Food, love & a slice of cuatro leches cake

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I really want to make this cuatro leches cake — mainly because it looks delicious but also because of the story behind it.

Part of the reason why I love cooking blogs is because they connect food with stories. So much of what we cook or bake can be traced back to a memory, a story, a tradition. We crave chocolate chip cookies when we think of baking them with our grandma years ago. We refuse to eat blue cheese because of a bad experience we once had with it. We cook a special dish of stuffing every Thanksgiving because the holidays just wouldn’t be the same without it.

I’m particularly interested in the connections between mothers, daughters and food, so I couldn’t help but be drawn to the story that went along with the cuatro leches cake recipe. In less than 300 words, the baker — a mom named Sara Kate Gillingham Ryan –talks about wanting control over what her daughter eats:

“I have this thing about kids and sugar. I don’t think they make such a great combination and I grip to this conviction, hard. When she was much younger, I used to tell my daughter that she could have sweets when she was five. Five seemed like a safe and far-away target, but as it approached, I knew I had to keep my promise.”

So for her daughter’s 5th birthday, Ryan decided to let go. She broke her no-sugar rule and baked a super sweet cake with edible pink glitter. The experience, she said, was transformational for both her and her daughter. Ryan noticed her daughter gave her a lot more hugs and “I love you’s” than on previous birthdays. She also realized that loosening your grip can open you up to new experiences, like seeing your daughter indulge in something you put a lot of love into making. Ryan writes: “Sometimes you can buy a little love. Not with money, but with food, because food is what makes people feel they’re being heard, being loved.”

I couldn’t agree more.

As one of my favorite writers Geneen Roth has said, “food is love.”  Many of us turn to food when we’re lonely or when we want to fill a void. We stuff ourselves with empty calories to numb the pain, only to find that the void deepens because we’re not filling it with what our body needs — nourishment from healthy foods, and from love. People who struggle with eating disorders often talk about their “relationship” with food. One of the well-known books on eating disorders is called “Life without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too.” Life without Ed (an eating disorder) means looking at food not as a substitute for love, but as a sign of love.

Recently, I started cooking more for my boyfriend because it makes me happy to see him enjoy food that I’ve cooked. I can’t eat the meals, though, because they usually contain meat and I’m a vegetarian. So I’ve been trying to cook meals as a sign of love for myself as well. Like Ryan, I want to break some of the rules I’ve created for myself when it comes to food. I often tell myself, “Just eat a salad or a veggie burger for dinner, Mallary. You don’t need to spend time making something for yourself.”

A few weeks ago, though, I broke this rule and made a vegggie tofu stirfry for myself. It was the first time I had cooked a real meal for myself in years and it felt (and tasted) good. Not long after making the stirfry, I made a veggie enchilada for myself. I’m used to eating the same foods for lunch and dinner, so breaking my routine was difficult. But it felt liberating, and made me realize that yes, I can eat different foods if I want to and I’ll still be ok. I think the more I do this, the more I’ll start to realize that I deserve to eat well — and that it’s ok to splurge on a piece of cuatro leches cake every once in a while.

Fewer rules, small steps.

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