Kaye Dacus just hosted a contest at her blog to promote her new book Menu for Romance. It’s a modern romance set in the same Louisianna town asher first book Stand-In Groom; the main character is a chef. So entrants had to write a 500-1,000 word essay about their favorite foods.
She announced the winners today. Those who entered but didn’t win the grand prize were entered in a drawing for other prizes. I was delighted to win one of the second-place prizes: one of her new books, a related DVD, and a gift card to Amazon!
The grand prize winner wrote a moving essay about cooking hamburgers with her dad on her first trip home from college. When I was in Colorado last week, I came across journal entries and a newspaper story I wrote about my first trip home from college, so those emotions were fresh to me, and Liz did a great job capturing them.
Here’s my entry. I have many favorite foods, but I chose this one as a little gift to Matthew. I did this while I was gone last week, so he has no idea. I can’t wait for him to discover this! A big thank-you to my friends who edited this for me.
“Mancake” by Becky Castle Miller
My friend Matthew froze, fork in mouth. The college buddies around us, all in on the secret, shoveled cheesecake into their concealed smirks. It was the first time I had ever left this life-of-the-party extrovert speechless. His silenced reaction made me happier than the enthusiastic delight I’d been anticipating for hours.
Earlier that day, I had slipped out of the off-campus house where a group of us were crashing before dispersing for the summer. At the grocery store, I built a tower in my shopping cart: five packages of Philadelphia, a box of Honey Maid, a half-dozen eggs. Ten dollars equaled a sizable sum to my thin wallet, but I pictured his green eyes crinkling in a smile and swiped my debit card.
Hurrying back to the house, I rummaged through the unfamiliar cupboards. Mixing bowls, measuring cups, electric beater; check. As I assembled my baking arsenal, I meandered through my memories of our freshman year. A ready laugh, gentlemanly manners, butterflies in my belly the first time he edited a newspaper story for me; check. His red ink on the page meant more to me than a Valentine – at last I had found a literate (male) peer!
I dumped neat graham cracker squares into a Ziploc bag and pounded them into crumbs. Unable to find a rolling pin, I pressed a meat tenderizer into service, pulverizing the bag and dusting the linoleum with dessert sand. Butter swirled like melted dandelions into the graham cracker flakes. I stirred in gritty sugar granules and pressed the warm mixture into a springform pan. Reflections rose of the hours we had spent swapping anecdotes, like the way his mother’s promise of cheesecake for a high score prompted his brain and stomach to pony up a 1500 on the SAT.
As the crust briefly browned in the oven, I unwrapped each package of cream cheese, licking the soft, sweet smears off the foil. The steady tambourine of the beaters against the sides of the metal bowl became white noise as I recalled the friendly rivalry of our unplanned poetry slam. I had one-upped his rhythmic invitation to the first meeting of our literary club with my long RSVP that matched his meter and rhyme scheme exactly.
The timer dinged, reminding me to check the crust. Perfectly crispy.
I creamed in the sugar then added vanilla and milk. Carefully cracking eggshells, I thought about the gut-twisting email I had opened one night: “We can’t spend time together any more…I’m too emotionally invested, and I’m still committed to not dating this year.” The heartbreaking weeks until we reconciled our friendship ceased to matter after the all-night conversation in which he confided that the romantic sonnet he’d shared with our literary club was actually about me. Twitterpated — that’s how my girlfriends described my demeanor the entire next day.
Six egg yolks, added one at a time, lent their golden tone to the wedding-dress-white batter. The spatula silently spread the finished filling over the almond-brown crust. I slid the cheesecake into the oven where it would bake at 200 degrees for several hours.
I pondered the ambiguity of our current relationship status while I dressed for the commencement ceremony where Matthew was singing with the university chorale. I would be heading to China while he jetted off to New Zealand, interest expressed but no commitment communicated. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, I was determined to test the axiom.
When I returned to the house ahead of him, a scent warmer than any vanilla candle greeted me. Caramel on top, glossy like the finish of satin paint, the cheesecake awaited its debut. I hid it in the fridge until everyone congregated for dessert after the evening’s trip to the symphony.
Behind his back, I carefully removed the springform ring, showing a three-inch-thick rainbow in shades of tiramisu.
When I served his plate, he raised an eyebrow. A notorious cheesecake critic, he would not be kind to any specimen that fell short of the standard: his mother’s genius-making cheesecake. With Simon Cowell-like precision, he sniffed to begin his inspection. It passed the first test: “This smells like my mother’s cheesecake,” he said.
He cut into the slice, ears tuned for the tell-tale “thup” he had always told me marked a properly textured cheesecake. It passed the second test: “This sounds like my mother’s cheesecake.”
Awaiting the final verdict, I tasted my wares. Heavy on the tongue, sweet without being cloying, smooth as dulce de leche, it passed my test: it was the best cheesecake I’d ever eaten.
When he finally took a bite, Matthew paused. He later confessed that if he’d had a ring in his pocket, he would have proposed right then. Around the mouthful, he managed, “This tastes like my mother’s cheesecake!”
“It is your mother’s cheesecake!” I revealed with a grin. “I emailed your sister for the recipe.”
It took him 18 months to get that ring, but he did propose. Two years later, we served cheesecake at our wedding.
That’s us at our annual symphony outing a year later. Thanks, Lisa, for the picture!