“The Sugar Was Sweet Snow”

If ever you need a reminder of the lot of women, of how much it has changed, of how much it has yet to change, you can read a poem like Marge Piercy’s “The Scent of Apple Cake.”

Such an attractive title. Under its cover, what could go wrong? Well, there’s more than cake and cookies baking in a mother’s kitchen. Definitely true of a generation ago and beyond, but often still true today. Think of that the next time you ask Mom to whip up a batch of her specialty.

Note how Piercy leavens a simple bread of imagery with some harsh realities:


The Scent of Apple Cake
Marge Piercy

My mother cooked as drudgery
the same fifteen dishes round
and round like a donkey bound
to a millstone grinding dust.

My mother baked as a dance,
the flour falling from the sifter
in a rain of fine white pollen.
The sugar was sweet snow.

The dough beneath her palms
was the warm flesh of a baby
when they were all hers before
their wills sprouted like mushrooms.

Cookies she formed in rows
on the baking sheets, oatmeal,
molasses, lemon, chocolate chip,
delights anyone could love.

Love was in short supply,
but pies were obedient to her
command of their pastry, crisp
holding the sweetness within.

Desserts were her reward for endless
cleaning in the acid yellow cloud
of Detroit, begging dollars from
my father, mending, darning, bleaching.

In the oven she made sweetness
where otherwise there was none.


Yes, we learn in S1 that cooking is a “drudgery,” but it really begins to hit home in S5, where “Love was in short supply,” in S6, where we see her “begging dollars from / my father, mending, darning, bleaching,” and, of course, in the two-line envoi.

The two-line envoi about says it all.