Sugar Love

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Now, I don’t know why I like sweets and baked goods so much, though I reckon genetics plays an important part. My mother wasn’t big on baking, however, she is an incredible cook. She would make the required birthday cakes, but I suspect Betty did most of the work there.

I do remember quite clearly her piece de resistance at Christmastime. She would make an elaborate cookie tree, made from gingerbread or possibly sugar cookies. Although, this is my mother we’re talking about. They were probably made from some fancy recipe using star anise, cardamom and only the finest Vietnamese cinnamon harvested by the purest virgins. The woman does nothing half-assed. The cookies, whatever incredible ingredients she used, were shaped like stars, in sizes ranging from massive to bite-sized. These she would stack atop each other, largest to smallest, leaving a small gap between each, until the tower resembled a Christmas tree. Each cookie was glazed with green Royal icing and tinged with white at the edges, to suggest snow. Magnificent. I remember those beautiful and meticulously baked, assembled, and decorated creations, not because of how they tasted (which I assume was delicious), but because when my mom – who, by all accounts, is normally a lovely lady – was baking and constructing, you didn’t want to be within 10 feet of her, let alone engage in conversation, no matter how witty or erudite your point. She will turn on you in an instant and your only defense is to run. She may be tiny, but she’s scrappy and will win any fight, especially when armed with a wooden spoon. Perhaps this is why she wasn’t a great one for breaking out the mixer. It made her angry.

I took French in high school (so obviously I’m fluent), and we did the inevitable unit on French cuisine, with each student required to bring in some French food to sample. How my French teacher thought this would be successfully executed in nearly rural Souderton, Pennsylvania, I’ll never know. This is Pennsylvania Dutch country, where dumplings are a venerated food group and every pizza joint is “an authentic Italian eatery.” I was lucky, though. My mom, having spent her teenage years living in France, volunteered to provide the classic French baked goods – baguettes, éclairs, and some kind of cookie that was supposed to resemble cats’ tongues, which we ultimately scrapped because they just looked icky and opted instead for classic Madeleines. This was truly a labor of love for my mom, and I do not believe she enjoyed it all that much, except for the memories it afforded her as she shaped and cut the baguette dough. Other than those few occasions, I don’t recall her filling the house with all manner of sugary sweets.

Maybe she was trying to protect her children from the inevitable. Possibly, she sensed she couldn’t compete with my dad’s Southern family, who bake in their sleep. My mother sleeps in her sleep. My dad’s mother, my Grandma Back, was a serious baker. And she was an old-fashioned, give-you-diabetes-with-one-piece baker. She lost her legs, and ultimately her life, to diabetes, but my God, that woman could bake. Nothing small, of course. She did everything big – she did have eleven sons, after all (No girls, just boys, in rural Kentucky. That’s right. Go sip your $7 latte and be thankful.). Perhaps Grandma baked to get out of the bedroom, who knows? But the result was a genetic sweet tooth. My dad inherited it, and I’m going to blame mine on him and Grandma’s  jacked up to Jesus layer cakes. To be fair, my mother’s father, Grandpa Starks, used to eat butter sandwiches. No, not bread smeared with a thin layer of butter, but a stick of butter sliced into pats, which he’d sandwich between two slices of white bread. I’ll wait while you finish gagging.

It might be that my mom knew firsthand the downside of butter and sugar and wanted to save me and my brother from it. Sorry, mom. Your efforts were valiant, but it didn’t work. You can’t fight genetics. – excerpted from the essay, “Sugar Love” by Heather Idell, copyright 2017.

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