Three Cakes, a Mystery Pie and Coffee: How We Measure Time In Food Now


It’s the last weekend of February, and snow is dumping on the ground in a mountain cabin where I’m celebrating my birthday with close friends and my boyfriend, Al. My daughter, Grace, who is 8, has made me the most exquisite chocolate cake that happens to be vegan to accommodate everyone’s dietary restrictions. It’s rich and so deep and tastes like joy and vacation breakfast.

I am so grateful to have friends that are like family, and I’m madly in love with Al, and I wish the weekend would last forever, all of us showing off our culinary prowess and drinking and laughing by a roaring fire. But it doesn’t, as slate-grey clouds close the sky and start dumping heavy wet snow that will soon make the roads impassable. We all beat a hasty exit down the mountain back to Los Angeles before we are snowed in for an uncertain length of time. Little do we know that in two weeks we will be metaphorically snowed in by COVID-19 shelter-at-home orders. We can’t drive anywhere to escape.


Spring break: The days stretch long and melt into each other, and even when break is over in two weeks, we’ll still be here, with our unwashed hair and going-nowhere day-into-night-into-day outfits. Grace, who aspires to be a pastry chef (as soon as she’s confident enough to turn on the oven herself) reprises the vegan chocolate cake as cupcakes. They taste like too much of a good thing. We share them with our neighbors.

The reality of the pandemic, which is just hitting Los Angeles, is feeling ominous, like the charged heaviness in the air before the sky cracks open and unleashes torrents of rain. I’m imagining scenes from The Walking Dead. Al and I had worked out a loose apocalypse plan in case things go really haywire. He’d readied both his guns and a fresh stock of ammo, a baggie of Vaseline-and-cotton ball outdoor fire starter, and eight cans of Manwich sauce (before you judge him harshly, he’d thought they contained meat when he got them). I’d envisioned feeding all of us — me, Grace, Al, as well as his young son and two grown daughters, who go between his house and their mom’s.

Our wonderful local Indian grocery has an entire rainbow palette of dried beans and lentils, cabbage, ginger, dairy, and spices. I stock up, throwing the 10-pound basmati bag into the back of my car like a hunter would a prized buck.

I also score a hunk of corned beef — half price at another local grocery! — and feel excited to re-create our St. Patrick’s Day feast from a few years ago, tender bits of beef flaking off into a briny, bay-leaf pepper broth, chased by a creamy potato and of course, a soft, silky bite of cabbage. Because my income has suddenly dropped and become as uncertain as everything else, we will now make everything we eat. The $40 we’d spend on Thai food or other takeout feels too extravagant. It’s all scratch now. Instead, we shop for flour and coconut milk and toilet paper at restaurants that have become pop-up groceries.

Well, it turns out Al is very good at social, emotional and physical distancing. He evaporates, without discussion except a short text that says he’s contemplating things and doesn’t feel like talking much. This, even though he’d brought up marriage several times in recent weeks. I’m disappointed but not surprised — he’s ducked out of my life several times since we met in 1987. I stop wondering if I will ever hear from him again. (Now you may judge him.)

Grace and I eat the corned beef by ourselves on St. Patrick’s day, and the days following — the beef fried with eggs, the broth alone, a slab of meat with Dijon mustard on homemade bread. It tastes like abandonment, only saltier.


“Mom, is this good?” Grace holds up a tablespoon of sugar, which looks level and perfectly fine to me. She is wondering if she is a few grains short. Or maybe there are a few too many? She is by nature, very careful. She wants to get it right.

The sugar will be sprinkled on top of an olive oil cake that’s about to go into the oven. We’ve chosen this recipe from the America’s Test Kitchen kids’ cookbook because we have everything on hand, as we’ve stopped dashing off to the store to pick up unlikely ingredients such as almond extract (or chocolate chips, which might be normal in another household but ours never last more than a week).

Time and our food economy has shifted completely. Each trip to the store feels like a risk. I can’t die. Grace’s dad did that already last year, and if I’m gone she’ll have no parents. Every time I fill my cart and my fridge, I know I am lucky. I think about our great inequality, strained even further through the lens of the pandemic: The less money you have, the more frequently you’ll have to go to the store or food pantry, and more likely you are to be exposed to the virus. So much of this could have been avoided if the people who knew were generous, long-term thinkers. It tastes like genocide.

Instead of thinking about something that happened “last week,” I now measure time, which has become a Dali construction, days and nights sliding and melting into each other, by which cake we were eating. As in, “oh, I last talked to Natalie while we still had the cupcakes but before the olive oil cake.”

For this olive oil cake, we have sacrificed three of the last five eggs, which Grace has timidly knocked on the side of the bowl, a few times, until she can pry apart the shell and let the inside drip out. I show her how to do it in a swift move, one crack, one pull. She needs a few more hundred eggs to practice with until she becomes adept. We have spent several hours of the day on this cake. Grace moves in dream time. Before, I would have been rushing her to finish so she could practice piano, do her homework, go to bed. But today, I appreciate that we never hurry anymore. And anything to keep her engaged is welcome, as the drudgery and frustration of online school has put traditional education at the bottom of our list.

We will eat this olive oil cake every day for six days. It tastes like hope and England and lemons.


I have a coffee guy. He’s an Italian-American called Mario who owns a boutique roasting company, Belli Fratelli, that sources organic beans from women-run farms in Mexico. We’d met a couple years ago when he came to buy a sink from me off Craigslist. We’re both from the East Coast, and though we’d each been in California for at least a decade, we marveled at the ways this land of sun and surf sometimes doesn’t make sense to us. “I don’t know why they planted so many palm trees here,” he’d said in his heavy accent, which sounds like a lullaby to my homesick ears. He swept his arm toward the foothills, which were bursting into their jolly spring green scrubby foliage. “Those palm trees. They’re just homes for rats. Why not plant figs or avocados instead? Then everyone would have food.” We talked about bartering, a new kind of economy, and what will happen when it is time for reckoning. A month later, he left a pound of coffee for me as a thanks for a deep discount on the sink, and it’s truly the most delicious I’ve ever had. It tastes like Venice, like the beginnings of an adventure.

Now when I need coffee, I text him what I want, drive a couple miles to his house, pick up my coffee from his porch. Invariably, he gives me way more than what I’ve paid for, sometimes a jar of homemade sun-dried tomatoes or some oranges from the tree out back.

I’ve come to him this time, during the pandemic, straight from the farmer’s market. We say hi from either side of the screen door, and I pick up my two big Mason jars full of beans. Along with some cash, I’ve brought him a loaf of rosemary bread I baked, wrapped in brown paper, still warm. We talk a while, remembering our first conversation. As I get ready to leave, he leaves me with something to think about from St. Lucy, patron saint of the eyes. “Santa Lucia per favore solleva il taglio fine del prosciutto dai miei occhi afinche io posso vedere chiaramente la verita.” Please lift up the thin veil of prosciutto over my eyes so that I may see clearly.

And also: “In Italy, there’s a saying. Uno forse ha bisogno di una piccola guerra per consentire una pace e una prospettiva.” He mimes eating. One perhaps needs to taste a little war to allow one peace and perspective.

I welcome clarity. But war, I imagine, tastes like dirt, like motor grease, like blood.

PIE №1: Mystery Pie

In all this austerity, I think about my beloved Great Aunt Frances, who lived near her sister Grace, my grandmother, in a tiny speck of a town called Lilliwaup on Puget Sound in Washington State. It’s a thin strip of land that sidles along Hwy. 101, between the lush mountain-forest and the grey-pebbled beach. Though everyone in my family is a fierce cook, Aunt Frances was a baker without equal. Her throw-down dessert and favorite among the cousins was Mystery Pie, a wartime recipe designed to use what was in the pantry at that time: gelatin, canned milk, nutmeg, eggs, vanilla. (Though my cousin Jo Robinson, a food goddess in her own right, says she would now sub out whole milk and half ’n’ half for the canned, and fresh-ground nutmeg for the dried.)

I feel a biological pull to make this nutmeggy recipe, like it will somehow connect me to the beautiful, resilient women who came before me. I need their strength and good humor, because I am down to zero. They survived war and less-than-optimal husbands and other atrocities.

I haven’t had this pie since I was Grace’s age. I’m worried it won’t be the same, like visiting a childhood home that seemed so big but is really just normal size when you see it as an adult. Maybe that’s why I’ve waited 40-plus years to try this.

Grace and I follow each step of the recipe carefully. It sits overnight in the fridge — it’s a no-bake deal, unless you want to bake a crust (we used graham cracker crust). I cut out a slice for each of us for breakfast. (It pairs perfectly with Mario’s deep, rich coffee.) Suddenly, I am stretching the moment backward, sitting at Frances’ laminate and chrome kitchen table in the late ’70s, looking out at the water. The pie is exactly as I remember it, which is more of a relief than I had anticipated.

It tastes like a memory, like home. Like life.


Mystery Pie

As told to me by Jo Robinson

Ingredients: 1 can of evaporated milk, 3 eggs (divided), 1 envelope gelatin, 1 cup sugar (divided), 1 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Make a single-crust pie crust and bake in a 350 degree oven until slightly brown. (This would have been made from lard or bacon grease.) Cool. Or use a frozen or graham cracker crust.
1. Dissolve the gelatin in 1/4 cup cold water. Set aside.
2. In a double boiler placed over boiling water, heat the milk and nutmeg until steaming hot. (Do not allow to boil.) If you don’t have a double boiler, cook in a regular sauce pan placed directly on the cooktop. Keep the heat low and be careful the mixture doesn’t boil or stick to the bottom. Take off the heat.
3. Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks and 1/2 cup of the sugar in a small bowl until creamy. Set the whites aside in another small bowl.
4. Drizzle the egg mixture into the hot milk, stirring constantly. Put back on the heat and cook until it begins to thicken or coats a spoon.
5. Add the gelatin. Stir thoroughly, take off the heat, and then cool to room temperature.
6. Beat the egg whites until stiff, sprinkling in the remaining 1/2 cup sugar as you go.
7. Fold the whites, vanilla, and nutmeg into the custard.
8. Pour into the cooled crust and refrigerate for 3 hours or more.
9. Top with whipped cream if desired. (I do desire.)

Vanessa McGrady’s love language is food. It is a medium through which she experiences the world. She ramps up her cooking when she’s brokenhearted or bored or anxious or … whatever this new gumbo of emotions is called. She is terrible at buying presents, but very good at bringing the perfect soup to an under-the-weather friend. She bakes bread on the regular, and when she’s all in, it’s Craig Claiborne’s bouillabaisse. She is the author of ROCK NEEDS RIVER: A MEMOIR ABOUT A VERY OPEN ADOPTION.


Vanessa McGrady

Vanessa McGrady is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. She is the author of ROCK NEEDS RIVER: A MEMOIR ABOUT A VERY OPEN ADOPTION. vanessamcgrady.com

Vanessa McGradyThree Cakes, a Mystery Pie and Coffee: How We Measure Time In Food Now

Comments 3

  1. Judy Lamantia

    I’ve never read the work of a writer who uses words so perfectly. You paint pictures that I can see in my mind with your words. I wish you lived next door!

  2. Erin McGill

    I just finished reading your eloquent book ‘RNR’! What I en-JOY-ed most was how well written it was … each sentence able to tell your life’s journey as though you were speaking to me like a best friend. I am a mother comforted that you and Gracie found each other. I am a teacher glad that Gracie has you to guide her through this miraculous life! I am an avid reader glad I finally read your book that has been waiting on my Kindle for many years.
    All the best two you!

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