I Love Lucy’s Lemon Squares
I began almost compulsively baking the summer leading into my junior year of high school. The social structure and racial composition of my small-town high school had left me feeling deeply unhappy and isolated. Most days I had to build myself up to leaving the house, mentally preparing for the microaggressions I would come in contact with as I moved through the hallways, from classroom to classroom; all with a smile playing at my lips, because as I was told, they weren’t supposed to see me cry.
My sadness found a way to eventually manifest itself into a pool at the center of my chest, and I could feel myself wading deeper into it as time went on. I was never been able to properly articulate my sadness. That’s the thing about pain, it takes an exorbitant amount of energy to try to understand it yourself and then put it into words, with the hopes that someone else might be able to comprehend it. After years of moving through it, the best way I can describe it now is by comparing it to sitting at the bottom of a pool; you can see everyone else moving above water, but you can’t hear them, and they can’t hear you. And while you’re aware that it would just take a kick from your legs or a wave from your arms to swim to the surface, you don’t, because sometimes it’s easier to sink.
I always enjoyed watching baking shows like "Cupcake Wars" and “Cake Boss,” sitting quietly at the island in my kitchen as I gaped at the bakers making elaborate creations from flour and sugar. I had no desire to make something myself; I was just there to watch. I’m not sure when that changed, but I remember feeling an intense urge to bake one day. So, I turned to Martha Stewart to find a suitable recipe for strawberry cupcakes and made my way to the kitchen. I carefully read through her instructions to make sure no mistake was made as I hunched over a bowl, mixing all the necessary ingredients together. I could feel the joy slowly fill the hole at the center of my chest as I pulled my cupcakes out of the oven.
Baking quickly became a way for me to move through my sadness, to gain some sense of control over my anxiety and emotions. While studying for a test didn’t guarantee I’d receive an acceptable grade in my parents’ eyes, or losing weight didn’t guarantee I’d be seen as beautiful, or loving someone didn’t guarantee he’d love me back; I knew three cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, one teaspoon of salt, three sticks of unsalted butter, two cups of sugar, a half teaspoon of vanilla extract, one cup of milk, eight egg whites, and 24 fresh strawberries would yield two dozen wonderfully tasty cupcakes. Just like the recipe said.
When my dad realized baking was an activity I planned to do regularly, he took advantage of it and began suggesting things he would enjoy, starting with Lucy’s Lemon Squares from the Peanuts Cookbook. He used to have them a lot as a kid and said he missed them, so I was more than happy to bake them for him. Before that moment, baking was something I did purely for myself, but baking those lemon squares for my dad and hearing the delight in his voice after he bit into one made me realize that baking could also help to fill even the tiniest of holes in someone else.
I’ve managed to perfect Lucy’s Lemon Squares over the years and often turn to them when I’m feeling a little mixed up inside. Having received some unpleasant news on Friday, they seemed like the most logical thing to bake this weekend. While the confusion and sadness has yet to leave me, I was able to get a better handle on them as I sifted flour and powdered sugar together before mixing them with butter. Every thought had left my mind as I whipped together eggs and sugar and lemon juice for three minutes. And although my chest still had many holes, some of which had been filled by the time I pulled the baking pan out of the oven, the lemon squares had none. They were perfect.