This essay was first published in The Square Table in Summer 2004.
The Best Cheesecake by Dina
Unlike most women, I don’t like cheesecake. I know what you’re thinking. What?! What does she eat to be naughty at a good restaurant or after a rough week at work? What does she eat during that time of the month? What does she eat when he dumps her? The answer: not cheesecake.
When I was a kid, my mother would make a pan of Italian ricotta cheesecake to bring to every function, especially after we moved down South. People were interested in Italian food, and it was an easy Italian dessert to bring for a crowd. I tried it once and that was enough. It was mushy and flavorless. While others gobbled it up, giving my mom rave reviews, I picked at something else.
When I moved back to the Northeast as an adult, I had traditional New York cheesecake at delis and diners and fine restaurants—not because I ordered it but because someone I was dining with did. I tried pumpkin cheesecake, pineapple cheesecake, strawberry cheesecake, amaretto cheesecake, the list goes on like Bubba Gump’s recitation of the many ways to cook shrimp. I never liked a bite I took of cheesecake.
Friends were excited to take the D train to Brooklyn to try Junior’s famous cheesecake. Junior’s was crowded as a friend and I were ushered past the glass case full of red, blue and yellow glazed cheesecakes. When I looked at the menu, I wanted a Reuben, potato pancakes, anything but cheesecake. But I kept my cheesecake dislike under wraps for fear of the weird stares that come with “I don’t like cheesecake.” I saw fried cheesecake on the menu, so I ordered that thinking that nothing fried tastes bad. It was OK, not great, not bad, but I had the runs all day so I figured there was no hope for me and cheesecake. We just didn’t have the right chemistry.
Since then, I live back down South, but last year, my dad and I went up North for an uncle’s funeral. While there, we visited with my grandma, the only grandparent I ever really knew. It was Valentine’s Day and she had the bouquet of red roses we had sent her in a vase on the kitchen table. She was wearing her classic housedress, the kind they sell in those circulars in the Sunday paper that have pictures of thirty-something women wearing them. Grandma was hunched over and complained of pains in her legs.
“One day good, one day bad, “ she said.
The only light came in through the windows. It was a surprisingly sunny day in February in New Jersey. We didn’t know a huge blizzard would follow when we left.
We didn’t talk much. About the funeral. About the weather. About my sister and my mother back home. About my life.
When we moved down South, Grandma stayed in New Jersey. She’d send gifts she bought from the home shopping channel on birthdays and Christmas. When I became an adult, I’d take the train from New York to see her and bring her some pastries or bread from the city. She told me stories about playing hooky when she was a kid. How she and a friend went to see Cab Calloway perform and he looked at them in the audience and told them he knew they were playing hooky. She told me about working in the garment industry in Soho, hopping around the city as a young and single woman and it reminded me of myself then. Grandma was an excellent cook. “I wasn’t very good at first,” she said. “I made peppers and eggs and my father told my mother, ‘Oh, this is good,’ but it wasn’t.” She told me how my grandfather courted her by coming by the pizzeria where she worked and doing her chores for her until she would agree to go out with him. She smiled when she told these stories.
On this Valentine’s Day, my grandmother moved very slowly. She took something out of the refrigerator. It was wrapped in plastic. She opened it and set it on the table, a chocolate-covered heart cake. She handed me the knife and I cut the cake in three pieces, the first for her, the second for dad and the third for me.
“It’s from Junior’s cheesecake in Brooklyn. I ordered it off of the television,” she explained.
The cheesecake was light and fluffy yet creamy. The chocolate made it very sweet—so sweet I had two slices.
“You like it, ha?” she asked, smiling.
There eventually came silence to our small talk. It was time for Dad and I to leave. I looked at Grandma and I couldn’t help it.
“Don’t cry,” she said.
I could see tears in her eyes too and also in my dad’s.
Grandma stood in the doorway and waved to us as we drove away. She looked so small and sad.
My father said, “I don’t think we’re going to see her again.”
I guess you just know.
My grandmother died last year on Labor Day. She had surgery and had a hard time coming out of anesthesia. But she was a fighter and I wasn’t worried. She came out of it fine. But days later, she was not well. She couldn’t breathe. My aunt says she held herself up on the bars of the bed and said, “I can’t breathe.” Her death certificate says she died of pneumonia and sepsis, or blood poisoning.
I could not go to her funeral because I was in the third week of law school in Florida.
In Florida, everywhere you go, there is a key lime cheesecake. But I don’t have to have it. It doesn’t remind me of a lost boyfriend or a menstrual craving. It doesn’t taste so wonderful to me that I can’t resist it. No, I had the best cheesecake I’m ever going to have, and it was good.