In high school, Sahar and I walked home from school together every afternoon. In our junior year of college, school went transatlantic for us both: she studied in Spain, and I in France. I traveled down that spring from Paris to Arles, from Arles to Avignon, from Avignon to Marseilles, and from Marseilles to Granada, Spain, where she met me at the station. In almost the same breath as “I missed you,” she told me her news: the internationally-renowned best chocolate cake in the entire world, she’d discovered, came from a bakery in Barcelona. When we flew there on Ryan Air the next weekend, we were going to eat it.
Earlier on in our friendship, Sahar and I had developed a creed, a religion all our own, that absolutely mandated that we hunt this cake down. Cake is good, this religion said simply. Listen to U2 and the Beatles instead of Maroon 5, don’t do homework on Fridays, and dessert is inherently good. Ice cream is good even on foggy afternoons; hot chocolate chip cookies are good even when the cafeteria has raised their price from twenty-five to thirty-five cents; and cake, whether or not it’s your birthday, whether it’s tea-time or breakfast time, is just plain good.
So I ooh-ed and mmm-ed every time Sahar mentioned that bakery in Barcelona, striving to summon those same shameless feelings I had felt about dessert a few years earlier. But in truth, Sahar and I had both strayed from our altar of sugar since we moved apart for college. A new religion was grasping at our psyches, one that suggested that dessert might be evil rather than good, might make you ugly instead of happy. We had dallied with bathroom scales and ellipticals. It was hard to talk about it, and neither of us was quite sure how to go back. I don’t know exactly how Sahar felt about her own food or body during our trip to Barcelona; but I knew she had managed to get really, really excited about eating this cake, and I wanted to be excited with her. And for that whole weekend, I battled the ill, hollow feeling that she had chosen the wrong partner in crime.
A few weeks earlier, while I was browsing in Shakespeare & Company, I’d seen this heinous book: French Women Don’t Get Fat. If I had still been fourteen, I could never have touched such a book except to laugh at it. “Eat nothing but leeks for two days?” I’d have shrieked. “What is this, a diet for snails?” But at twenty-one, I read about the leek diet and had other thoughts—heretical thoughts. I thought, “Five pounds in two days, huh?” I thought of the immaculate Parisian women on the metro, whose sleek-fitting black dresses and stockings made me feel so gawky in my purple jeans and self-imposed bangs. I thought of the scale in my French homestay mother’s bathroom, the one that kept telling me that at about 140 pounds, I was treading a dangerously thin line between the “healthy weight” range and the “overweight.” I wondered if it was really true that all these women were cleansing their bodies with leeks twice a year—if being like them could really be that easy.
The book said to boil the leeks in water, to sip on the broth throughout the day, and to treat yourself to a plateful of boiled leeks, lightly salted, for lunch. You were allowed a second plate for dinner. Leeks, it turned out, were like big, stalky scallions: white and thick at the root, green and tattered at the top. I’d never cooked with them before, so I didn’t know how much sand and soil stays lodged between all their avocado-colored layers if you don’t rinse them enough. That meant that besides being pure liquid and smelling like onions, my major food source was gritty with dirt, like water from a shallow pond.
I had never been sure I’d be able to keep that up for two whole days, but it turned out I couldn’t even do it for one. By 7 P.M. of the first day of my leek diet, I was inhaling strawberries, cheese, crackers, and everything else I could find, rejoicing. But there’s a difference between kissing crash dieting goodbye and remembering how to eat without guilt. My old religion declared I had triumphed; the new, threatening one still hissed that I had failed.
I still cringe when I remember that when Sahar and I finally got to that bakery in Barcelona, I didn’t even order the famous chocolate cake. I had a creamy, flaky thing with berries on top, almost exclusively because it looked like it would have fewer calories. I smiled with Sahar in the pictures of us with our treats, and the coffees beside them, and the polished plates and spoons at the end. I even used one of those pictures as the background on my computer desktop for a while afterward. But that was really just because it had felt so good to be with Sahar. It should also have felt good to eat cake.
I don’t know many women who haven’t grappled, at some point in their lives, with this suggestion that cake is bad, or even that taking pleasure in cake is bad; that moderation isn’t possible, and you’re a better person if you can just subsist on leek juice. Now that Sahar and I are both back to loving dessert with relative guiltlessness, I wonder: how did we do it? How did we navigate that journey from indulgence to asceticism and back to a happy medium?
These questions mystify me. The intensity of the self-loathing I was experiencing back when I tried the leek diet seems so otherworldly, so alien, when I contrast it with the glee I felt just yesterday upon devouring two chocolate-covered graham crackers. I can’t quite believe that the same young woman could have felt both these feelings. And yet last week, when I looked down at my belly after a big dinner, a familiar panic stabbed through me, and I sadly realized that I am, indeed, the same person I was in Barcelona. Sometimes, I still have to fight not to accept hateful beliefs about my own appetites.
The closest thing I have to an explanation of why the bad religion has never swallowed me up completely is rooted in my memories of younger versions of Sahar and me. It used to be easy for us to love food with the same abandon and joy with which we loved each other. And when I remember what that was like, I remember how simple it can be to let your body lead your way, just as a best friend can. I remember that hungry means “eat” and full means “stop,” and I remember how to listen.
Back with our Girl Scout troop, we used to make this cake. You emptied a box of grocery store cake mix into an enormous Dutch oven, and you stirred it up with some eggs and milk and vegetable oil. Then you scattered a whole bag of chocolate chips over the batter, covered the pot, and buried the whole mess in the coals of your campfire. By the time you and your camp sisters had finished your chicken-and-potatoes cooked in tinfoil, or your hamburger-and-pasta soup, the cake was ready, rich and damp and reddish-brown, with the chocolate chips melting over the top like butter on hot toast: the thickest, sweetest wilderness frosting you ever did see.
I remember one night especially clearly, in Joshua Tree National Park: the dark, windy end of a day spent scrambling up granite boulders, learning how to buckle harnesses, and breathing the dust-and-rainclouds smell of creosote bushes. Out there in the deserts of southern California, the dryness crackles with energy, like static electricity. It’s a life force you can feel through the windows of your parents’ minivan as the landscape opens around the highway, giving way from brown hills and strip malls to spiny shrubs and huge piles of rock. We were all out there eating our cake under the incredible stars, the kind so clear you can see all the spilled light that made someone call the Milky Way “milky,” and it was like this desert campsite was not just the best, but the only place, and our cake the only cake we’d ever need.
It was inevitable that Sahar and I would grow into something other than those teenage girls. We’d eventually need to see other places and taste other cakes. But that power to know what we loved and to love it with joy—that, we eventually learned to hold onto. And even when I was too far away from my teenaged self to share the world’s best chocolate cake with Sahar, what we’d always known protected me.