The last month has been a blur. I spent the holidays on the road visiting family and friends, driving long hours across the inner west. Days before Christmas, I met up with my father in southern Idaho. From there, we drove to Salt Lake City to visit my grandfather as he returned from the hospital to settle into hospice. The details are for another time, but he passed away shortly after.
One of the last things he said, something that I keep thinking about, was how much he enjoyed the chocolate cake he ate the day he left the hospital. It was a small, tangible memory, something that let him direct the conversation toward a simple pleasure, away from the situation. I remember the way he emphasized the dessert clearly in his otherwise unclear voice, a little louder and more precise, so that we could share the memory with him.
I entered the new year in a series of late-night panic attacks, my heart rate spiking and my mind racing, unable to sleep nights in a row. These come and go but lately they’ve been getting worse. The holidays are an increasingly difficult time for me, which I deny because I want to enjoy them. For a few years now, I’ve started to rely on cooking to calm me down, especially baking. It gives me a small, tangible activity to focus on, something to keep my mind and body occupied.
After the funeral in southern Idaho, my dad and I wandered into a used bookstore in his hometown, run by volunteers. I perused the cooking section and was intrigued by a rare artifact: A cookbook issued by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in 1981, addressed to Salt Lake families to provide “easy, economical recipes that will add variety and interest to your diet.” The very brief introduction insists that its readers should cook, “nutritious meals to build strong bodies and alert minds” (ii). The dessert section is the longest and most obviously used, peppered with little brown stains from batters or syrups, though someone has drawn a large X across a recipe for graham crackers and written “Awful” above it.
This is Mormon country, where keeping “strong bodies and alert minds” through diet is considered a divine ordinance commonly referred to as the word of wisdom. Terry Tempest Williams writes that the word of wisdom, “a religious doctrine of health, kept the women in [her] family aligned with good foods: no coffee, no tea, tobacco, or alcohol” (Williams 183). She attributes her family’s long life prior to atomic testing in the 1950s to this strict Mormon diet, and she’s not alone. Physicians and sociologists have studied Mormon communities to determine a correlation between the word of wisdom and statistically lower-than-average cancer rates among practicing Saints (Badanta et al., 1581).
It’s also commonly accepted that Mormons eat a lot of desserts, especially ice cream. Without coffee or alcohol, sweets are the only remaining vice for LDS social life.
My grandfather was not particularly religious, nor did he adhere to the word of wisdom. He had a good, long life, anyway, enjoying it as much as he could. He was a trucker with a union job procured before the era of deregulation, and much of his social life was in the Elks Club. In fact, the local Elks Lodge hosted a small meal after the funeral, consisting of sandwiches, pasta salad, and cookies for dessert.
Dessert as a concept comes from French culinary tradition, referring to the last course of a meal. Its etymology, though, has nothing to do with sweets or cakes. The prefix des means “remove,” from Latin dis, as in dissolve, disassociate, distance. The root, sert, comes from service. Dessert, then, is the removal of what has been served, a clearing of the table.
October through December is the prime season for bakery sales, as bakers work overtime to satisfy demands for pumpkin pies, Christmas cookies, and treats for New Year’s parties that pair well with champagne. Claire Saffitz writes that a love of baking—and by extension a love of desserts—is “about embracing cooking and eating as fundamental sources of pleasure,” and that through her own recipes, she favors “an approach to food that is celebratory, abundant, and at times a tad luxurious” (Saffitz 12). This is the opposite of the word of wisdom, which treats food as purely utilitarian. Dessert doesn’t just mean closure, but a triumphant closure, something to celebrate: birthday cakes, the cakes at retirement parties, even wedding cakes signal both an ending and a beginning.
I have hardly felt celebratory lately. Every New Year’s ends up being the same for me: I want to clear away the old year’s detritus and start with a clean table, but when I tug away the tablecloth, a mess of dirty dishes remains. I never find closure. The idea that “a new year means a new you” feels like just as much an illusion.
Unable to afford therapy, I start each year trying to manage my anxiety similarly to the word of wisdom. I cut back on caffeine and alcohol, cut down on salt, rededicate myself to eating piles of vegetables and homemade fruit-based desserts that mold in a week. I take vitamin D supplements to make up for the limited sunlight. I imagine that I can minimize panic attacks by regulating what I consume, but I can never tell if it works.
Nevertheless, two weeks into January, I took pleasure in baking a small layer cake for my girlfriend’s birthday. I spent the hours she was at work baking two sponge cakes, one chocolate and one vanilla, waiting for them to cool and then carving them into thin discs and layering them between swaths of butter cream, then frosting the stack in thick chocolate ganache with piped buttercream kisses and chocolate shavings on top. It may not have been abundant or even luxurious, but it was at least celebratory, and in the process of baking, I felt calm, even a little cocky.
This year is not off to a promising start, but I keep thinking about the chocolate cake my grandfather mentioned. It mattered enough that he enjoyed it, that he made room for that joy. There isn’t much to celebrate these days, as this country fails once again to serve the welfare of its population, but I want to find what little there is, bring to the table what little I have, and make it last through yet another terrible year.
Author unknown. Deseret Recipes. 1981.
Badanta, Barbara, Giancarlo Lucchetti, Rocio de Diego-Cordero. “‘A Temple of God’: A Qualitative Analysis of the Connection Between Spiritual/Religious Beliefs and Health Among Mormons.” Journal of Religion and Health 59 (2020), 1580-1595.
Saffitz, Claire. Dessert Person. Clarkson-Porter, 2020.
Williams, Terry Tempest. “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” Northern Lights, ed. Deborah Clow and Donald Snow. Vintage Books, 1994, 183-191.