prioritizing and the solution, it seemed, was permission.
I let that soak in like the rain on everything I left outside, including myself and the dog.
Once inside and dried off, I sat at the computer and created a permission slip. I printed it off, filled it out and stuck it on the fridge. I gave myself permission to have fun. I gave myself permission to make writing and art my priorities. Vacuuming could wait.
Every weekend since, I re-read the note. I am reminded that engaging in what I love to do is just as important as meeting my basic needs. It IS a basic need. Doing what I have to feels like just getting by. Doing what I love to do feels like purpose.
It has taken a year to complete the fifth version of the manuscript and it wouldn’t have happened at all had I not given myself permission to work on it first. I gave myself permission to be sassy in my writing style. I gave myself permission to be honest with how I felt. I gave myself permission to find success in my own happiness.
I am happy and I am currently reaching out to agents whom I hope will vie for the book, get it to a publisher and up my happiness quotient exponentially.