Love of sweets
I grew up in a house where german or Serbian style desserts was the norm. Strudels, cookies made with ground up nuts and jams, dense chocolate cakes… baked marvels that people pay a pretty penny for at a New York restaurant and for which Martha Stewart has a recipe that takes 3 days to make. So it is totally normal that my biggest sweet craving is a piece of yellow box cake with vanilla frosting on it or in another form, a cupcake. White, artificial, not butter cream, frosting. Thick and too sweet… I was delighted when the cupcake trend came to our small city of New York. Don’t get me wrong, I love a nice slice of zucchini bread, but nothing grabs my inside craving like something as sickly sweet as a cupcake. Luckily I don’t indulge too often. Growing up, my lunches didn’t have any dessert at all, unless you consider fruit and windmill cookies to be dessert. And when everyone else is pulling out Twinkies and hohos from their lunchsack, you do not consider fruit to be dessert.
My mom used to make our lunches for us in the morning. I know, spoiled! And she would ask what fruit I wanted; banana, apple or orange, and on really awesome mornings, a plum. The kind of plum that when you finally get around to eating it, had that perfect combo of juicy with a firm texture. On most days a plum wasn’t an option and I would choose an orange. My mom would reach into the bottom drawer of the fridge and pull out an orange, nice and perfect looking. Slashing it quickly across the top and bottom and then three times around, longitudinally. She’d put a thin white Marcal napkin (with that super pebbly texture to disguise that it was only 1 ply,) around the orange and then put it into a plastic baggy. Not a ziplock, but the kind you have to fold over onto itself. I privately always hated those bags because I felt they weren’t as good as zip lock bags. I knew the zip lock bags were kind of a wasteful, and usually unnecessary American luxury. How many things for lunch really need to be locked up? But I hated that the fold over baggies seemed so weak and inferior, they literally had no backbone. I hated being put into a position of pitying something I would pull my orange and napkin out of later. Lunchtime would come along and I would pull out my brown paper bag and look inside. I saw 3 baggies. In one, the orange, which by this point had started to look like it was recovering from some kind of plastic surgery. The cuts, fresh and moist hours ago, had dried out and started to recede. Despite it’s looks the orange was almost always delicious and sweet once you bit into it. But just the same I pitied the sad shriveling orange wrapped in a now, translucent 1-ply napkin, inside the sad little fold over baggy. At the judgmental lunch table, I take a look at the other 2 baggies. The second baggy had windmill cookies. I really love windmill cookies…now. But at the time I felt like I had to constantly root for an underdog cookie. Who likes the windmill cookie? It’s a consolation cookie you get after giving blood or coming back from recess when you’re 6. It’s usually accompanied by apple juice, which unless served ice-cold loses its cache.
By the time I was opening the baggy with my sandwich, I felt like I had the world’s most pitiful lunch. I pitied my orange, pitied my windmill cookies and now I was facing my sandwich with no more sympathy and pity to give. I learned to approach these sandwiches my mother so lovingly and thoughtfully and selflessly made for me with caution. Her sandwiches at their best were, in this order: a slice of bread, slice of crisp lettuce (by lunch time wilted), tomato, turkey, mustard, another slice of lettuce and the other slice of bread. Rye or whole wheat or sometimes this hearty Lithuanian bread she got from the Polish market. The worst of my mother’s sandwiches was a tossup. Two thick slices of raw pumpernickel bread with a thick smear of store brand cream cheese. Or two slices of whole wheat bread, a thin, greasy layer of mayo, a thin stretchy leaf of wilted lettuce, a thin slice of turkey breast loaf, or olive loaf-elagh! In the latter sandwiches, the bread becomes slightly smashed by the small, mealy, sad little apple or the plastic surgery recovering orange that is included in bag. And sometime the 1-ply napkin is only half of a 1-ply napkin, indicating my grandmother was visiting. She raised a family of 5 during the war, so it was second nature to tear things in half before using them.
So as I start to open my 3rd baggie, my sandwich, accustomed to prepare for the worst, I immediately recognized it as an entirely different sandwich possibility that I had completely blocked from my memory! A grilled cheese sandwich. I faintly remember the sound of my mother down in the kitchen while I was getting ready; drying, curling and fussing to make my already big hair, bigger. It was the 80s and while it’s cliché to say, I would bet that anyone from this era would, upon reflection have no other explanations to offer for such horrific hair choices other than to say, It was the 80s.
I remembered back to the morning, when I pulled the can of Aquanet (Final Net?? Finesse? Another brand) from under the sink, and I heard the quickened footsteps of my mother rushing toward the frying pan. A long sharp exhale followed by a grrrrrrrr, followed by a gentler sigh, followed by the sound of the silverware drawer being opened. I could hear the clink of the silver and only assume the selection was a knife. Because just like Pavlov’s dog, I knew what was coming next. Quick, brisk scraping for a few minutes over the sink as my mother tries to salvage the burnt grilled cheese sandwiches left too long in the frying pan while she was off multi tasking. Making breakfast, making lunches, working out what would be for dinner and what preparations were needed. Any laundry or sweeping needed? Making sure we (okay mostly just me) got to the bus stop of time. And getting herself ready to get to work by 7 or 730am! You know that saying, we get more done by 8am than most people do all day? My mother, like most amazing moms, was amazing with what she got done in the morning. I feel retched thinking how much easier I could have made her life just by making my lunch. But that would be a story about a different person.
I was starting to come to terms with what I had in front of me for lunch. Based on the timing, I think there was about 5 minutes from the time I heard the scraping to when my mom ushered me out the door with my lunch bag. That means there would have been no time for the sandwiches to cool down before being thrust into the fold over baggy. Which means the now slightly less burnt, in appearance only, grilled cheese sandwich had been steaming itself and what I had in front of me would be a cold, slightly damp, charcoal tinged, cheese sandwich. For some reason this sandwich was the best of all the options. A grilled cheese, even burnt and soggy, was so American, so mainstream. Not weird. Not as weird. Even now, I feel nostalgic for it.
But it was the dessert portion of lunch that mattered. This is where trading came into play. Kids would trade a Twinkie for anything they wanted. Even with “Two” desserts; windmill cookies and an “orange”, I never participated in the trading portion of lunch. But you can imagine the number of kids who wished I would participate in this trading ritual. (zero)
So now I love cupcakes. I think I love them because of how utterly American they are and how sugary sweet they are. When I went out to find my Photo of Love today, I came upon the cupcake street cart with its cupcake lovers sign.
I took some photos and then approached Gamert inside the cart to ask for his portrait. He is from Egypt and unfortunately didn’t speak a ton of English. But from his reaction to the few questions I asked, such as, “What made you choose to sell cupcakes?” and “Do you love them?” I got an impression that he was more of an international business man who saw an opportunity, rather than a keen lover of cupcakes.