Lady Baltimore

Original artwork by Jessie French

About ten years ago, after a painting that she’d been working on disappointed her, my mother dragged the canvas out onto the front lawn.  Still in her painting clothes, she proceeded to rip it apart with a small hatchet, reducing a 3 by 5 foot work of art to an abundance of 3 by 5 inch works of art.  A few weeks later, she sent them, without explanation, to her friends and family for Valentine’s Day.  (The whole thing was a little “Vincent’s ear”, and the parallel did not escape her: she did a series of Van Gogh’s disembodied ear the next fall.  She also set fire to a couple of those, and then did a painting of them on fire.  And yes, I was an anxious child.)  The canvas scrap my mother sent to me that Valentine’s contains the original painting’s full signature.  Of all the fragments of her destroyed work, each one a tiny relic of perfectionism and mania, I got the one with her name on it!  

Receiving the portion with her signature, the veritable corner piece to the puzzle of her insanity, really means something to me.  I can see how, when other people opened their valentines that year, they might have felt a vague sense of reproach, instead of the more common Valentine’s message: affection.  But her valentine to me read loud and clear. . .and sort of sentimental.  In the often-distorted world of my mother, being singled out for the signature told me that, in some inexplicable way, she predicted that I’d get the whole idea: the need to tear that painting up.  Here’s why.

picture-4.jpgHome for spring break later that year, I decided to make use of my time by “learning to cook”.  Desserts being the modus operandi of my appetite (and of my recently retired father), baking took precedence over more reasonable endeavors, such as learning to cook pasta, or boiling an egg.  My mother bought me a book called Cakewalk by Robin Gourley, chiefly because she admired its watercolor illustrations.  Of all the perfectly good, beloved and standard recipes – lemon cake, apple cake, pound cake – I chose a recipe called Lady Baltimore.  Why?  Because I’m pretentious.  A three-tiered concoction of sifted cake flour, softened butter, separated eggs, currants, fine zest, roasted slivered almonds. . .it is the kind of cake that no one in their right mind attempts to make, let alone a beginner.  Hours later, I had three impenetrable discuses on my hands, but convinced myself that the frosting would mask all.         

“What soft peaks?” I wondered, beating another egg white and some cream of tartar into the double boiler.  I added a second teaspoon of light corn syrup and the frosting quickly turned against me, refusing to be stirred.  The recipe called for an icing just stiff enough to spread; this stuff was stiff enough to slice.  It stuck to the first cake layer in solid, sagging patches.

I have a bit of difficulty remembering the next bit, what with the experience being tinged by a cold white rage, the evidence of which is scrawled across my copy of Cakewalk.  I have the book beside me today, and sure enough, page fifty-seven has a giant X drawn through it, and the phrase “DOSN’T WORK!” scrawled along the margin.  “DOSN’T” also has a tiny, outrageous letter “e” written above it in the grammatically correct spot, but I’m nearly certain that this shameful spelling mistake sent me over the edge. 

Original artwork by Jessie French

The rest of the experience comes to me in flashes.  I can recall my father’s desperate, red face chanting “Just put powdered sugar on it!  Just put powdered sugar!” as he tried to pry the naked cake layers away from me.  I think I even remember my mom saying something like “Life never gets easier” or something equally helpful, as I ran outside to the bird feeder and began to pull out leaden chunks of cake from the pan.  But, being my mother’s daughter, a certain pedestrian quality to the bird feeder burial seemed too bland an end. 

So I took my Lady Baltimore to a craggy outcrop overlooking the ocean, and threw her in.  My father threatened never to see me again.  My mom let me back in the house.

If I had any of the artistic inclination that my mother does, I would have photographed it: a sad cake floating out to sea.  I might have also burned the photographs, and then photographed that, but I don’t have the presence of mind that she does.  Instead, I’ve decided to write about my destruction of Lady Baltimore.  I know at least one person who’ll really get it:  Happy Valentine’s Day, Mom.


After 12 years away from her home turf of Southern California, Agatha French returned to Los Angeles from Boston this fall.  She, and her boyfriend Ryan, are very much looking forward to the year round fruit.