Chocolate mayonnaise cake has been on my mind recently.
It’s not so much the cake itself — delicious as it is — but rather, what it symbolizes.
This time last year, I was nestled amid 400 acres of woods in Saratoga Springs, New York, ensconced in a cozy writing studio with little more than a pesky woodpecker for company all day and a big deadline looming ahead of me. The deadline was terrifying — it was for my very first book. And it was, for various reasons, not the sort that can be pushed off for months or years. This book was coming out in February 2011 come hell or highwater — there was simply no changing it.
And so I packed up my laptop, my notebooks, letters and diaries. And I left the intense social pressure and the cacophony of New York City, fleeing upstate to Yaddo, a storied artists colony that I had long dreamed of attending. I had read about this Yaddo — a place of extreme quietude run by a non-profit corporation that devotes itself to providing literary non-fiction writers, novelists, poets, painters and composers with a little hideout away from the crazy world outside, a window of calm to create.
Among these studios and woods, a shimmering roster of artists has passed through. It was here that Sylvia Plath penned the poems that would form the backbone of her first volume of poetry, “The Colossus.” Patricia Highsmith completed “Strangers on a Train,” her first book, at Yaddo. It’s also where Carson McCullers wrote “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.” John Cheever practically lived at Yaddo for chunks of his career; and other artists who have spent time at there include Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, composer Leonard Bernstein and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
As a big McCullers and Plath fan, it was humbling for me to be invited to Yaddo to finish my book. (It is hard not to begin your writing day feeling the eyes of those before you scanning your screen, probably thinking, “You really gonna write that?”) More important, however, it turned out to be essential help at a crucial time. I was given a comfortable room, a lovely writing studio, three meals a day and an embarrassment of riches in time and solitude to peck away at my memoir.
Earlier this year, “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family” hit bookstores. That the book managed to make its way out into the world on time is a testament to this warm little place in the woods that gave me peace and fed me well. It was here that I wrote my book, yes, but it was also here that I had my first sliver of chocolate mayonnaise cake at dinner one night.
Both events, I will never forget.