Compromise Cake:
Lessons Learned From my Mother's Recipe Box

by Nancy Spiller

Counterpoint Berkeley, 2013. ISBN 978-1-619-02112-9.
Reviewed by Mary Jo Doig
Posted on 02/15/2014

Nonfiction: Memoir

This unusual memoir opens with the author working in her kitchen, rolling out a piecrust for her mother's Lemon Chiffon Pie. In Nancy Spiller's imagination, her mother, Marguerite, is enthusiastically and expertly coaching her in the process, a sweet shared time of mother-daughter exchange. But, in truth...

We didn't have many satisfying "mother-daughter" talks when she was alive. I usually felt I was the mother, lashed with the need to understand a withdrawn, recalcitrant, unhappy daughter. My job, like that of any concerned parent, was to try to figure out what my coy, puzzling, enigmatic, fey, angry, teasing, infuriating daughter meant in any given moment. My hope was to help her become the palpable parent, available and appropriately concerned about my childish needs.

But that wasn't meant to be.

In 2002, Spiller helped clean out her childhood home when Marguerite needed to be moved to a residential care community. From the pile of possessions on their way to the dump, Spiller rescued her mother's rusted yellow recipe box, the hand-painted flowers still bright despite the passage of decades. The box has resided ever since on Spiller's kitchen counter where, following Marguerite's death in 2007, it was transformed into a conduit to memories of their early lives together. In addition, the "recipe box is not only a portal into my mother, but one into the ancestors I knew little about—my mother was incapable of providing reliable details—and a window to mid-twentieth century marriages."

The first chapter contains the recipe for Lemon Chiffon Pie, with reproductions of the stained index cards on which Marguerite, or a relative or friend, hand-wrote the recipe. Each subsequent chapter contains the cards and recipes for more foodstuffs such as: My Man Cookies, Holiday Scramble (not at all what it sounds like!), Tomali Loaf (an interesting loaf that uses a tomato base), Mother's Famous Clam Chowder, Dark Cake, Persimmon Pudding, Crab Steaks, and several others. Each recipe is wrapped around memories evoked by the author in its respective chapter.

My favorite chapter is Compromise Cake, probably because in our present political climate, I ache for the concept. Interestingly, Spiller sent a copy of the recipe to President Obama, "sympathizing with his plight. I suggested that he serve it at the upcoming Super Committee on Deficit Reduction meeting, organized in an effort to heal the country's widening partisan abyss, one side maintaining a policy against use of the "C" word. 'You might even wait until they've enjoyed a piece or two before you tell them what it's called,' I suggested. 'then see if anyone chokes!' I did not receive a response and the committee failed to meet its goals. I rest my case."

Recipes aside, Spiller's book reached deeply into my senses, always one of my higher criteria for a good read. Enjoy!

Read an excerpt from this book.

Nancy Spiller, a California writer and artist, received a B.A. in English from San Francisco State University. Compromise Cake is her second book. Her debut effort, Entertaining Disasters: A Novel (with recipes), was a Reader's Prize 2009 pick in Elle magazine. An experienced journalist and editor, her work has appeared in the L.A. Herald Examiner, the LA Times, Mother Jones, New West, Rolling Stone,, and more. Her fiction has also appeared in the Rain City Review. A woman of remarkable range, Spiller is also a singer, painter, and sculptor of note. Visit her website.

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