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.