There is a particular sadness in cheesecake, a melancholic after taste, flat and blunt. It is creamy and sweet on the edges, but heavy in the middle. A sadness that registers on the tongue and releases memories into my synaptic cleft with electric speed.
Replaced with sadness are memories of my father standing in our kitchen making the cake from a German recipe written in German on a piece of graphing paper. The operation was carried with surgical precision and scientific accuracy. My mother found herself demoted in her own kitchen to su chef or second surgeon. She would eye my father with grave concern, like a mother would eye her toddler dashing straight into a mud puddle, pondering the dreadful aftermath, but giving in to the inevitable mess.
With her lips sealed thin tight, mother helped. A few protests would escape her mouth, just as quark came flying off the spatula to land flat on one of the kitchen cabinets. Sometimes the comment would turn into an argument, and other times she would reign in the comment, and continue to stand there watchfully. It looked like Mama was not enjoying any of this, and Baba loved every minute of it. Now I know that the instantaneous argument was a necessary ingredient that ultimately made the cake taste particularly happy.
Happy tasted light, creamy with hints of lemon zest, and notes of rum flavor or was it real rum? Happy had whiffs of sour on the edges, but was perfectly sweet in the center. It had the laughter of children growing up, the excitement the first slice carried with it as Mama lifted it expertly out of the pan. It had the seriousness of classical music and the memories of a younger version of Baba that must have lived freely and danced carelessly in what sounded to us a magical and far away place called Dresden.
I believe Baba was happiest when he was in Dresden; immersed in his books, electrified by the science and carried lightly on melodies of his favorite symphonies. Baba was a complicated man, Palestinian fallah meets German professor; poverty stricken meets eduationally fed; socialist fighter meets middle class comfort. The fluidity of Arabic language collides with the discipline of German culture.
Cheesecake was happiness for my father. A piece of his complex soul, a peace offering extended to us, his teenage children. Deafened by our own lives, he must have felt invisible; unheard and unseen. It was an invitation to get to know him. It was a concave view of his complexity. But for us, at least that immediate moment of heightened consciousness, it was simply delicious, irreplicable cheesecake.
Cheesecake, meant Baba taking over the kitchen for a half a day, and Mama cleaning after him for days. It was a tasty inconvenience. But it was also a moment of peace, when everyone would grow quiet, the arguing, the laughing and the loudness tethered to children came to a screeching halt.
The house abandoned its daily noises and listened intently to the signs of brewing coffee, the clicking and clacking of dishes and utensils as the table was set. And as quiet spread its thick blanket, the chairs were drawn and three children with their parents plopped themselves in anticipation.
The click of the springform pan announced that it was time. The kitchen smiled broadly, proud it survived another cheesecake adventure. The knife silently slid into the cake, and a hushed swoosh was heard as it traveled down through the filling reaching the crust. Then my mother pried the first piece out of the pan, careful not to break it apart. We stared through the arabesque of her arms, cradling our faces with drooling mouths, each hoping that the first piece made its way to their plate.
Eventually we each got a piece, and coffee gurgled into Mama and Baba’s cups. Then the competition of who ate slowest ensued. I watched around the table as I began the swift journey of my fork pressing into the cake , only to be surprised by the crust’s slight resistance before it gave way into crumbly surrender. Then I lifted my fork, slowly, surely to my mouth. My lips parted; the cake made its way into my mouth. My tongue received the piece eagerly, and as it sighed its flavors out, an explosion of thickness, creaminess, light tangues of lemon awakened my taste buds. The flavors waltzed in my mouth, as I started preparing the next bite.
There was a particular happiness in cheesecake that I missed. I was busy being a teenager who was branding her family annoying, dysfunctional and any other adjective that came rushing to mind. But it is exactly moments like this , when families sit around tables in silence to enjoy a meal, or a piece of dessert that memories are made. It is the stuff families are made off. It is what we take for granted as children, the love and safety of parents and the warmth of belonging together.
I had the same dream again…creamy silky cheesecake, Baba in my kitchen, mixing the ingredients, smiling at me. Sugar, cream cheese, butter, a dash of rum flavor, or vanilla, and eggs. He reminds me not to forget the juice of a half lemon and grated lemon peel. I hover around him, trying to register every move. But when I ask him questions, he does not answer. He just pours the batter into the pan, and opens the oven door. I reach out to help him, suddenly he is gone, he gets sucked into the darkness. I lose my footing and fall into the oven behind him. He disappears, and I come crashing into my bed…. The dream ends abruptly; I wake up sweaty, panting for air, with a blunt pain in my chest.
Decades after Baba’s cheesecake adventures met its abrupt end at the hands of multiple coronary thrombosis, I was blinded with bottomless grief and found myself in a state of perpetual hunger for hints of him in everything. I became acutely aware of all the similarities I share with him but never admitted to. So I embarked on a journey to recreate his cake in a desperate search for a hint of him in a bite.
My journey is ornate with endless failures. In my notebook, I enter one failed attempt after the other. One time the quark was too salty, another time, not enough sugar, the third time the consistency was all wrong, not dense enough, not creamy enough, too light, too airy, not enough vanilla, and the list goes on and on. My notebook reads like the hall of fame of failures and the disappointed looks on my siblings’ faces are trophies shining on its walls lustrously.
I regret not translating the recipe into English or Arabic. A continued pang of pain throbs against my heart that I never made the cake with him. He spent so much time with the children, yet we could never squeeze an afternoon to bake. Life always interrupted with a meeting or a phone call, or a sick child. I desperately wished I filmed him making it. Although my memories were as crystal clear as a glass ornament, they were devoid of color and sound. They receded into foggy compartments, there and not really there.
Many times I find myself remembering his wrinkled dark hands, opening the quark/labneh and pouring it into the food processor bowl. I imagine I am standing right beside him taking notes, talking to him. I see him smiling, answering my questions with scientific rigour. I think he would have loved this rare moment of attention from his eldest daughter. The. busy one, who resided comfortably in the distant Sunday dinners, occasional birthdays, Christmas Eves and Eid gatherings. Always busy, always on the run…
Often the images in my head are vivid that memory and imagination mix together, and become indiscernible. But one thing remains and perseveres, the cheesecake. The finer details of its flavors, the happiness it once brought and the particular sadness it now brings.
There is a particular sadness to cheesecake these days. One that persistently comes up in every attempt to recreate dad’s version and in the realization that to die means to not live. A painful recognition to come to is the mortality of our parents, the mortality of ourselves.
It is hard to imagine Baba not enjoying cheesecake. How fragile life is! How flimsy are its pleasures! We take them for granted, casting them aside as mundane and worldly, and only when death takes our loved ones, do we understand their preciousness.
My dad lived a full life with a successful career, a vibrant family with a wife who was equal parts homemaker and intellectual partner. A father who raised the bar high for his children, and never took any excuses. It is the fullness of his life that leaves behind an array of pain and memory. The more one lives, the more love there is to mourn.
All faiths and cultures believe that death leads to a better place. Does it? Or is this what mortals tell themselves to ease the pain of loss. On the eve of what would have been Baba’s 87th birthday, I can only pray that he is indeed in a better place where eternal peace and happiness envelope him warmly.
You are missed, Rest In Peace Baba