REVIEW by Emily Stone
Cakewalk, A Memoir
by Kate Moses
The Dial Press, May 2010
Hardcover 350 pp., ISBN: 978-0385342988
Immediately upon finishing Kate Moses’s Cakewalk, I made the author’s “Strawberry Shortcake for My Mother.” Full of cream and sugar, exploding with ripe fruit, and baked with an unexpected kick of ginger, the dessert startlingly captured both the bold sensory experience of being a kid and the more hesitant impulse to reflect upon the past.
A reminiscence of a chaotic childhood, Cakewalk closely follows the conventions of two distinct contemporary nonfiction genres. The first, exemplified by Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, is the cutting but ultimately measured and forgiving story of an unstable family written later in life with a relieved sense of triumph from within a presumably stable one. “Sugar was the mainstay of my diet as a child, present in some abundant form at virtually every meal,” writes Moses, now a novelist and editor who has compiled two anthologies on motherhood. In the first of many exacting catalogues that convey the physical experience of eating, the extraordinary idiosyncrasy of taste, and the syncopated rhythm of meals, Moses explains that
My mother stockpiled soft drinks by the case and Halloween-sized bags of candy year-round in our garage, regularly replenishing a freezer the dimensions of a Roman tomb with stacked boxes of packaged snack cakes, frozen pies, and gallon tubs of ice cream. Even my father, whose personal austerity rivaled that of any Buddhist monk, was a donut pusher who kept Baby Ruth bars under the rolled-up socks in his underwear drawer.
The second genre that Cakewalk conforms to is the foodie memoir, where in a tradition that runs from Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone to Kim Severson’s Spoon Fed, learning to cook is a kind of growing up in itself and the narrative moves from one elaborately-prepared dish to another. The book is made up of thirty-five short chapters, all but two followed by recipes. Whether this was Moses’s intention or not, the presentation allows readers to approach her story as they would a cookbook, dipping in for the rhubarb crisp and the anecdotes surrounding it, skipping over the chocolate chip cookies and the German pancakes, and ultimately deciding on the spiced pecan birthday cake. Cakewalk distinguishes itself as both autobiography and food-writing with its gentle ability to allow food to function on the page as it does in life, as a metaphor for our larger desires and a material component of them, the proclivities and pathologies that surround it’s consumption individual to each one of us.
Moses reaches page 266 before declaring that “I was no longer a child,” and the adult life that follows is a mere coda to the coming of age that preceded it. A function of my own peculiar set of proclivities and pathologies, I’m sure, I tend to be impatient with the literary task of rendering the naïve experiences of youth in language that conveys the insight of adulthood. Though the voice in Cakewalk is consistently compelling and sincere, I flipped quickly through the passages recalling fabled family histories and the retellings of upheavals that moved the author’s family back and forth between Alaska and the lower forty-eight, even the lovable characterizations of teachers who enabled the protagonist’s burgeoning writing career and the lyrical homage to Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto (where Moses eventually settled). What slammed me to a stop was the scene in which Moses returns to her capricious mother’s Anchorage residence after graduating from college only to find that “the house looked like it had been ransacked by secret police” and that the untended refrigerator “was like one of those seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes of a table opulent with gloriously ripe fruit and vegetables, which on closer examination you realize are oozing rot and maggots.”
In a heartbreaking farewell to childhood at the close of that chapter, she drives away from home and into her own life, past a field of wild strawberries longing to be picked.
September 26, 2010