Baking away grief
The fruitcake batter, rich with Brazil nuts, walnuts, pecans, dried cherries, cranberries, and dates, rises slowly. Resisting the overwhelming urge to open the oven door for the third time, I wait to learn if my cakes match my mother’s ones once made at Christmas. She baked for friends and old workmates from the public library; her cakes attained a legendary holiday status as the best fruitcake ever tasted. Trays of mince pies line every surface of my kitchen counter, too. The scallop-shaped button pastries burst with hot, sticky, dried fruit.
Though I bake the mince pies in the shadow of my mother’s history, I adjust the fruitcake recipe with the fruits of my own time. Gone are the maraschino cherries, green candied fruit, and orange peel. Dried cherries and dates, steeped cranberries, freshly roasted green chili, and a hint of ginger replace the familiar holiday fruitcake.
A month before her death, my mother’s memory of baking her jeweled fruitcakes failed her ultimately. “I never bake!” she angrily claimed to those who ate the rich, dense fruitcake slices year after year.
Mince pies triggered more soothing images in my mother’s deteriorating memory. Weeks before her death, she retrieved the baking tins I now use from her cupboard and a jar of mincemeat to bake the dainty pastries.
Entering her apartment, after spending three days and nights in the ICU at my mother’s bedside, when I found my grandmother’s tins and the candied fruit on the kitchen counter, I burst into tears.
Like my mother, I am conscientious about food and purposefully eat smaller portions and leftovers without hesitation. I do not waste food. I love food and will eat anything offered to me except liver and game of any kind, the taste of blood and death is too consuming for me. I relish the simple process of eating with my fingers, moving hands to mouth. I love the earthy smell of green vegetables pulled from the dirt with the sweat of honest labor. The sweet smell of berries and nectarines in summer and apples and rhubarb in autumn reminded me of my grandmother’s flourishing garden and the days when I used to crawl under the netting in the summer heat to pick the pregnant fruit.
Though I ferret out offbeat food vendors like my father, buying fish and vegetable curries with a few Thai bot coins or freshly rolled tortillas from a child on a rural South American road, I do not starve myself as he did. I do not eat raw garlic – an old Ukrainian habit – preferring to suffocate omelets, lasagna, and salads with the pungent cloves of his addiction. I do not compulsively monitor my calorie intake, and my evening meals do not consist of bowls of white rice, either. Instead, I prefer the ecstasies of cheesecake and blindingly rich artichoke dip.
I am also a liar.
I buy twice the food I need if it is on sale, squirreling it away in cupboards and the freezer, yet I ration what I believe, metering it out for a holiday, or a birthday, or for an undisclosed moment when hunger will surely strike. I am lazy about food, too. I skip meals choosing work over food. If I can finish this project, I will have something to eat. Sometimes, I even tell myself that I have to earn the right to eat.
War habits never truly fade, especially when the patterns are not one’s own.
Yet, each time I extract another perfectly browned cake or platter of mince pies from the oven, my addiction to history and my obsession with memory dims a little more. Pressing the ready-made dough into the bottoms of freshly washed and greased tins and spooning fresh mincemeat into the tiny dimples repairs my ruptured union with the past.
Baking might have guided me through the first year of fresh grief, but redemption itself comes in many forms, especially when it silences the politics of bread for good.