Sunday, April 13, 2008

My Stolen Food Story

Last month, I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic writers conference close to my home. One class, led by Deborah Madison, prolific cookbook author and promoter of the Slow Foods Movement, was about journaling life through the lens of food. We all shared how food shaped our childhoods, and how we associated food and our mothers and our fathers. Then Deborah asked us to write about the stolen food in our pasts. Stolen food? Puzzled looks crossed many faces as if to say, Moi? And then, delicious, mischievous expressions replaced the haughty ones as each writer put pen to page.

As it turned out, no one in the class had difficulty crafting an essay right away. One gentleman, about my dad’s age, wrote that he and his friends fed themselves during the Depression by stealing green apples off of trees, grapes from the vine, and watermelons from railcars. The lady who owned the grapevines always chased the boys from her field—while never picking any grapes herself. And since those long-ago days of his youth, the man won’t eat sweet apples—he longs for the tartness of the unripe fruit from his youth. They just never tasted as good as they did when were stolen.

Another writer shared her story of stealing a block of Vermont cheddar cheese from a Manhattan gourmet market—when she could well afford to buy it. She secreted the two-pound chunk within the folds of a voluminous coat and likewise kept her secret all these years, wrapped in layers of shame and need.

As for me, I had a hard time getting started—I couldn’t think of a time I had stolen food. I was the kid who NEVER stole penny candy because being raised Paranoid Roman Catholic, I knew beyond a doubt that stealing would ensure that, upon leaving the corner store with my precious stolen Boston Baked Beans or Devil Dogs, I would immediately be flattened by a passing delivery truck and go STRAIGHT TO HELL. I have never stolen any food, I thought. And then a thought bubble appeared over my head.

Ahhhh, yes. The cupcake.

This is my stolen food story.

Have you ever been inside a real Italian bakery? Have you witnessed the piles of chewy pignolis, flaky butter cookies, the gleaming tortes, the orgasmic cannoli? You know what I’m talkin’ about, eh? If not, fuggedaboudit, because readers reader, you have not lived. To taste authentic Italian pastries is to dance just outside the gates of heaven.

Unfortunately for me and my chubby thighs, I grew up right next to the Italian part of town, and my daily walk to elementary school took me past Rossi’s Bakery. (It also took me past a bowling alley, two bars, a pizza joint and a corner diner, but they were meaningless then and now.) The sweet smells wafting through the air set my mouth to watering as I peered through the plate glass window—my daily exercise in frustration and longing.

Once in a while my mom would let me accompany her while she picked up a loaf of Italian bread or some snowflake rolls. (Oooohhhhh, snowflake rolls! Your rich, buttery insides are exquisite beyond belief, outdone only by your soft, flour-dusted crusts!) On certain, perfect days when the birds were singing tra la la, the counter lady in her starched apron and white polyester uniform would grab a waxed paper square, pick out a chocolate chip cookie, and hand it over to me. “Say thank you,” my mom would say.

“But I’d rather have a cupcake,” I would think, gobbling the cookie anyway while I stared through the glass case. I had never seen cupcakes like these: each a perfect replica of the next. Each with exactly the same number of swirls in the frosting, the same pattern of multi colored sprinkles or even silver sparkles.

Oh, yes, I wanted one. And each time I asked my mom, the answer was the same: “NO.” Dammit, life was as unfair as it could possibly be.

But my luck was about to change. One day, mom called me to the kitchen. “Run to the store and get a loaf of bread, nothing else, and bring me my change. And hurry, dinner’s ready in twenty minutes.” Off to the corner market I went, bought the bread, wrapped one chubby hand around the tie wrap of the bread bag and the other around mom’s change, and walked back home.

Where the miracle occurred. Instead of putting out her own two hands—one for the bread, one for the change—mom only asked for the bread. I slyly slipped the change into my pocket—I think it was twenty-eight cents—and quickly left the room.

For days, I waited for her to ask me for the change. She never did. After a few weeks, I figured she had forgotten all about it. The coast was clear! My chance was upon me! Cupcakes filled every dream while I hatched my plan.

The morning of my heist, I walked past the bakery on my way to school, just like every other day. I peered past my reflection through the plate glass window, just like every other day. I spied my perfect cupcake waiting there for me, taunting me, just like every other day. But I knew that this day was not just like every other—this was one I had been waiting for.

At school, the hours shuffled by until at last the bell rang and I was free to claim my sweet prize. I anticipated the sugary frosting and dark chocolate cake as I flew out of the building and through the gate, down the street and around the corner. For the first time, I boldly entered the bakery knowing that finally, I would have what I wanted.

I faced the white starch lady and asked for a cupcake. She looked at me incredulously, but bent over and slid the mirrored door open on the case anyway. “That’ll be twenty-five cents,” she said. Smiling, I handed over the money that I had secreted away from my mother all those many days.

My eyes glowed with expectation as I left the bakery with my treasure. For a few blocks, I carried it in both hands, admiring its curves and swirls. Then slowly I peeled away part of the paper wrapper and took a bite. Nothing could have made me any happier. Down the street I walked, savoring my sweet, sweet cupcake in surprisingly small bites. Frosting coated my upper lip. I licked the paper, trying to make it last as long as possible, but knew I must finish it before I arrived home and raised the suspicion of my entire family.

In my sugary stupor I lowered my guard, forgetting that I was Up to Something, when suddenly I heard a shout: “Hey! Where did you get THAT??”

Jolted out of my bliss, I looked around in dismay to see who had ruined another of the relatively few good days of my early adolescence. It was my brother. My brother, who knew that I didn’t have money of my own to be spending on cupcakes. My brother, who knew that if our mother had given me money for a cupcake, he damn sure was going to get one, too. I was busted. I managed a lame “none of your beeswax” or something, and gobbled up the rest of my suddenly oversweet cake. It went down in a big lump.

I dreaded the confrontation that awaited me. Sure enough, when I reached home, brother John (taller, thinner, swifter) had already told mom what he saw. I knew this the moment I met her in the kitchen, and I knew that she knew where the money had come from. “That was my change, wasn’t it, Claire?”

“Yes,” I answered, feeling ashamed and full of regret.

I don’t remember my punishment, but I’ve never forgotten how it felt to get away with something (quite an accomplishment in a family of my size, when twelve sets of eyes were usually upon me), to have something I really wanted (of course it was food-related; many lifelong issues around that subject), and to be caught in the end, ensuring that my joy was short-lived and ultimately guilt-inducing.

While the joy was fleeting, the feelings around the incident shaped much of my young life. Who was I to have such pleasure? I didn’t deserve it. Silly me, enjoying a treat out in the open like that—it’s far better to be sneaky with food. Then, no one can harass you about needing to lose weight. The guilt and shame piled up, over and over, like so many layers on a cake, until I pushed it back down with a squeaky clean plate at the dinner table, a trip to the cookie jar, or a big piece of mom’s home baked blueberry pie. With ice cream, of course.