Read Black Cake: A Novel Online
Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson
he had spoken to Bunny
for barely a minute but it had lifted her up. Seeing Bunny that way at the convention center, wrapping her arms around her friend after all these years, set all sorts of things right in Eleanor’s mind. For the first time, she felt truly at peace with being Eleanor Bennett. For the first time in a long while, she felt that she was still Covey, too.
If this were only about her, at this age, Eleanor would be willing to shed a lifetime of pretense, talk openly to people about being Covey, go back to the island even, aware of the risks. But the fact was, when you lived a life, under any name, that life became entwined with others’. You left a trail of potential consequences. You were never just you, and you owed it to the people you cared about to remember that.
Because the people you loved were part of your identity, too. Perhaps the biggest part.
s many times as Marble
Martin had appeared on live television, it still surprised her, all the activity that went on around the host and guests right up to the last second before they were live on the air. This time, another guest, the coffee tycoon with the blue sweater, was adding to the fuss by giving Marble an earful during the commercial break.
“I think you’re saying these things because you’re trying to sell your book,” he said.
“Wait, wait,” said the host, “let’s save this for the show.” A woman with turquoise-painted fingernails was using hand signals to count them down to the start of the next segment. The host took a piece of gum out of her mouth, folded it into a piece of tissue paper, and held it out for a studio attendant to grab it. A second later, a signal light went on and she was leaning toward the camera as if confiding in a friend.
“Marble Martin,” said the host, “ethno-food guru and author of the bestselling book on traditional foods
says there’s no such thing as Italian coffee. But the head of Caffé Top, Renzo Barale, doesn’t like what he’s hearing. What do you say to that, Marble?”
“I’m not saying there’s no such thing as an Italian coffee
” said Marble. “Italy is famous for its blending of coffee beans and its brewing techniques. I, myself, adore a shot of Neapolitan espresso. I’m
just saying that in many cases, we cannot ignore the agricultural and historical contributions of other countries and lay one hundred percent claim to a culinary tradition.”
“We are not trying to
as you say, the contribution of other countries,” Coffee Man said. “Our highest-grade coffee is blended from beans that come from a dozen different nations and we appreciate their origins. But
are the ones who choose the beans that go into our blends, and
are the ones who invented the coffee-brewing techniques that make Italian coffee the best in the world.” Coffee Man’s sweater, Marble noticed, was the color of the Atlantic Ocean.
“What I’m saying,” Marble said, “is that some foods are born, bred, and developed within a particular geographic area or food culture. Others are imported, and yes, they find their places in new cultures over time, but they wouldn’t be there in the first place without long-distance travel, without commercial exchanges and, in many cases, a history of exploitation.”
“We do not exploit coffee growers in other countries,” Coffee Man said. “We purchase our beans through fair-trade agreements.”
“I wasn’t suggesting that your company exploits coffee growers, I was merely referring to the fact that some foods that are taken for granted in many products and recipes in Europe, for example, are produced in other countries, where in past centuries, their trade depended on forced labor or very low-cost labor. Cane sugar, for example.” Marble could see that the coffee guru was finally listening.
“Which brings me to another example. What about the classic Christmastime fruit cake? In Britain, it’s often made with cane sugar from the tropics. In the Caribbean, it’s made with raisins and currants imported from colder countries. My grandmother, who was English but spent years living in Trinidad with her missionary parents, makes a divine rum cake, Caribbean style. She calls it black cake. But is it really Caribbean? Cane sugar didn’t even originate in that part of the world. It arrived from Africa, which in turn got it from Asia. So, you tell me, whose cake is it?”
Marble chuckled at her own logic. “We cannot always say at which
point one culture ends and another begins,” she said, “especially in the kitchen. My book looks at family traditions that are indigenous to one geographic area and culture or which, at the very least, have been tied to local agriculture and customs for so long that if these recipes have roots elsewhere, we would need to go back more than a thousand years to take a closer look.”
Marble reached for a copy of her new book and held it up where she knew the camera could focus on the front cover.
“So I might consider something like French honey in a French recipe, for example, or Welsh salt in a Welsh stew. To me, these are different from the rum cake I mentioned, which might use sugar and rum from Jamaica, port from Portugal, currants and raisins from North America or Europe, dates from Tunisia, and spices from Indonesia.”
“So you’re a culinary purist,” said the host.
“No, not at all,” said Marble. “The diaspora of food, just like the diaspora of people, has helped to shape many cultural traditions. But I am, indeed, fascinated by indigenous crops and highly localized culinary traditions, and that’s what I’ve written about in this book.”
“And what about your own food culture, Marble Martin?” said the host. “Which culinary culture is
Marble sat back and smiled. “My tastes reflect who I am and, like many people, I’m an in-betweener. I was born and bred in London to a father from the north and a mother whose own mother grew up as a missionary kid in the West Indies. I grew up eating different things, and my favorite comfort food comes from the Caribbean.”
“On cold mornings, my mother used to make cornmeal porridge, just like her mother before her, with a touch of vanilla and nutmeg.” To Marble, cornmeal porridge was
close to heaven. As the hot porridge cooled, the top formed a thick film and when you broke the surface with a spoon, up came a wisp of steam with the spicy, milky aroma.
“But that porridge didn’t come from my grammy’s tradition,” Marble said. “Her family adopted the habit while living in the Caribbean, then carried it back home to the UK. And the spices, originally, were
imports from Asia. So, I guess that makes me a product of the food diaspora.”
Marble smiled and leaned toward the coffee CEO. She could smell the bergamot in his cologne.
“The Italians make something thicker than corn porridge, a polenta, which they serve with salty meats and sauces. But that didn’t begin until Christopher Columbus brought corn over to Europe from the New World. What you will find in my book, instead, is an ancient polenta made with fava beans and spelt that more closely resembles what the ancient Romans would have been eating long before that. There’s also another one made from chestnuts.”
Coffee Man was nodding. After the show, he asked for Marble’s business card and pressed his own card into her hand and invited her to visit his company headquarters the next time she found herself in his city. She might just do that, she told him. His hands were manicured but calloused. The next time she saw him, he would explain to her that he liked to do his own gardening and that he also played the guitar. He wanted to see her again, he would say, he wanted to get to know her.
And Marble would tell him that she liked that idea, even if she was feeling increasingly unsure of who she was, exactly, this person that the coffee guru claimed he wanted to get to know. Until a few years ago, Marble would have described herself in an elevator pitch as a London-born art-history-scholar-turned-food-expert. She would have added that she was a mum. Nowadays, she simply said,
I write about foods with a strong sense of place.
Because it was a catchy line, though imprecise, and because that was all she wanted to say of what her life had become.
arble’s residence in Italy was
the result of a predictable story. She had arrived from the UK for her art history studies and she had stayed for the love of a man. But in the beginning, it was just the art. And the food, of course. One day, she was looking at an ancient Roman mosaic of a bowl of mushrooms when she came up with the idea for a book on stories surrounding traditional recipes.
The book started out as a hobby, a labor of love. Later, when Marble started getting requests to do TV shows and conferences she thought,
Weren’t people always reinventing themselves? Marble’s formula was simple. She would research one traditional recipe, then seek out an anecdote from a modern-day family or community or restaurant that used it.
Terrain and climate aside, food was often about who had colonized whom, who had been based where during wartime, who had been forced to feed what to their children when there was nothing else left. And, of course, it was about geography, too, so Marble decided to narrow her focus to traditional foods made with indigenous ingredients or foods that had been produced locally for more than a millennium.
One of the more perverse facts of life is that making a living examining art and archaeology would have been an enormous, if not impossible, challenge for Marble, while it was quite possible to make fabulous sums of money by talking about eating. She’d seen the reality TV shows, she’d seen the book titles on the Internet. So Marble came up
with a plan. She would say that she was talking about recipes when she was really talking about history and culture and everything else.
The first step of Marble’s plan had been to change her name. She undertook a carefully orchestrated campaign to be sure that all social media conversations referenced her preferred name, Marble, not Mabel. Then she applied for a grant to support her research into the stories behind the recipes. Ancient foods as characters in cultural narratives and family histories.
And that was how she met her husband. She was invited to speak to moneyed tourists about farro grown in Umbria, and there he was, on a weekend break from Rome, taking the class to practice his English.
There he was.
Chemistry is a funny thing. Much later, Marble would be able to list a number of things that had helped to create a bond between her and the man she would eventually marry but, the truth is, the chemistry was there from the start, like a breeze that slips through an olive grove, causing a universe of tiny leaves to flash silver in the sunlight. Not only sex. Chemistry. The latter wasn’t only about the former.
From the moment she met him, she could imagine being in bed with him but, also, simply linking her arm in his and strolling, slowly, across a bridge, talking about food, arguing about politics, chatting about nothing in particular. She could not, back then, imagine what love could be like when it grew, despite the cultural and personality differences that came up, despite the arguments and disappointments. She did not know that after just a few years, another person could become part of your DNA.
When your lover was that wealthy, it was possible to embark on a marriage that easily. Here they were, a young Englishwoman with a middle-aged Italian man in the 1990s, commuting between cities. Of course, Marble knew what people thought. Wealthy businessman, female gold digger, probably headed for a rough end. When the end of the marriage did come, it wasn’t in the way that most people would have expected.
Marble went to bed one Saturday night, slightly tipsy from the party
they’d attended, and woke up the next morning a widow. Her husband had died in his sleep, quite peacefully, come to think of it, only it had happened at least forty years too soon.
For years to come, Marble would keep listening for the thud of her husband’s briefcase against the front door as he put his key in the lock. She would keep undoing his side of the bed as she used to when she expected him to come home late. She would imagine saying to her young son,
There’s your dad, love, he’s come home.
Only her husband had died so soon that he never knew his own child.