Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Best Chocolate Cake in the World

                   The Best Chocolate Cake in the World
                                                            By Valerie L. Egar

            From the time she was 9 or 10, Serena was on a mission to find the perfect chocolate cake. She admired her mother’s, of course. Bold, with just the tiniest surprise of cinnamon, her mother’s cake tasted delicious, but Serena doubted it was the best in the world. She decided that she would eventually find the best by tasting chocolate cake whenever she had the opportunity.
            In the beginning, Serena sampled chocolate cake at birthday parties and weddings. Some were average, a few below par. None were close to best. If asked, Serena wouldn’t have been able to say what she was looking for, exactly.  “I’ll know it’s the best one when I find it,” was all she could say. She believed a perfect chocolate cake existed, the way an explorer had faith distant lands waited to be discovered.
            As she grew, Serena began baking, experimenting with various recipes. Perhaps she would create the perfect chocolate cake herself. More sugar, less sugar, a touch of honey, a dab of molasses.  She tried different spices and flavors to enhance the chocolate— coffee, the finest vanilla, even a touch of cayenne pepper. She considered the merits of milk chocolate and dark. Though she received many compliments and even won prizes, she remained dissatisfied. Her cakes were very good, but she was convinced a better chocolate cake existed somewhere other than her kitchen.
Serena became a journalist and traveled widely. No matter where she ate, she invariably ordered chocolate cake for desert.  A divine slice of moist cake with rich chocolate icing, filled with chocolate mousse thrilled her in Paris. A fancy chocolate meringue cake filled with chocolate whipped cream and chocolate sponge wowed her in Mexico City. Still, they fell short of what she imagined.
            One day Serena wandered into a small cafĂ© on a side street in a small village in Finland. The last thing on her mind was chocolate cake, but there it was on the menu, in large red letters. She ordered a slice, but didn’t expect much because she was tired and her feet hurt from walking.
When the cake arrived, it looked beautiful— two moist layers with small fresh strawberries in between, iced with creamy chocolate frosting.  She took a small bite. The strawberries tasted like sunshine and flowers, perfectly ripe, sweet as honey. The cake wasn’t overly sweet and provided contrast for the sweet berries. Serena slowly ate the cake and decided it was perfect. As the flavor of chocolate and strawberries lingered on her tongue, Serena knew she would never eat chocolate cake again, ever.  She had found the perfect one, and there would be no comparison.
Shortly after, Serena wrote an article for a magazine about her quest and mentioned the small Finnish restaurant. People flocked there. “No chocolate strawberry cake,” the owner said. “The growing season for strawberries is very short.” When strawberries were in season again, they weren’t as sweet as the ones Serena ate. “I cannot tell strawberries how to taste,” the restaurant owner said. “That depends on the sun, the rain and the strawberries.”
People wrote angry letters to Serena, disputing that the cake she tasted was best. “Try mine,” a few offered. “You’ll see you were wrong.” Or, a letter might begin, “When I was in Argentina, I discovered the best—” or, “Obviously, you have never travelled to British Columbia.”
Serena sighed and answered every letter. “I was writing about my quest to find something I believed existed,” she wrote.  “I wasn’t writing a restaurant review.
“Your quest will be different from mine. Maybe it’s climbing the highest mountain or experiencing the loveliest sunrise. If it’s finding the best chocolate cake, the one you like best probably isn’t in Finland. I can’t tell you where yours exists, because I don’t know.
“You’ll have to find it for yourself, ” she added. “And that’s OK.”
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Copyright 2018 by Valerie L. Egar. May not be copied, reproduced or distributed without permission from the author.
Published July 29, 2018 Biddeford Journal Tribune (Biddeford, ME).

Monday, July 23, 2018

Breakfast with Bingo

Breakfast with Bingo
           By Valerie L. Egar

            When I visit Grandma, I always have breakfast with Bingo.
            “What would you and Bingo like for breakfast?” Grandma asks every morning. “Bingo likes pancakes best,” I might say and then, that’s what Grandma makes.  Today I say, “Bingo would like scrambled eggs and toast.”
“It’s nice you always think of what Bingo likes,” Grandma says and laughs. Bingo is Grandma’s dog. He’s a rescue and looks like a cross between some kind of terrier and a poodle. He’s got wiry white fur that sticks out all over, big brown eyes and pointy ears. His tail is short and he wags it a lot, especially when we have breakfast together.
“Would Bingo like marmalade on his toast?” Grandma asks.
“No,” I tell her.  “Bingo hates marmalade.” I look at him, sitting on the floor next to my chair. “He would like apple butter.”
These are all the foods Bingo hates: marmalade, bran muffins, cottage cheese, onions, mushrooms and Brussels sprouts. We don’t have to worry about the Brussels sprouts at breakfast, but I have to be sure Grandma doesn’t get any ideas about onions and mushrooms if Bingo and I ask for an omelet.
 While Grandma cooks, I tell Bingo what I have planned for the day. “First, we’ll go for a long walk on the beach. You’ll like that.”
Bingo hears the word ‘walk’ and jumps up and down. He runs to the door.
“No, not now. After breakfast.” He sits.
“Then Grandma and I have to go to the store. You can’t come.” He looks sad. “But I’ll get you something. What would you like?  Doggie Bacon Treats?  Chicken Puppy Pleasers?”
Oh, no. Bingo starts dancing around like I’ve got a treat and I’m going to give it to him. He knows more words than my baby sister. I hold up my hands to show him I’m not holding anything.  He stops twirling and sits next to my chair.
“When we get home from the store, it will be lunch time. You’ll like that.  After that, we’ll decide what else we’re going to do, OK?” Bingo wags his tail.
Grandma brings in a plate of scrambled eggs, toast, a few slices of crisp bacon and an empty plate. “You can give some to Bingo, but he shouldn’t have more than a tiny piece of bacon.”
I taste the scrambled eggs. “Mmmm, very good.” I put a small scoop on the empty plate. Bingo wags his tail. “You have to wait. It’s still too hot for you.”
I tear the crust off my toast, break it into small pieces and put them next to the eggs.  How much bacon? I take a bite. It’s salty and crisp. Yum. Maybe no bacon for Bingo?
 I look at Bingo. He wags his tail and looks at me. Grandma said a small piece.  I take an itsy-bitsy crumb of bacon and put it on top of the scrambled eggs on Bingo’s plate.  I touch the eggs to see if they are still too hot for him. Just right. I start to put the plate on the floor, but the bacon on the plate is so small it’s no bacon at all.  
Friends share with friends, even things they like a lot. I take another piece of bacon, a small one like Grandma told me, but enough for him to taste it, and put it on the plate. That’s my breakfast with Bingo.
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Copyright 2018 by Valerie L. Egar. May not be copied, reproduced or distributed without permission from the author.
Published July 22, 2018, Biddeford Journal Tribune (Biddeford, ME).

Monday, July 16, 2018

Taking Manda for a Walk

         Taking Manda for a Walk
                            By Valerie L. Egar

         I take Manda for a walk every day, even when it rains.
If she dawdles, I let her know, it’s time to go, NOW. After all, I’ve waited all day. She is very obedient and runs to get my leash.
“OK, Boo Boo,” she says, jingling my leash, “I’m ready.” She calls me ‘Boo Boo’ when she feels all lovey-dovey and ‘Biscuit Breath,’ when she teases me, but most of the time she calls me ‘Sky.’ When she calls me ‘Skylar,’ I know I’m in trouble. She never calls me by my full name, which is Klondike’s Countess Skylar of Cave Creek, but I never call her by her full name, Amanda Nicole Dawson, either. I call her  ‘Manda’ which sounds like this: “Ow ooooow oof.”
Once we are out the door, I pull her towards the park. It’s not a playground park, it’s a nature park with hiking trails. I always sniff the air and lead her to the trail that smells best. Sometimes I pick the one that circles the pond because I like seeing geese scuttle into the water when they see me coming. Other times we walk through the woods. She listens to the birds and I watch squirrels.
My favorite trail is the one cut through a meadow. The air smells sweet and today butterflies flutter among the flowers that grow there— daisies, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod, thistle. I find a box turtle and gently pick it up to take home.

   “No, Sky, leave her here.”
            But I love turtles! I shake my head no.
            “Put her down, Sky.”
            The turtle is closed up tight in her shell. She could live in the backyard and be my friend. Best of all, I found her myself! I shake my head no.
            “Skylar, put the turtle down, now.”
            Reluctantly, I put her on the grass. Manda moves her off the trail, near where I found her. We watch as the turtle slowly emerges from her shell and makes her way into the meadow. I am not happy.
            Manda pats my head. “She lives here, Sky. She’s happy here.”
            I pretend not to hear and pull Manda along. Sometimes I imagine I’m pulling a sled and that’s what I do— head down, cold Arctic wind blowing on my face, I swiftly glide over the icy tundra.
            “Whoa, Sky, slow up!”
            Oh. Right. Manda is running to keep up. I slow my pace.
            Coming towards us, I see Wally, a Dalmatian, taking his person for a stroll. Wally always brags about sitting on the fire truck in every parade, so I puff out my chest, raise my tail high in the air and march as though I’m leading the parade. I can’t look behind me, but I hope Manda is marching, too.
            Wally nods and I nod back.  When they turn the corner, I relax.
            Manda picks up a stick and offers it to me. “Want it?”
            She should know better. Huskies don’t play with sticks, but she might need it because the grass is getting higher on each side as I’m leading Manda through the African plains. It’s awfully hot and dangerous, too. Lions. Tigers. I stay close to protect her, and when a huge ostrich— well, wild turkey— flies right in front of us, we both jump.

            Whew. That was a close one.
            When we arrive home, Manda gives me a biscuit, a big one that tastes like peanut butter. “Sorry about the turtle, Boo Boo,” she says and I forgive her because she’s Manda and I love her very much.
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Copyright 2018 by Valerie L. Egar. May not be copied, reproduced or distributed without permission from the author.
Published July 15, 2018 Biddeford Journal Tribune (Biddeford, ME).


Monday, July 9, 2018

The Boy Who Loved a Cactus

                                         The Boy Who Loved A Cactus
                                              By Valerie L. Egar

            The boy spotted it in a greenhouse full of plants. It was in a small pot, in the corner, with a few other cacti. No one, including the greenhouse owners, paid the tiny cactus much attention. It didn’t need frequent watering like the other plants. It didn’t grow quickly and hadn’t needed repotting.

Most people who visited the greenhouse didn’t like the cactus. Its sharp spines pricked fingers. Because it had a red bulbous top on a green stalk, most people thought it looked ugly. It didn’t bloom like a gardenia or an orchid. It was tiny. Most people passed it by without a thought. Not the boy.
People teased the boy about his red hair, calling him “Red Top,” but here was a plant with a red top. The boy was small for his age. The cactus was small, too. He like that the cactus had spines. It meant the cactus could defend itself and he admired that.
“Oh, a cactus,” said the sales clerk, wrinkling her nose. “It’s a dollar.” The boy fished four quarters from his pocket and carried the cactus home.
 The boy put the cactus on the windowsill in his bedroom. Every morning, he said good morning to the little plant. Before going to sleep, he wished it good night.  Once a week, he gave it a teaspoon of water.
Occasionally, he took the cactus for walk. He showed the cactus the moon and the river that flowed near his house. “No rivers where you were born,” he told the cactus. He took the cactus to see a forest. “These are trees,” he told the tiny plant.  “No trees in the desert where you lived.”

The cactus grew and the boy became a young man. He had repotted the cactus several times, but because it grew slowly, it still fit on the windowsill. Though he gave up taking it for walks, he still talked to it. “Wish me luck, I have a math test tomorrow,” he might say. Or, “I’m glad I have you, but I’m lonely.”
One day, after school, the boy brought a girl home to visit. She was pretty and the boy liked her. When she saw the cactus, she laughed. “That’s the ugliest plant I ever saw.” The boy blushed. Because he wanted to please her, he put the cactus in the closet.
It was dark inside the closet. The cactus balanced on top of a box and waited. The shoes reeked. When the girl left, the boy was so happy she said she would like to see him again, he forgot the cactus until the next morning. When he remembered, he absentmindedly put it back on the windowsill.
Every time the girl visited, the boy put the cactus in the closet. The cactus grew pale, but the boy didn’t notice. He was too busy trying to please the girl. He bought opera tickets, even though he didn’t like opera. He dressed in fancy clothes, even though he preferred comfortable ones. One day the girl brought him a present— a plant with big red flowers. It didn’t fit on the windowsill. It required special fertilizer. It wilted easily, but its leaves yellowed if he gave it a drop too much water. The plant was a lot of work.
Meanwhile, the cactus continued to wither. The boy didn’t talk to it anymore and its time in the closet grew longer and longer.
“You still have this ugly thing?” the girl said one day when she opened the closet. “It’s almost dead. I’m throwing it out.”
The boy looked at the cactus. He looked at the girl and knew he’d made a mistake. In trying to please her, he pretended to like things he didn’t like and given up things he loved, like the little cactus. He gave the difficult flowering plant back to her and said good-by.

The boy put the cactus back on the windowsill and gave it a teaspoon of water. “I am sorry,” he said over and over, “please forgive me,” as the cactus recovered. “The next girl will need to love you, too.”
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Copyright 2018 by Valerie L. Egar. May not be copied, distributed or reproduced without permission from the author. 
Published July 8, 2018, Biddeford Journal Tribune (Biddeford, ME).