What You Eat: The Best Brownies

In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were sweating it out over a stove in the summer or, as in the case of this entry from Lisa Rosinsky, finding an unexpected moment with an elder long thought lost, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.

And now that I’ve laid the table, Lisa Rosinsky:

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Lisa Rosinsky

My grandmother, Rita Bella Roberts Shapiro, turned ninety-five this year. She has round-the-clock nursing care and is confined to a wheelchair; she’s mostly deaf and has lost the abilities to speak, use the bathroom, and feed herself. But she’s still living in the house my mother grew up in—the house where Rita raised three daughters, one mentally retarded, and helped my grandfather run a nursing uniforms business out of their basement in the years after World War II. The house where she used to cook her special “cottage cheese contraption” for my sister and me, where she’d overload our plates with buttery home fries, back when we were little and she could still walk and talk. Where she always had a well-stocked cookie drawer in the kitchen.

My mother organized a party the Saturday after Grandmom’s birthday. That morning, my mother and sister drove up from Baltimore and I drove down from my home in northeast Pennsylvania, to converge at the single-story brick duplex in north Philadelphia. My Aunt Dena and Uncle Jeff were there; the head nurse, Donna; the neighbors, who helped Grandmom out with odd jobs around the house when they could. Dena and Donna had been decorating all morning. A “happy birthday” banner hung across the windows in the living room, and framed photographs stood on every surface.

Grandmom sat in the middle of the living room, fuming. She’d try to push herself out of the wheelchair until her arms tired out, and then she’d collapse back in the chair and groan. Every few minutes she’d wave a lethargic hand at the photos and banners and balloons and say something that sounded like “Put it away” or “Go away.”

Donna shook her head. “She’s been like this all day. Two o’clock, and she’s ready for bed.”

It was more than exhaustion. She was agitated at seeing her house out of order, and the photographs were making her unhappy.

“Sometimes it’s easier to forget than remember—especially when not all the memories are good ones,” my mother said. My grandfather had been gone for nearly a decade. His last years were not happy ones. He forgot who his wife was; thought she was trying to kill him; sometimes called the police, who would find him ranting and raving, or wandering around the house naked.

Donna was setting out plates and cups and an enormous fruit salad. My mom and I unpacked the food we’d brought. She’d made a tuna casserole and a chocolate cake. I peeled the foil off the aluminum baking pan I was carrying. “I brought brownies. Guess we’ve got the chocolate food group covered.”

We all tried to stay cheerful and upbeat, patting my grandmother on the hand and singing happy birthday to her when she moaned.

“I think she said ‘Go away,’” my sister whispered.

“She’s been saying that ever since I got here this morning,” Dena replied. “‘Go away’ or ‘Clean it up’ or ‘Put me to bed.’”

Grandmom let people give her the occasional grape or sip of Gatorade, but she didn’t seem very interested in the food otherwise. So I put a brownie and a slice of chocolate cake on a plate and sat down next to her. Even when she’s been at her worst, she’s never lost her sweet tooth. The last time I visited, I brought her cookies. “Yum, yum, yum,” she’d said, biting into one. It was the only lucid thing she’d said that day.

I loaded up a spoonful of cake and held it to her mouth. She obediently ate it, and licked her lips.

“That’s the spirit, Mom!” my mother said, applauding. Grandmom let me feed her most of the cake, then pushed the plate away. But a few minutes later, she gestured toward the plate again, and let me feed her the rest of the cake.

“Someone’s hungry!” I said, immediately hating the patronizing tone of my voice. It’s so easy to treat the elderly like small children. No wonder Grandmom’s tired of it all.

She finished the last bite of cake, and I started on the brownie.

“Which one do you like better, Grandmom?” I asked, mostly to keep up the charade of conversation, to pretend that we were actually communicating.

She looked at me, and for a moment her eyes were completely clear and her voice didn’t wobble. “They’re both good,” she said. She took the last bite of brownie. “Now clean this all up, and put me to bed.”

Best One-Bowl Brownies

  • ½ cup oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup cocoa
  • ¼ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ½ cup chocolate chips
  1. Blend oil, sugar, and vanilla.
  2. Add eggs, mix.
  3. Add everything else and mix till blended.
  4. Bake in a 9-inch greased pan at 350 degrees, 20-25 mins (or until edged pull away from pan).

Lisa Rosinsky lives in the mountains of rural Pennsylvania where she is the Associate Managing Editor at Boyds Mills Press, the book publishing division of Highlights for Children. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, Measure, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, Iron Horse Literary Review, 32 Poems, and other publications. She is working on the second draft of her first novel.

Concerning Craft: Lisa Rosinsky

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet Lisa Rosinsky. Lisa studied creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, but has been voraciously reading and prolifically writing at least since the age of 10. Lisa was a finalist for the Southwest Review’s 2012 Morton Marr Poetry Prize, and has been published in a variety of journals and anthologies.

We published her poem “Watching Bernstein’s Mass without You” in our Summer 2013 Music issue. Here she is reading that poem and another piece at our launch event:

Here are the insights she had to share about the writing and refinement of the poem:

“Watching Bernstein’s Mass without You” was drafted almost five years ago, in a red spiral-bound notebook, during the aftermath of my first breakup. That heartbreak was the worst pain I’d ever been through, and it lasted for years (although they were productive years, poetically speaking!) My family was historically Jewish, but atheist in practice; my boyfriend was a devout Catholic. During our three years together, I studied religion deeply and came close to converting to Catholicism.

In October 2008 at the Baltimore Symphony, I saw a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, a piece that concerns religious doubt and suspicion of the Church. The music and lyrics resonated so deeply with my own confusion that I found myself scribbling before the piece was even over, hunched over my notebook in the dark concert hall. I don’t remember consciously choosing the sonnet form; I think the poem was so tightly wound with emotion that it fell into rhymed quatrains naturally.

I struggled with the first line, starting out with “What I confused you with was God, himself,” then changing it to “What I confused you with, my love, was God,” and then “What I confused you with was God. You said” (enjambed with “Ite misse est” on the next line). At last, I chose “What I confused you with was maybe God,” in favor of the strong end-word “God.”

The rest of the first quatrain fell quickly into place, constructed around the dismissal, resistance, and fracture in the end of a relationship. The speaker is told “Go in peace. Ite misse est,” (lit. “Go, the Mass is ended”) by her lover, but she is “still on [her] knees”—in prayer, in pleading, or in despair. A line from Bernstein’s libretto, “How glass shines brighter when it’s broken,” imbues this moment with potency, and deftly introduces the imagery of shattered glass as a metaphor for the broken relationship and ensuing crisis of faith.

The rest of the poem continues to explore the theme of brokenness by setting up dualities between Hebrew and Latin cognates for Jewish and Catholic terms, and ultimately relegating all of these words into the same category of “fool[ish]” language. In the second stanza, the speaker describes the Catholic and Jewish names for God (Domine and Adonai) as “shards” that “cut my lips.” Similarly, I paired “kadosh” and “sanctus,” the respective Hebrew and Latin words for “holy,” before referring to them as “snakelike” words, setting up a tension between religion and nonbelief and a suspicion of religious language in general that denotes the speaker’s struggle with faith.

Until my final draft, the third quatrain and closing couplet read: “But Jesus promised that he’d come again: / I wonder sometimes if, outside my dreams, / you still dare say prayers for me, and wonder when / again is. “Adon-ai-don’t-know,” it seems / that I’ve impaled myself upon a sword / spelled mea culpa, mea culpa, Lord.” In the final draft, though, I changed the third quatrain rhyme scheme to “again / Jerusalem / when / Hashem.” I liked the way the words were all slant rhymes—as if the poem were spiraling in on itself from the sheer weight of its intensity. Against that stack of slant rhymes, the final couplet’s rhyme scheme falls into stronger relief, with those all-important end-words “sword” and “Lord.”

The meaning of the final couplet also underwent a drastic change. In all four drafts, I “impaled myself” in those lines. But in my final draft, I impaled Hashem instead (Hashem is Hebrew for “the name,” another way of referring God)—I’d decided it was time to exonerate myself from the pain that had befallen me, to point a finger where I felt blame was due. I was angry at the whole concept of God for a few years, because, as I wrote in the very first line, I’d confused my love with God himself. I’d worshipped that relationship and, in doing so, set myself up for a massive crisis of faith with its demise—a crisis that I saw mirrored in Bernstein’s work, and set out to capture in this poem.

Note: If you enjoyed Lisa’s poem, you might also enjoy Ilse Munro and Avraham Azrieli’s piece on religious doubt. More poetry and prose from our Music issue can be had by purchasing copies of that issue online.