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Culinary Optimism

(by Julia Tagliere)

I am the heiress apparent of a grand tradition in my family: the eternal optimism of the hopeful cook. (If you’ve ever seen the movie Better Off Dead, you may recognize this delusional approach to cooking.)

Like my mother and my grandmother before me, I constantly collect new recipes to try out on my unsuspecting family. I tear them from magazines; snap pictures of them with my phone; buy (and eventually donate) new cookbooks on the regular; and pack multiple recipe boxes with index cards covered in indecipherable scrawls.

In addition to inheriting their culinary optimism and penchant for jam-packed recipe boxes, unfortunately I’ve also inherited my mother and grandmother’s uncanny ability to ruin any recipe, no matter how “simple” or “easy” or “perfect in five minutes” it claims to be. I’ve washed inedible gravy off roasts; I’m perennially flummoxed by bread-making, even with a machine; I’ve burned enough brownies for those fudge-scented briquettes to replace coal as king of the fossil fuels. Even so, my ancestral optimism remains undimmed, and every once in a great while, I achieve sufficiently edible results with a dish for my family to decide it’s safe to add to my repertoire.

One of the handfuls of recipes my mom mastered was for her special lemon cake, which she made for me every year on my birthday because I was a pain in the butt who wouldn’t eat chocolate cake like everybody else. That lemon cake was heaven to me, not just for being scrumptious, but also because it was all mine. She baked it for me every birthday of my life until the year she died, 12 days after my last birthday with her.

I inherited Mom’s recipe box, with all her failures and triumphs, including the recipe for her lemon cake. My daughter was born two years later; her first birthday cake was a gargantuan, lavishly decorated chocolate sheet cake purchased from a local bakery. She screamed and punched at the chocolate-y slice before her, her little face red with fury, so for her next birthday, I took a shot at making my mom’s lemon cake for her; the delight on her face was as sweet as the cake.

My daughter is 22 now, and my lemon cake has become her birthday cake. When we rented a vacation house for a family wedding over her birthday, I baked the cake for her there. When she was in high school, I made it for her to take to school; she brought a fork along and ate most of it herself, straight from the pan. For her birthdays at college, my husband and I drive seven hours round-trip so I can bring her the cake.

My grandmother, my mother, and I may not have been destined to be gourmet cooks, but every birthday, when I make my daughter her lemon cake now, I taste the sweetness of the love baked into it by generations of hopeful cooks. If I can master only one recipe in my lifetime, I’m content that it be this one.


Julia Tagliere is a writer who lives in Maryland and recently completed a master’s degree in writing at Johns Hopkins University. She can be found at

Lemon Cake

1 package lemon velvet or cream cake mix

1 package lemon Jell-o

3/4 c. water

4 eggs, beaten

3/4 c. vegetable or peanut oil

2 c. confectioners’ sugar

juice of 2 lemons

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Combine cake mix, Jell-o, water, eggs, and oil.

Pour into a greased 13 x 9 pan.

Bake for 35 minutes.

While cake is baking, combine confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice.

Remove cake from oven and prick all over with a toothpick.

Pour syrup over hot cake.


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