A Black Sesame Babka That Twists & Turns in All the Right Ways

For Pride Month, Manuel Betancourt reviews Hanya Yanagihara's novel, 'A Little Life.'

June 10, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food & Prop Stylist: Sarah Jampel.

Happy Pride Month! All June long, we'll be sharing long reads, personal essays, and recipes from LGBTQ+ writers. This week: Manuel Betancourt on the solace of baking.

Like every other gay man living in New York City at the time, I spent the summer of 2015 reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

The 720-page novel is not for the faint of heart. There’s the length, of course. But there’s also the grueling nature of its plot. While it kicks off as a light-footed chronicle of four college best friends (Jude, JB, Willem and Malcolm) as they navigate their move into adulthood and to New York City, Yanagihara’s narrative soon centers almost exclusively on Jude St. Francis. Ostensibly leading a well-adjusted life as an up-and-coming lawyer and later enjoying a blissful relationship with Willem, Jude is haunted by traumatic episodes from his youth. He bears their scars in ways both literal and figurative.

Cutting is, in fact, the central narrative engine of the novel. As Jude explains at one point, “It was a form of punishment and also of cleansing … it allowed him to drain everything toxic and spoiled from himself.”

In its harrowing descriptions of Jude’s childhood abuse, the novel can feel punishing as well as cathartic. To read Yanagihara’s novel is to enter a lurid fairy tale world where life is the thing that happens in between the moments when you’re keeping your inner demons at bay. Like its cover image—a detail of the aptly-titled Peter Hujar photograph “Orgasmic Man”—A Little Life wallows in operatic excesses. But amidst Jude’s florid self-flagellations (“he is a nothing, a scooped-out husk in which the fruit has long since mummified and shrunk, and now rattles uselessly,” he tells us at one point), Yanagihara sketches a novel about the perils and limits of self-care.

Photo by Doubleday

As much as Jude’s story is about unmentionable horrors, it is also about unimaginable resilience. If A Little Life is, truly, as Garth Greenwell dubbed it, the Great Gay Novel of the 21st century, it is so because it takes issues of shame, self-loathing, and same-sex desire and turns them into melancholy archetypes on which to hang a story as beautiful as it is appalling. Jude thinks of his fears, anxieties, and terrors as hyenas chomping at the bit, waiting for the chance when he’ll slow down or let down his guard and be swallowed whole.

Many of the strategies Jude follows to keep these hyenas at bay feel all too familiar, for they are the very things those of us with decidedly less harrowing tales turn to in times when life feels much too overwhelming. Jude heads down to his building’s pool, where he tires himself out in hopes of sleeping soundly. He has friends who call him up late at night to busy his mind and remind him he’s loved. And, perhaps most surprisingly, he keeps his kitchen stocked with flour and sugar so he can bake anything at a moment’s notice, letting recipes and measurements and oven times consume his hours.

Jude, we learn, first dabbled in baking during his college days when he worked at a local bakery called Batter. There, “he’d spent his shifts decorating cookies, making hundreds of sugar-paste flower petals for cakes and experimenting with different recipes, one of which, a ten-nut cake,” we're told, “had become the bakery's best seller.”

Jude’s baking prowess punctuates the novel: Gougères, chocolate-walnut cakes, tarte tatins, sourdough breads, carrot cakes, and sugar cookies mark significant moments when Jude tries to find ways to give back to those who tell him they love him, a sentiment he can’t ever truly fathom.

Amidst his artistic crowd of friends—Willem is an actor, JB a painter, Malcolm an architect, their friend Richard a sculptor—Jude often bemoans his lack of creativity. “He sometimes wished he had a mind like JB’s,” he admits, “one that could create stories that would delight others, instead of the mind he did have, which was always searching for an explanation.”

Yanagihara never quite puts Jude’s baking in conversation with those other artistic endeavors. But in the way it becomes both lifeline and passtime, his forays in the kitchen should remind us of the numbing and nurturing power that baking can have on us. It’s not just that baking demands patience; it’s that it demands absolute surrender, as well. Of one’s time. Of one’s senses. Of one’s attention.

You come to understand why Jude would try to find solace in baking. There’s a meditative aspect to working with one’s hands and whipping up something out of nothing, an act of creation that’s both exacting and ephemeral. There’s comfort in thinking in terms of grams and pounds, in cups and tablespoons, in doughs and frostings, in starters and glazes. Of letting your hours be dictated not by the irrevocable passing of time, but by the concise nature of proofing and kneading, of baking and resting.

At times when I feel too anxious to write yet another word on the page, I find relief in the kitchen where my mind can turn itself off and put all of its effort into pouring and mixing, shaping. And cutting.

Alas, the thing about baking (like swimming or meditation or even therapy) is that it’s temporary. At some point you have to find your way back to yourself, if only to taste the fruits of your labor, hollow and mummified as they may be. In the end, there’s never enough that Jude can do to run from those hyenas that so hunger for him. It’s the tragedy that structures Yanagihara’s novel. All we as readers have is the endless staving off that constitutes the entirety of the novel’s narrative.

As such, you end up clinging to what most resonates with you.

In my case, this time around, it was Jude’s baking and his famed ten-nut cake in particular, which makes another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance later in the novel when a middle-aged Jude teaches his adopted father, Harold, how to bake it himself. I don’t know why I was so intrigued by this offhand, if recurring, baked good.

But soon, I became obsessed with figuring out what kind of “cake” Jude had first made a prized asset in that local bakery. When endless online research attempts proved futile, I contacted Yanagihara herself. It was a longshot, I knew. There was no reason she’d respond to my inquiry let alone offer me an answer to a question that felt more fastidious than it needed to be.

Against all odds, however, she replied: The ten-nut cake was based on something she once had in an obscure bakery in Tokyo (the name of which escaped her, much to her frustration), closer to a seed-and-nut bread than to a cake, “a very buttery boule with a thin, crisp crust, and one of those super-soft Japanese milk bread interiors, thick with walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, caraway seeds, poppy seeds,” she shared. She imagined Jude’s version, averse as he was to cloying sweetness in ways both emotional and culinary, would be closer to a Danish-inspired nut bread (aka Rugbrød).

My riddle solved, I felt the compulsion to honor both inspirations, to create, as it were, “A Little Loaf”: an original recipe that might honor Jude and Yanagihara in equal measure.

What I’ve come up with can feel overwhelming, much too time-consuming, and a tad torturous. But it’s worth it. As conceived, this riff on black sesame seed babka straddles the line between the fluffiness of Japanese milk bread (courtesy of the tangzhong) and the more rustic nature of Rugbrød (courtesy of the rye flour). It can be both comforting and demanding, a knotted loaf that reveals its secrets only when cut open.

Another metaphor, another unpacking.

Without even anticipating it, the loaf’s grey-hued dough feels of a piece with the Hujar picture that first captured my imagination, and which so set the tone for how I’ve long thought about A Little Life: a testament to the corrosive nature of shame that so structures our sexual lives.

As a young artist, Jude’s friend Richard once had a vision for “a sculpture whose surface so writhed with moths that you couldn’t even see the shape of the things they were devouring.” That imagined honey-drenched sculpture is as perfect a metaphor for the novel (and for Jude) as you’re bound to find, sweetness coating and encouraging destruction, its beauty both entrancing and terrifying, a reminder that what we consume and what we create need not be mutually exclusive.

An all-too dour epigraph, in a way, for this hearty recipe that calls out to be shared among friends.

Have you read A Little Life? What'd you think?

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Manuel Betancourt is a New York City-based writer. He’s a pop culture enthusiast, an amateur baker, and an eternal Buffy fan. His work has appeared in Film Comment, The Atlantic, Vice, INTO, and Esquire, among others. He’s a regular contributor to Remezcla, Electric Literature, and one of the co-authors of the middle-grade graphic novel The Cardboard Kingdom.