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Secret’s in the sauce

A week before Lag Ba’omer, I went back to work full-time. I loved my job, but I couldn’t find a balance with the rest of my life. I was constantly running, there was never enough time, and I couldn’t kick the feeling that I was falling behind somewhere. If it wasn’t the grocery shopping, it was the laundry (the baskets of clean, unfolded clothes sprouted like moss around my house). If it wasn’t the dry cleaning, it was the long list of phone calls I needed to return. I had always been a methodical, organized person, able to juggle everything with ease. But now I felt like I was trying to corral a hurricane. One afternoon at work, I opened up my calendar to fill in the next week’s shift schedule and froze. There was one week until Shavuos. In the old days, I had my Yom Tov menus written up months in advance and my freezer filled with entrees well before most people started their shopping. But this year, I pushed off planning for Yom Tov for more pressing things that needed to be done. I had plenty of time, I told myself. There were seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuos. It wasn’t exactly around the corner. But now it was. I started to panic. I barely had time to pack my lunch; now I was supposed to make a whole Yom Tov? I called my best friend, Yehudis, for sympathy. “Right now, just thinking of opening a cookbook makes me want to have a nervous breakdown, let alone planning menus and shopping. Oh, gosh, and the cooking…There is absolutely no way I can pull this off.” “So don’t,” said Yehudis. “What are you talking about? Yom Tov is in six days! Avi and Tovah are coming in from Eretz Yisrael! And Shira and Benji and Daniel are coming for all the meals! Someone has to make something for them to eat!” “You’re right,” Yehudis answered. “But it doesn’t have to be you.” My eyebrows shot up. “You’re not suggesting I order Yom Tov, are you?” “Why not? Caterers are in business for a reason.” “Yehudis, have you forgotten who you’re talking to? The make-it-from-scratch lady? I won’t even buy onion soup mix.” “So make an exception,” she said. “Just this once.” I pictured my mother, who made all the food for all eight of her grandchildren’s sheva brochas—when she was well into her sixties.

Once, I made the mistake of asking her if she wanted to save her energy and hire a caterer. She gave me a look that would have burned through steel. “When you’re building a bayis ne’eman,” she said in her heavy Czech accent, “you don’t take shortcuts.” “It’s not right,” I protested to Yehudis. “It’s like cheating.” I could practically hear Yehudis rolling her eyes on the other end of the phone. “This isn’t a contest. No one cares what’s on the table. Your kids would be happy if you served Cocoa Puffs. They’re coming to see you.” I knew she was right, but the idea of calling a caterer made me burn with shame. “I just can’t do it.” “Okay,” said Yehudis. “Enjoy your nervous breakdown.” That night, I had a dream that I was sitting in bed, reading. Suddenly, an egg landed right next to my leg. Puzzled, I picked it up and looked at it. Then another egg plopped on the bed. This one cracked. As I scrambled for a towel, down came another egg. Then another. Then another. All at once it was a storm of raw eggs, falling faster and faster, forming a mountain of slick yolks and broken shells. In less than a minute, they had buried me completely. The next morning, I called the caterer. I ordered everything, from soup to dips to sides to mains, and treated myself to two bulk bags of cinnamon bilkelach. “How many cheesecakes you want?” he asked. Cheesecake. I had completely forgotten. Cheesecake was my crowning glory, a treat my family longed for all year round. I had to make the cheesecake, at least. But when I thought of trying to get to the store, my throat closed with anxiety. “I’ll take three,” I said.When the food arrived, I quietly loaded all of it into the freezer with an audible sigh of relief.

The next day, my son Avi arrived with his wife, Tovah. As soon as they’d gotten settled, Tovah strode into the kitchen. “I’m ready,” she said, pulling up her sleeves. “Put me to work.” “Everything’s done,” I replied. She gaped at me. “Really?” “Yup,” I said, pulling open the freezer to show her my “work.” “You’re amazing!” Tovah gushed. “Avi said you’ve been crazy busy. How did you find the time?” I shrugged by way of an answer. Tovah shook her head in astonishment. “You put me to shame.” On Yom Tov, I sat at the table with my family, watching everyone eat with gusto. The food was good—not as good as mine, I thought gleefully—but there were no complaints. Then came dessert. As I placed the cheesecake on the table, I felt the crackle of anticipation in the air. “This is what I came home for,” said Avi, leaning forward in his seat. As I divvied out the thick slices, I prayed that the caterer’s version wouldn’t be too poor a substitute. As my husband took a bite, his eyes drifted closed with pleasure. “Shevy,” he said, “you have outdone yourself.” “Hands down,” raved Sara, “this is the best cheesecake you have ever made.” Even Tovah, who wasn’t “a dessert person,” gobbled up her slice, then a second, pressing her fork to the plate to catch every last crumb. I was thrilled that my family enjoyed the cheesecake—and horrified that they enjoyed it so much. As Pinchas and I were cleaning up, Tovah cornered me in the kitchen. “You must give me that cheesecake recipe,” she said. I felt a rock of anxiety drop into my chest.

I had already led everyone to believe that I’d made everything; how could I tell her I didn’t know the recipe? “I would,” I hedged, “but then Avi would have no reason to visit anymore.” “Okay,” she said, laughing. “I promise we’ll still come visit. Can you please, please tell me how you make it?” “I thought you weren’t a dessert person,” I countered, stalling for time. Over Tovah’s shoulder, I saw Pinchas give me a puzzled look. “I’m not, really,” Tovah said, “but rules are made to be broken, right? So what do you use? Whipped cream cheese or regular? And I thought I tasted some lemon in there…” “I…I don’t remember exactly,” I stammered, taking a step back from her. “It’s a little of this, a little of that. I’m not even sure I have the recipe anymore.” Tovah’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “I guess you’ll let me know if it turns up.” “Of course,” I croaked. I watched her stalk out of the kitchen, then turned to see Pinchas staring at me. “What?” I snapped, feeling like a petulant teenager.“You’ve been making cheesecake for 30 years.

Suddenly you forgot the recipe?” “I didn’t forget it,” I told him. “But that’s not the recipe she wants.” “Shev,” he said, like he was talking me down from a ledge, “are you losing your mind?” I rolled my eyes. “No, Pinchas, I am not losing my mind.” “So what’s the problem? Why can’t you just tell her how you made the cheesecake?” “Because I didn’t make it, okay?” I said, flinging an avocado peel into the garbage. “I ordered it from Goldblatt! And everything else, too!” Pinchas’s mouth fell open. “You did?” I cast my eyes to the floor. “Yes.” “I thought the kugel tasted different,” he marveled. “I was so stressed out with work, there wasn’t any time…” I said in apology. “It’s okay, Shev. Everybody orders out once in a while.” “Not me,” I replied, sighing. Pinchas nodded knowingly. “So that’s what this is about. You didn’t want to admit defeat.” I said nothing. “You really think your children will respect you less if they found out you had Yom Tov catered?” “I don’t know. They might think I’m a hypocrite.” “I doubt it,” said Pinchas. “They don’t hold you to your standards.” On the counter, I saw the cheesecake pan, which held one last, half-eaten piece. “All right,” I said. “I’ll tell her.” After Yom Tov ended, I pulled Tovah aside and told her the truth about the cheesecake. I was amazed at the lightness I felt after my confession, and astonished at Tovah’s response: “Wow. Thank you so much.” “What are you thanking me for?” “Ever since I married Avi,” she confided, “I’ve felt this pressure to keep up with you. I saw you as this Supermom-type who could do everything, while I was just…me. It’s such a relief to know that you can’t do it all, either.” I was so touched, I almost cried. “Well, if that’s the case, then it was worth ruining my reputation. I guess we both had to learn that no one can do it all.” Tovah beamed. “Now,” I said, giving her hand a squeeze, “let’s go see if there’s any cheesecake left.”

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