(by Kresha Richman Warnock)
I’m the adult who still won’t open the package of Girl Scout Thin Mints unless I can give most of them away, because I would finish off the box in one or two sittings. I can’t remember when I didn’t think of myself as the fat sibling. It didn’t seem like the pressure to be thin was equally leveled on my brother, as a boy, or my sister, as the baby. The three of us are all retired now; each has dealt with some kind of food and body image issues all our lives.
I don’t know why we were so obsessed with sweets. We always had them in the house, had dessert every night, but were just supposed to practice some kind of magical self-control. As a child and teen, I could not keep myself away from the cookie jar of forbidden fruit, but because of the family rules, I always did it secretively. The extra pounds served an exclusionary purpose in my mind: fat=ugly=failed girl.
A while ago, my sister and I had a disagreement about “love languages.” I have to admit I find the concept a little irritating, and brushed her off, being the arrogant older sister I am. But if I want to show you some love, I will try to cook for you, make you something that is special to you. I love nothing better than the challenge of figuring out a meal that will please my vegetarian daughter-in-law, my gluten-intolerant and fish-allergic daughter, my formerly keto-diet following brother, my picky eater husband and son-in-law. Those are happy days when I’m cooking, and even happier when I see them enjoy the banquet.
Of course, my mother loved me, but maybe it was her love language to harp constantly about my weight. I know she inherited the fear of fat from her mother, and it spread out through the branches of the family tree to all of us in the next generation—my cousins, my siblings, and me. My siblings acknowledge similar ambivalent feelings about the place of sweets in our family. Fortunately my self-image stopped revolving around my weight (at least as much) as I got older.
But I also got my love of cooking from my mother. A good 1950s housewife, she never succumbed to the tantalizing processed food that many women of that time embraced. She simmered pot roasts and beef tongue; made pots of bland spaghetti sauce, and served her share of hotdogs and hamburgers—cheap food usually because we were living on my dad’s college-professor salary. But she also made her own salad dressing, never used a cake mix, made all the bread for our family of five, and had dinner on the table every evening at 5:30.
Even though she had attained a master's degree in public law and government from Columbia University right before she got married, Mom never really entertained the idea of working (for pay) outside of the home. I think she believed in the Rosie the Riveter
myth—once the men came back from the war, the women needed to give them “their” jobs back. She told me once that because my father made enough to support us, she didn’t need to work for pay. She had tremendous energy and imagination and used her intelligence and skills to work as a civic volunteer, to create art, to be an exemplary housewife and mother. Baking was a small but important part of that.
I remember my mom making the favorite desserts of my siblings: an elaborate sponge roll filled with a custardy chocolate ganache for my sister, the chewy molasses-ginger
cookies that my brother favored. I don’t remember her asking what my favorite was.
Her cakes were scrumptious. My sister and I still make our versions of her moist chocolate cake, which came out of The Scarsdale Cookbook, one of those volumes that women’s groups still put together with a spiral backing. This one is posher than some. Mom grew up in Scarsdale; her family were some of the first Jews to move there in 1923. When I helped my siblings clean out Mom’s house, I took that cookbook home in my suitcase. It was heartwarming to have the original, spattered version of the chocolate cake recipe, an offering of Mrs. Arthur Beach.
Once there was a pan of this cake, with the fudgy frosting, in the big kitchen of our old house in Seattle. Each of we kids were skilled at sneaking bits of it, a practice labeled as “stealing” in our weight-focused home. My brother dribbled crumbs all the way up the stairs to our little sister’s bed, and she was blamed. She eventually “confessed” to the misdeed, although she laid the blame on her imaginary friend, Rosemary Leaf. By the time the truth came out, it was funny to the rest of us. I still don’t think it is to her.
(l. to r., me, Mom, and sister)
Recently, on a cooling late summer evening in Seattle, my brother and sister and I shared a lovely meal in my sister’s verdant backyard. For dessert, she brought out our Aunt Nancy’s famous fruit pie that we both make from time to time. As I bit into the golden peaches and indigo blueberries, whose sweet juices had seeped into the crumbly shortbread crust, I realized: It is my favorite dessert, and my sister had made it especially for me.
Kresha Richman Warnock is a writer who retired from a career as an early childhood educator, college instructor of child development, political activist, and overall nudge. She is currently working on a memoir. She and her husband, Jim, have lived all over the U.S. and now live near Tacoma, Washington, in some proximity to their grown children, the glory of tall Douglas firs, and an occasional glimpse of Mt. Rainier.
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1/3 c. butter
1/2 c. boiling water
1 c. sugar
1 c. unsifted flour
3/4 t. baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 c. sour milk or buttermilk
1 t. vanilla extract
3/4 lb. confectioners' sugar
3 T. melted butter
1 t. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Pour boiling water over chocolate and butter, and stir until melted.
Sift together sugar and flour.
Add flour mixture, baking soda, and salt to chocolate mixture, stirring until smooth.
Add milk, egg, and vanilla extract.
Beat for about 1 minute. The batter will be thin.
Pour into a greased 10-in. tube or Bundt pan, and bake for 15 - 20 minutes.
Cool on a rack before icing.
For icing: Mix together confectioners' sugar, melted butter, and vanilla extract.
Add enough milk to moisten, and beat well.
Pour over cooled cake.