One egg. Two cups flour. One cup sugar. One cup shortening. I trace my finger down the ingredient list, hoping that I have everything already. Vanilla. Baking soda. Salt. This recipe promises a cake that is “light, moist, delicious anytime.” It is baked in a nine-by-nine-inch cake pan. It is touted as being versatile, and perfect for the small family.
“Dear friend,” Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook opens, before assuring its reader that it features the tried-and-true, the new-as-tomorrow, the simple and the sophisticated. It boasts that its colour photographs will inspire home chefs to “new culinary heights.” On page five, it encourages one to “think happy thoughts while working and a chore will become a labour of love.” About twenty pages later, it advises that mealtimes should be relaxing, special; that the “buoyant health and feeling of well-being” will be all the thanks needed for the hours spent preparing the food.
This is my mother’s cookbook, a present from when she was young and moving out on her own for the first time, a gift from her own mother to assure that she would not go hungry. Both my mother and I come from the opposite of small families: she, the youngest girl in a family with six children, me the middle child of three. It can be easy to feel lost or forgotten amid so many siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews, where milestones begin to be repeated enough to feel routine. When the firstborn moves away to college, there are tears. When the youngest graduates, not everyone gets the day off work to attend the convocation.
The cookbook’s colour-blocked cover has faded, now held together with duct tape, and her name is written on its inside in her careful penmanship, followed by “Christmas, 1968”. It includes recipes for gelatin desserts, minced clam dip, and a cheese ball that is inadvisably christened a “moss ball.” Every tip, every introduction, every recipe in this book is vaguely sexist, heteronormative, retro. The book is illustrated with strange cartoons in black, red, and blue. The “quick as a wink” frosting features a cross between Dracula and a magician leering from behind a finished dessert. Instructions on how to assemble an “igloo cake” are listed side by side with an image of a hooded figure staring wistfully into an expanse of windswept tundra. The recipe that I’m using, the one for the One Egg Cake, shares a page with a cartoon egg in puffy Shakespearean pantaloons, strumming a mandolin. His eyes are closed, his mouth a round O that emits plump cartoon quarter notes. The book is a relic of its time, a thing that would be easy to mock if it weren’t for how much thought, love, and hope went into the gifting of it all those years ago. You may not be the first, it says, but I won’t let you get lost.
This was the only cookbook I ever used growing up, the other ones on my parents’ shelves being either too intimidating with their long lists of ingredients and complicated culinary techniques, or too chaotic with their hodgepodge of newspaper clippings tucked into their pages. Maybe this is why my parents only really cooked on weekends, why every Thursday was either pizza night or beans and franks. This one is simple, user-friendly. This one is in a four-ring binder, so it lays flat. This one has my mother’s notes softly penciled into its margins. This one is beloved.
I stir the dry ingredients by hand, imagining a young wife thumbing through this recipe book. She’s a slightly cringey, throwback character, but she’s sympathetic. Maybe she’s eager to start a family, to have a baby, to step into the role of a mother, or maybe she feels that she needs something to fill her days, something to justify her time spent at home. The days can feel long and lonely. It’s one thing to move out, quite another to attempt to redefine yourself outside of your first family. Who are we, if not someone’s sister, someone’s daughter? This character isn’t my own mother, not exactly, but rather who I imagine she could have been. My mother always maintained an identity outside of her husband and children – the youngest girl, the one with the nickname that only her sisters could use, the girl from Carroll Street – but that can’t have been easy. She was the only one of her siblings to leave the country, raising her children over a thousand miles from where she grew up. The temptation to slip into a role, to lose herself in an easily defined persona, must have been incredible.
I’ve been making this cake, the One Egg Cake, for the last twenty-five years. My sister and I made it so often we had the recipe memorized, preparing it for a mid-afternoon snack that we half-jokingly, half-snobbishly referred to as “the tea” despite not being British. This tea time was sacrosanct; no one else in our family was ever invited to partake in our overly-frosted cakes and cups of strong orange pekoe. Sometimes we would go so far as to label our confections, as if we lived in a rooming house or dormitory with a shared refrigerator, so that no one else would eat them. Once, our mother, in retaliation, wrote her name on a box of dry butter cookies that she’d picked up at the drugstore on her way home from work. Baffled, we asked her why she had her own cookies.
“Well, you girls have your special treats. These are mine.”
We reacted poorly, defensively. Until that moment, neither my sister nor I had ever truly considered how hurtful and insulting our actions might be to others. We were her girls, her family, the one she had built for herself so far away from where she grew up, and here we were keeping her out. My sister and I invited our mother to “the tea” after that, but something had changed, and we all knew it. We all saw each other as separate, or at least with the potential to be separate.
Back in the present, on this evening in early July, I’m leveling off the flour with a knife and looking at my phone’s small, cracked screen. I haven’t made the cake recently, and while I could draw that troubadour egg from memory, I no longer remember the directions by heart and had to ask my sister to send me a photo of the recipe. I wanted to make the cake for my partner, who will always choose store-bought over homemade, and claims to prefer cake from a mix. I assured him that he would change his mind once he tried the One Egg Cake. There’s something about the early summer that’s so full of promise and new beginnings that it feels nostalgic, like going away to summer camp, or moving out for the first time. I wanted him to have the chance to taste that feeling, too. This will be our first summer here, and I want our house to smell like something that I made, something cherished.
I cream the sugar and shortening with a hand mixer. I use shortening because it’s what the recipe calls for, and I forgot to leave any butter out to soften.
My mother got married when she was twenty-seven. I’ve seen photos of her as a newlywed. She looks the same, only forty-odd years younger. Adding the sugar and shortening to the dry ingredients, I think about how she’s described the early years of her marriage. Skating on outdoor rinks in Toronto while waiting for my father to finish class at the university. Hiking and climbing in Newfoundland, the local guides referring to her as “the girl.” Moving to an island in the Atlantic, famous for its summertime hospitality and red dirt, where people hesitated to invite her over for coffee because she was American. “From away.” That folksy, quaint, acceptable xenophobia. Hearing that phrase makes my skin crawl to this day. How do you define yourself in a new place if that place won’t fully let you in? Do you turn inwards, to your own home, your own family, your own little treats and cakes and rituals?
A memory rises, unbidden. I, an awkward thirteen-year-old, am attending a mandatory “catch up camp” for members of my junior high school orchestra at an unfamiliar middle school that sat next to a funeral home. I had missed the midsummer camp that everyone else had attended because we spent the summers visiting family in Boston and Chicago, cities where we were the ones “from away,” though no one ever said as much. I am sitting in the cafeteria, alone, because most of my friends have deep Canadian roots and came thirty minutes in from family cottages on the shore to attend the session two months ago. I am eating a wrap that my mother prepared, filled with iceberg lettuce, ranch dressing, and grated cheddar cheese. She always preferred baking to cooking. My band teacher, Mr. MacGeralt, sees that I am sitting alone and comes to sit with me.
“That looks good,” he says with a kindly smile, nodding towards my pita bread wrap. No one else in the cafeteria is eating anything like this, nothing nearly so exotic as unleavened bread and Kraft salad dressing. I look at the sandwich that my mother has made me with her own two hands, see her carefully tucking the lettuce and cheese between folds of bread, and, inexplicably, feel tears come to my eyes. I nod in agreement with my teacher as my throat goes dry and I try not to cough.
Years later, in a different century from when that conversation took place, I’ve added the wet and dry ingredients for the cake, and the batter is as smooth as summer cornsilk. I pour the batter into the pan and, as I slide it into the oven, my phone rings. It’s my mother. We chat as I clean up, licking the batter from the mixer and bowl as I’ve done since childhood. She fills me in on the latest news from her sisters, then asks what I’m doing, laughing when I tell her.
“Ah, the One Egg Cake! An oldie but a goodie.”
We hang up and I finish wiping down the counter. On these early summer nights, the soft light seems to last forever. I imagine my newlywed character from before, waiting for her cake to finish, hoping that it turns out okay, thinking of how to ice it to show her partner how much she loves him, these small rituals for small families. Asserting yourself so as not to be lost or forgotten as the years and roles that you play change. I made this for you because I love you. Remember me.
The timer goes off and I slide the cake out of the oven and set it on a wire rack. It looks the same as it always has, maybe a little lopsided because the house we’ve recently bought and moved into is seventy-five years old, built on a hill, and starting to tilt. I don’t care; it smells great, like anyone would want their kitchen to smell. While the cake cools, I go out into the backyard, a space filled with perennials dug up by my mother from her own garden and gifted to me in Ziploc bags, in empty yogurt containers, the roots wrapped in wet paper towels that bleed red with dirt from an island in the Atlantic, a place that was always home for me and that has become home for her. Slowly, I am carving out my own small place, three hours of highway and eight miles of ocean away from that island. I am putting down the roots that have been given to me.