Long Reads

After Cancer, Tiramisu Gains New Meaning—& New Ingredients

An essay with food.

July  2, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food & Prop Stylist: Sarah Jampel.

People always ask me if I learned to cook and bake from my mother. They don’t know her, so they have no idea how hilarious that question is. Even though she wasn’t a “domestic goddess” à la Nigella Lawson, she formed my earliest relationships to food because, well, it’s at the center of how she spends all her days: She is widely considered an expert in the food industry in a field called “consumer research,” which is essentially translating the guest’s experience into charts and data. Her language of casual dining was infused into most meals I remember as a kid, as it was her job to notice and catalog the details that the rest of us as diners take for granted, like the color of the walls or the heft of a menu. She taught me that all of it matters.

Having such an involved history with casual dining restaurants in my formative years—while others were being taught real cooking techniques by their grandmothers, which established great stories for them in their future cookbooks—gave me a different kind of understanding of food as an experience. It gave me the reflex to look at a recipe I’m working on from multiple angles, which I think is why I ended up as a food editor.

It also gave me a profound love of somewhat mediocre tiramisu.

One of the hallmarks of any event growing up in which food was present were these aluminum steam trays of red-sauce Italian-American food, which my mom brought home from work. I loved it; I didn’t know a different version of Italian food existed then. I would sift through the giant bowls of iceberg lettuce, picking out the tinny black olives and the one or two banana peppers like a very peculiar bird, and leave the chaff. I’d steal the corner piece of lasagna with not just one, but two borders of crispy baked cheese, the first slice to ooze from the pan.

But the tiramisu was a radiant tray of pillowy perfection, tasting like decadence and adulthood and holidays in each silky bite. It tasted, I’m realizing now, like something approximating my mother’s love.

Hers isn’t loud, like my dad’s is. (He mostly raised my brother and me with my mom at the office, and indeed was the person who taught me to cook.) In fact, my mom’s love can be hard to spot unless you know what to look for—and I didn’t for a very long time.

After leaving home and moving to Paris, going to culinary school and finding my succession of tribes and chosen homes of my own, I struggled with my relationship to my parents and where I came from. I imagine it as a rite of passage of sorts and not unusual for opinionated 20-somethings with a newfound identity of worldliness. But the process of growing up and out of my roots was wrought with the pain of comparison, of idealization. I pushed hard against and screamed at invisible walls, wishing my childhood was “better” or different. I felt very distant from my formative identities as Sister, Daughter, and even American.

As the perspective of time stretched and spread over the years, I picked each role back up from where it had been left neglected, and found, with this object in my hands, that we both had changed. I had become Wife, then Mother, and saw my past with the freedom of writing new narratives in the present. I learned that being a working mom is very hard and it involves choices, none of them even close to ideal. I gained a new perspective on what might have been blaring behind my mom’s quiet love, perhaps a version of screaming at invisible walls of her own.

It took being diagnosed with cancer to see my mother clearly, to sweep away all the cloudiness brought by years of distance and judgment. I called both of my parents with the news of my first MRI, telling them that the radiologist had found a very large mass in my brain. They both immediately jumped on a plane and had installed themselves in my basement only two days later. My mom went with me to my appointments, held a legal pad, and took pages of notes in her meticulous handwriting; she researched and asked smart questions in the precise way that Mom, as Businesswoman, would. Her attention to detail and objectivity were qualities I deeply appreciated in my new hollow role as Patient.

It wasn’t until I had undergone surgery that I saw her love clearer than ever. She had snuck into my room while I was sleeping to leave me a note saying she was leaving to go back to work, leaving behind a scarf she imagined I would wrap around my head. I caught her before she snuck out again and pleaded her to stay until the pathology of my tumor had returned from the lab, originally anticipated for a week later. I will never forget how she looked that morning: unkempt in crumpled pajamas with a stunned look on her tear-streaked face, her grey roots more visible than usual at her scalp. Our words hung in weightless air, as if strung together for strength, ghostly and thin. She crawled into my bed and we held each other, both weakened and hollowed by fear. Together, we shattered the invisible walls constructed by “what if” and tried to reckon with our new reality.

I had become Wife, then Mother, and saw my past with the freedom of writing new narratives in the present. I learned that being a working mom is very hard and it involves choices, none of them even close to ideal.

In the years since, her love has returned to some version of its former frequency and mine some version of its boundless energy. Her love remains quiet and subtle as it has always been, but I am better attuned to notice it. We still go out to dinner, like when I was a kid, and we talk about the finer points of service, the color of the lighting, the finish on the flatware. The details matter, I am reminded in our conversation.

It is the difference between a mediocre and stellar tiramisu, for example. The difference between them is not in the method, but in the ingredients—these little changes alter their stories entirely. It is for her that I make this one now.

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Before her diagnosis, Caroline wrote a book on cakes called Cake Magic!. She started developing a birthday cake using her gluten-free mix found in that book. Check out other recipes she’s developing for her new life—and the stories behind them—on her blog, The Wright Recipes. Her next book, Catalan Food, written with chef Daniel Olivella, comes out in early September from Clarkson Potter.

1 Comment

Rebecca K. July 7, 2019
Thank you for your lovely essay, and for your amazing-sounding (and hallelujah, gluten free!) tiramisu recipe. I have been wishing I could eat it again, it was once my favorite and my mother and daughter love it too! I'm going to make this next weekend.