Community Foundation Leslie Lee Nonfiction Scholarship Award – Non-Fiction
Bellaire High School – Senior
The digital clock on the oven reads 1 a.m. It’s Valentine’s Day, technically. In the kitchen, small rivers of melted chocolate cover plates and flow onto the counter and floor. Every millimeter of the counter is glazed with at least $40 worth of powdered sugar, frosting, and crumbs which I lost all control over circa 11 p.m. Bowls, spoons, spatulas, measuring devices, and decorating bags drown in the mess, choked by various batters and waiting to be rescued. Pots with burnt remnants of whipped cream sit on the stove with bowls atop them—I decided this would be a good idea since I refused to make actual double boilers. It was not. A mountain of dishes towers up and out of the sink, threatening to crash at any moment and wake the entire family by clamoring against the cement floor. This has become a typical Valentine’s morning for me.
Growing up, Valentine’s Day meant strawberry shortcake for breakfast, gluing lace around hearts of red construction paper with my mom, dinner at my grandparents’ house, and the five-layer, heart-shaped cakes my twin sister made, topped with heart-shaped candles and cream cheese frosting. Though she claims the frosting is our well-known recipe, I am certain it’s actually my sister’s best-kept secret, as it has never tasted as miraculous and creamy as on those cakes. As I got older, my family’s Valentine’s Day traditions began to fade. All that remained was strawberry shortcake and greetings of “Happy Valentine’s Day!” in the morning, which tried to sound cheerful but hardly managed it because it was 5:30 in the morning and no amount of love was going to change the fact we had to go to school. This day became a blank slate. During my freshman year of high school, I took advantage of this to create a new tradition. And if I’m being honest: this was a desperate feat of bribery to pressure people into liking me.
You see, eighth grade was my first year attending public school. I was horrified to find that my few friends had other, closer friends, and did not want to spend their every waking moment with me. It wasn’t until partway through ninth grade that I became truly part of a friend group. By then, I had already come to the conclusion that I was not of any value to others.
Unaware of the concept of not caring what anyone thought, I figured I might as well fit in with the crowd and under-appreciate myself as well. I had killed any self-worth I had, but still held a fragile yet persistent hope that I could somehow claw my way into other people’s hearts, scrounging scraps of validation. I tried to show how worthy of appreciation I could be at every possible opportunity. I was the person who guilt-tripped herself into getting up to respond to texts, even when I was half-conscious and it meant disturbing the cat, because if someone wants your help and you don’t respond, they will think you are useless and hate you forever. On Christmas each year, I argued with myself over which was worse, the suffocating stress of spending my life’s savings on things people might not even like, or the fear of their disappointed faces if I didn’t give enough. Overspending conquered every year. This low self-esteem—combined with a tendency to make overly ambitious plans, not to mention ones that required long-lasting commitment to spontaneous ideas—gave me the idea to make my friends something on Valentine’s Day, showing them my love while forcing guilt upon them if they ignored me for a single second because I was now the greatest friend they could possibly hope to acquire.
My sister had stopped making cakes years before, despite my pleas for her to continue. She claimed that just because she had two 90-pound backpacks of differential equations homework and had slept two hours in the past week, she didn’t have time to make me elaborate cakes. Though my baking often resulted in apple-flavored sludge leaking all over the freezer (granola bars) or smoke billowing from the oven (pretty much everything besides granola bars), I figured that if she could no longer carry a Valentine’s tradition, it was time for me to start one. While typical Valentine’s gifts include roses, chocolates, and cards, the holiday was still definitively associated with cake and cream cheese frosting in my mind. My friends were not getting chocolate and flowers, they were getting heart-shaped miniature cakes. I was just that great of a friend.
My first cakes were all the same: vanilla cake with pink frosting, cut into heart shapes with the only heart-shaped cookie cutter we had, a way-too-small piece of metal that gave the cakes the demeanor of teenagers at their most awkward phase of puberty, nearly twice as tall as they were wide but trying their best to look like they belonged. Feeling a bit awkward, I carried them into school on a single plate, where they leaned at precarious angles.
My friends said they loved the cakes, despite their resemblance to melting skyscrapers caught in a strong wind. But vanilla cakes with all the same frosting weren’t extravagant enough for me anymore. The next year, I let each of my friends custom-design three cakes, using forms I made on slips of paper. If there was a way to further complicate the cakes, it was with those forms. Friends specified the type of cake, frosting, cream and fruit filling, chocolate coating, and writing on top of each one. That year, I made eighteen cakes. I spent the evening two days before Valentine’s Day making vanilla and chocolate cakes, cakes with chocolate chunks, and gluten-free cakes as well as four different colors of frosting. Every time I thought “This is insanity; I don’t need to do this,” I kindly reminded myself that if I stopped, I would be abandoned by everyone I knew and loved. Cooling racks covered the dining table by the time I was done.
The small cookie cutter was no longer up to my ever-rising standards. I found a strip of scrap metal smelling of sawdust and epoxy in my dad’s workshop. Using the vise attached to the workbench was a struggle for my twig-like arms, but I managed to bend the metal into a heart shape, about four inches wide at the top. I taped the ends together with masking tape, then washed the new cookie cutter extensively before allowing it to come in contact with food, mildly paranoid by how long it had been in a workshop surrounded by substances not meant for ingestion. Still, any amount of poisoning by way of wood glue and dust was worth how much nicer the cakes looked.
Each one consisted of two layers. This meant 32 heart-shaped pieces had to be cut and individually wrapped in plastic wrap. We didn’t have plastic wrap. There were tears. I had to walk through the woods to my grandparents’ house to borrow theirs, tripping over tree roots in the dark and getting snow in my boots the whole way.
I cut and wrapped the cakes extremely carefully. It had already reached the point in the evening where my desire to sleep was becoming greater than my desire to show people I loved them, and although I didn’t resent myself for deciding to make everyone three cakes yet, I knew if I broke even one and had to make an entire new cake, I would. Luckily, I got all of the cakes wrapped and safely into the bottom of the refrigerator without breaking. My dad, who was more than a little concerned for my sanity, offered to clean up for me. He was used to coming to the rescue of my sister and I after our baking projects took longer than planned, leaving powdered sugar-coated disasters in their wake. Thankfully, my mom, who wanted me to learn the consequences of my decisions and did not care whether I got a healthy amount of sleep, was not inside to witness this.
The next day I filled the cakes with cream and strawberries and covered them with frosting or chocolate. This involved wasting an entire bag of chocolate chips while trying to figure out how to make them melt enough. My sister told me to add milk, and since she is not me, I trusted her. The chocolate became a lumpy paste and had to be thrown away. I banished my sister from the kitchen. I let her back in when she told me to use heavy cream instead and the chocolate became quite pourable. I then spent at least an hour writing inside-jokes, names of celebrity crushes, and “I love you” with frosting that night. I had a vision for these cakes: frosting perfectly smooth and uncontaminated by crumbs, perfectly centered writing glistening on top. Unfortunately, I renounced cursive as a child. This made fitting “Leonardo DiCaprio” on a three-inch cake while my hands contracted carpal tunnel from hours squeezing a decorating bag an even messier task.
By the time I was done, it was technically Valentine’s Day. I still had to clean up. (My mom made sure I knew it was my job that night.) I had a plan when I started baking to “keep the kitchen clean as I cooked.” This is always the plan at the beginning. That idea was thrown to the wind the instant a speck of powdered sugar landed on the counter. I figured I might as well give up and let the kitchen become an even more hopeless disaster than the previous year. I had not washed the pots I heated cream in before making double boilers with them and turning the stove on to high heat. Needless to say, all the remaining cream quickly burned, filling the kitchen with a noxious smell. I will never forget the blackened char I had to scrub out of them. By the next year, I knew better than to intentionally burn ingredients, which was progress when it came to my baking skills, but the kitchen didn’t look much better. Even so, the cakes made it safely to their cupcake boxes in the fridge. The mess they had caused would never be seen by those who enjoyed their beauty.
My cake-making tradition was not as original as I would have liked. Cakes were used hundreds of years ago to ensure people’s gods didn’t turn against them. I suppose I made mine for a similar reason. I wanted my friends to feel loved, and I wanted to prove to my past self that I could continually be better at Valentine’s Day. I thought: “I’m the friend who makes all of you cake every year. You can’t stop being friends with me, because then you won’t get cake.” I also made them, I suppose, because a holiday was an excuse create a tradition—an opportunity I could not pass up.
I thought my tradition of making cake was unusual—after all, I didn’t make your typical chocolates—until I discovered the supposed history of Valentine’s Day. The more I learned, the more concerned I became. In ancient Rome, the Pagan festival of Lupercalia was an annual event on February 15 which often took place in the Lupercal cave. A group of Roman priests began the festival by sacrificing at least one male goat and a dog. In modern times, we simply sacrifice our dignity, or in my case, my time and sanity. Two of the priests’ bodies were then smeared with the blood from the animals and washed with milk. That is the origin of the colors red and white to represent Valentine’s Day, which makes me all kinds of uncomfortable. The festival also involved randomly pairing couples together, many of whom ended up falling in love and getting married. Lupercalia originated from a legend of two brothers who were raised by a wolf after their father tried to drown them. It celebrates the wolf who raised them. Romantic, right?
While the sacrificial violence of this festival lost popularity, the idea of a celebration for love returned with the help of St. Valentine, a Roman priest during the third century A.D. He is said to have secretly married couples who were in love, even after the Roman emperor, Claudius II, made marriage illegal, believing it made men less willing to join the military. When Claudius found out Valentine was aiding people in love rather than war, he sentenced him to death. Valentine was executed on the now-famous February 14. This day is entirely surrounded by violence and bloodshed, and I can’t help but wonder if our celebrating love is not simply making up for the pain of our ancestors.
The cakes I make continued to get more extravagant each year. I couldn’t risk my friends getting bored with this tradition. Besides, I had received some worried looks when I distributed cakes the second year.
“I love them,” one friend said, “but one is enough. We don’t need three.”
Still I added more types of cake, more frosting, better cake-designing forms with even more options. Not only was I unwilling to go backwards when it came to extravagance, I had to justify the dread I felt when I looked at the kitchen at the end of the night. This was accomplished not only by how nice the cakes looked and how much my friends liked them, but by the satisfaction of getting home from school, taking my own cake to my desk, cracking the coat of chocolate with a fork, and finding the cream and strawberry filling inside. There is something enjoyable about knowing I am doing something people will appreciate, despite the dreaded cleaning process and imminent mistakes. In fact, I think I enjoy something more if I know I have gone through emotional pain and exhaustion in order to accomplish it. I become that much more appreciation-worthy, even if I am the only one who knows how much turmoil went into what I did. I wonder if St. Valentine felt this, secretly marrying couples even as he knew he could be punished. Maybe he, too, was seeking appreciation from these people. Or maybe he is better than I am: maybe he merely wants to do something kind for those who loved each other. They must have been grateful to him. Maybe that was why he risked and lost his life for other people’s love.
Every time I appeared on one of my friends’ doorsteps with a small, red box filled with cake, my stomach sank with the thought of them rejecting my offering of love. Each time, though, I watched their faces light up as I handed over the cake, wishing them happy Valentine’s Day. That feeling was enough. For the first couple years, they may have been awkward to see my sleep-deprived face behind a stack of cupcake boxes approaching their home. But I think that by this point, my friends have become so used to me spontaneously going overboard that they enjoy the cakes. I certainly hope so.
At some point, my cakes stopped being a literally unhealthy coping mechanism. The realization that I had friends in the first place—that I was not completely worthless! — hit me like a brick around junior year. Of course, by that point it was too late. The cakes were my tradition. I couldn’t stop making them. At that point I just enjoyed accomplishing something. I continued to struggle with appreciating myself; this was my way to earn my own coveted validation.
St. Valentine was willing to be put to death for love that wasn’t even his. I’ve considered, as I’m sure even the most emotionally secure of us have at times, whether I would be willing to die for the people I love. I haven’t been able to answer this, simply because I can’t imagine a situation where this would not be ridiculous. But I will continue to make my loved ones a worrisome amount of cake, and to, as Valentine did, show my appreciation for love itself.