My Family and Sugar

26 May

My brother, Barth, as a baby with his ‘fluffy”

Grandma Lela supervising what I think was my birthday.  Location: the Mapes Farm in the Catskills.  I’m on the left, Margie Garnett is next to the flash, and Grandma Lela is leaning over my Cousin Karen.  Karen and I had birthdays one day apart, August 21 and 22 (mine).  Notice the prominence of the cake.

Sugar.  I could write my life in the moments when I have imbibed sugar.

Recently Robert Lustig, a pediatric hormone specialist who is affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco, has made comments that suggest sugar may cause cancer: “It doesn’t hurt Lustig’s cause that he is a compelling public speaker. His critics argue that what makes him compelling is his practice of taking suggestive evidence and insisting that it’s incontrovertible. Lustig certainly doesn’t dabble in shades of gray. Sugar is not just an empty calorie, he says; its effect on us is much more insidious. ‘It’s not about the calories,’ he says. ‘It has nothing to do with the calories. It’s a poison by itself’”(qtd in Taubes–NYTimes). How could something that has brought so much joy to my family, every branch and previous generation, be a poison?  We date our family history by the consumption of chocolate, including cakes and candy.  Every anniversary and celebration is marked with its own sweet delicacy.

When my cousin Gillian came to Dad’s funeral, her husband Matt remarked that this was definitely a Clark celebration.  He was standing in the reception area at Kendal  looking at the towers of lemon sponge cake and assorted cookies that completed each layer.  He had been introduced to our addiction to sugar in the Clark family from the time he started dating Gillian.  She had shown him how her father Chris squirreled goodies in his cupboards and allotted himself a certain number of treats each day.

One of my favorite mental images of Chris is from 1256 Arlington Road, which is how we have always referred to my grandparents’ home in Lakewood, outside of Cleveland.  In my memory, Chris, who had luxuriated in his bed upstairs until late in the morning, is sitting in the kitchen in his blue plaid bathrobe cackling happily. The sunlight is pouring in the window and Chris is leaning on the half table that is attached to the wall with one elbow while he slathers a piece of toast with grape jelly.  It’s one of my most poignant memories of him.

Chris was not the only one who was catered to in that family.  Cleveland was home to Hough’s Bakery, whose several locations were obeisant to the Sugar God.  My Grandfather Clark would visit Hough’s prior to our arrival.  He would buy white cake for my brother–it was moist, unlike many white cakes, and melted in your mouth.  It was simply beyond description.  In my mother’s mind are childhood memories of its predecessor, a white cake topped with white icing and fresh coconut made by a woman who was a member of a local women’s fundraising group in Lakewood, where they offered up baked goods to make money.  It was a find of my grandfather’s of which he was particularly proud.  The chocolate cake that Grandpa bought for Mom had fudge icing and was extremely rich.  Last but not least, my grandfather would buy jelly roll for Chris.  I liked both the white and the chocolate cake, so I was easy to please.  He regularly bought Danishes for my grandmother, who ate them with her tea and slices of lemon.  She had a bit of a weight problem as an older woman, but Grandpa accommodated her desire for sugar anyway.  She contributed her own baked goods to our festivities, including green apple pie, chocolate delight, and chocolate fudge that she left outside to cool.  Try as she might, my mother was never able to reproduce her mother’s fudge.

My father’s Mapes family was not outdone by my mother’s Clark family.  Since the Mapes lived on a farm and worked hard, the men folk needed quite a bit of fuel and my Grandma Lela provided two desserts: one for lunch and one for dinner.  Her molasses cookies were famous and unfortunately could never to be reproduced by her heirs in the family dessert business partly because of two odd ingredients: coffee and chicken fat.  Chicken fat is not something people keep around these days. Another sugary offering that defined the Mapes on the farm was 1-2-3-4 cake, a yellow cake with 4 eggs, 3 cups of flour, 2 cups of sugar, and 1 cup of butter.  We still eat it when we break bread together, as we did when Cousin John visited with his wife Anne from Hawaii last fall.  It is very rich and not for the timid who have only eaten cake made from the box.  My Uncle Billy introduced a way to eat cake, which involves taking your fork and making holes in the butter cream icing with the tines.  It later came to be known as the Billy Lane trick.

The pie was famous in this family as well.  I have mentioned my Aunt Alice’s graham cracker cream pie in another post.  The huckleberry pie, made from wild huckleberries grown on the farm, was similar to my Grandmother Clark’s green apple pie in that it had a tart taste not to be found in domestic blueberries.  Without cows to keep the hayfield that abutted the huckleberry patch down, the patch was subsumed by the wilderness and I fear I will never again have a pie quite like that.

My father shared memories of some of the nights during the strawberry seasons of his childhood when his family would eat big pieces of strawberry shortcake for their dinner on Sunday nights.  I can appreciate them because I have tasted the strawberry shortcake.  The Mapes prefer the kind of shortcake that uses a sweetened biscuit rather than sponge cake.  Mom used to put butter on top of the biscuit before pouring the strawberry mixture over it.  The butter part is over, alas.  We are all supposed to be cutting down on cholesterol, which, as you can imagine, is difficult in our family.

When I was growing up there were desserts galore, and my mother usually had a homemade dessert every night for my father or something we had bought at the Home Dairy in downtown Ithaca.  From the beginning my brother was a notable eater.  He liked his items separate.  You can see in the baby pictures I have provided that he took the icing off his “fluffy” (cake) before eating it.  He also would eat spaghetti, but the sauce and the pasta had to be separate.

The teenage years produced yet another kind of eating.  Arriving home from school, he would make a shake in the blender and then go after whatever dessert he could find.  As a result, we often had to hide fried cinnamon buns and chocolate cupcakes from the Home Dairy and jumbo raisin (Grandma Lela’s recipe) and chocolate chip cookies made by my mother and sometimes me.  An average recipe for cookies often makes about thirty-six cookies and he could make it through  all thirty-six. We have a family story about the time he asked me to go after the ingredients for lemon pound cake, including a block of butter (1 pound)  and lemons.  When I came home later that night and asked for a piece, I found that he had eaten the whole cake with a fork.

The next generation is poised to take on the family bent for culinary sweetness.  My niece Meghan loves candy like my mother and me; as a child she would always ferret out the hiding place in my parents’ kitchen.  Rebecca likes cherry pie just like my brother and me.  My mother gave her a lesson in making pies when she still lived on the farm and Rebecca told her mother it was the hardest thing she had ever done.  Gwynne goes wild for my mother’s rhubarb, which wouldn’t be quite so wonderful without the sugar.  She also likes her other grandmother’s monkey bread.  Anna is a fan of carrot cake, and like all the girls, chocolate.  As I have shown, we don’t have to worry about the future–the girls will carry on the sugar tradition.  “Cancer Schmanzer,” as Gene Wilder has said.

Recipe for 1234 Cake

2 Responses to “My Family and Sugar”

  1. claireaperez June 3, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

    I like this blog…pass the sugar.


  1. Turning Sixty (The Body) | ithacalansing - September 18, 2013

    […] my stomach, which is “tetchy.” My downfall or salvation is sugar. See my post on same: Nothing makes my day more than a good candy bar. Why can’t oatmeal taste like that? Life is […]

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