Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Making Memories, Baking Memories

day 89

Sweet Recall by Wanda Fleming
SKIRT Magazine, October 2008

Your house smells like cookies.”
That’s what the delivery guy says as he drags in my boxes.
River Girls Lavender Lemon Tea Cakes Soap
For the past year, he has race-walked my pavement in his brown pants and shirt. Today, however, is his last day. He’s going back to school, but first he’s taking a week off to bake cakes.
“Cakes? Really?” I raise my brow.
“Yeah, my mom used to make pound cake and this big monster chocolate cake for our family reunion, but now she’s in a nursing home.”
His mother suffers from dementia, that cruel slight window between a bad memory and Alzheimer’s. Two years ago, she dumped a tablespoon rather than a teaspoon of salt into her prized pound cake. A year later, she misread three cups of milk for eight. Then she couldn’t find the recipes at all.
The delivery guy took over. He recounts digging through a kitchen of clutter, through dog-eared cookbooks missing their spines and magazine clips yellowed and stained. He rescued the recipes.
He admits it. Last year was touch and go. “People stared at me and my cakes. They were daring me to be as good as my mom.”
This year, however, he thinks they won’t have a choice. They’ll be bowled over. He’s been practicing, and his cakes are now near perfect. He knows this because he’s been sneaking samples to his mom.
That’s when she perks up and remembers him best, when they talk cake talk—the right way to sift flour, to whip butter, to spread frosting without pulling up the cake’s top layer like a misplaced carpet.
I’m also baking, which is why he smells cookies. Three hundred sixty four of them, to be exact. Enter the Lemon Bars.
Rife with creases, my own prized recipe has survived a dishwasher spin, censure of its best ingredients by health experts, and two decades of holidays. Other dishes have been abandoned or altered for so-called healthy living.
Meat has gone the way of the graveyard, including my mother’s fried chicken with its paprika-speckled crust. I no longer freeze my father’s yolk-rich ice cream. My chili now boasts a trio of beans: pinto, red and black.
This has been my draconian answer to a dying metabolism. It’s my effort to go down swinging without the curse of breathlessness and an oozing muffin gut. But once a year, like my delivery guy, a family tradition unfolds, and I stoke its every indulgence. 

I purchase new cookie sheets with shiny unblemished surfaces. I buy parchment and wax papers like my South Carolina-born granddaddy, a chef on the railroads, once did. I scour the markets for butter, sugars and lemons. The frenetic baking begins.
Hundreds of cookies, molded and shaped, baked to golden-brown bottoms. The family collection of eight shifts slightly with two new rotated each year. Yet, change is often met with consternation.
“What? White chocolate peppermint patties? Pretty, but where are the macaroons?”
“Molasses crinkles with nutmeg? Nice—but they’re not replacing my peanut butter chews, I hope?!”
Tradition is a taskmaster. The lemon bars, their tart custard poured and baked on a crust, perennially head the leader board. The chocolate chip cookies with their trio of semisweet, milk and white chocolates fall one pace behind.
Oh sure, I hear it. The cacophony of food police. Their members tsk-tsk this cookie fête—its million grams of cholesterol, its hundred pounds of fat. The animal activists want my soul just for the eggs and butter. National Action Against Obesity thinks I should lavish such care on making certain I annually fit the dress I once wed in. And Dr. Atkins rebukes from his grave at my full-throttle submission to sugar.
And yet for 12 hours, this kitchen swells with conversation and hands. The children occasionally pass through and show off the lessons of earlier years, they roll the lemons and crack the nuts and measure the flour with precision. We whisk the yolks to pale yellow. I roll and press the buttery dough, leaving no rips or tears.
Past midnight with flour in my hair and my helpers long asleep, I fan the lemon bars on platters and begin to sprinkle powdered sugar. This I know I could forgo. I could leave them naked and cut the calories by at least 22.5, but I do not. I sift and layer, and layer again, the flyaway airy sugar. I dust until the tiniest hint of yellow peeks through.
Sometimes food is just remembrance.
Tomorrow the generations will descend on the cookies—the neighbors next door, the 81-year-old in-laws, the nieces, nephews and siblings. They’ll eye the bars and scoop up their favorites just as my delivery guy travels across town to pick up his mother. He’ll drive her along the parkway. The sun will shine through the woods, and they will talk cake talk.

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