Book Adventures, Book Reviews

Baking and Little Women—A Story That Sticks

On a cozy afternoon in October, I decide I want to bake. This, in my own life, is a very unconventional decision; it is practically unheard of for me to willingly use the oven. But I’m not looking to bake for the sake of activity, rather because there’s a recipe I want to try out from my newest book Little Women: The Official Movie Companion.

There aren’t words to describe how much I adore Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. My mom recommended the book to me in fifth grade, and I did not want to read it. Still, she insisted, and I ended up falling in love with my first classic novel.

The release of the film Little Women in 2019 was so exciting for me. Greta Gerwig both starred in and co-wrote the screenplay for my favorite film, Frances Ha, so I was ecstatic to see how she would adapt this classic.

Needless to say, I loved the adaptation (fun fact: the soundtrack composer, Alexandre Desplat, is my #4 top artist on Spotify for 2020). I went to see the film with my own crew of Little Women: my mom and her two sisters, my own little sister, and my two cousins. Gerwig’s unique structural choices pulled to the forefront the themes of the original text that resonated most deeply with me. I knew immediately that this film had struck a chord with my heart and rejuvenated a love for a classic book from my childhood.

About two months ago, I stumbled upon Little Women: The Official Movie Companion. If you’re like me and are pretty enthusiastic about filmmaking, this book is a great deep dive into all of the choices in the film. The book really shows how the film was created as a love letter to womanhood and Alcott herself. It also includes recipes for some of the iconic foods we get to see on screen.

This brings us back to baking. The recipe I want to try is for the cake that Jo and her students make for Jo’s mother Marmee at the end of the film. Now I am a terrible baker, so I knew that this task was one that I could not take on alone. I ask my mom and sister to help because they both actually enjoy being in the kitchen and are my own Little Women.

We gather the dry ingredients—white gradient sugar, brown sugar, flour, a dash of salt, baking powder—and I reflect on my first interactions with Little Women. They say that everyone attaches themselves to one of the sisters, and I really saw myself in Jo.

Back in fifth grade, my dreams of being a writer were this small little kernel that I kept to myself. I’d scribble stories in my purple journal that my aunt got me for Christmas, and I always volunteered to come up with the stories for the skits we performed on camping trips with my Girl Scout troop.

Stories felt like the most freeing thing in the world. Just like Jo, I found my roots in tiny pieces of fiction and directing other girls around in plays of my own imagination. I also think her fierceness and candid nature stood out to me. Fifth grade Julia wasn’t a fully formed person yet; she didn’t know what attributes of Jo she’d find in herself. She just knew that we both shared an adoration for stories. That was enough for me to love Jo deeply.

The next step in baking the cake is to combine the wet ingredients in a bowl. What drives me wild about baking is it requires extreme precision, but the recipes are always vague. My mom seems to be able to navigate this challenge much better than I can. The “just guess” method never ends well when I do it, but when she’s experimenting with how much milk to add, somehow it seems to come out just right.

I suppose I could acquire that skill with practice, but I ardently refuse to spend much time in the kitchen. If you’re thinking everybody needs to learn how to cook, you would be correct. Do not worry. I have been told this before.

The cake needs the whites of seven eggs. My mom separates the yolks out into a different cup and dumps that cup in the trash. I ask if we shouldn’t save those yolks for later in the recipe and she freezes. We both look at the book and realize that yes, we will need those seven egg yolks. Mom pulls seven more eggs from the fridge. Good thing she bought an extra carton.

Marmee March is a character in the book that I never understood as a kid. There is an infamous scene in Little Women where Jo’s little sister Amy burns the draft of her novel in the fireplace out of spite. Jo is furious and heartbroken and claims she will never forgive Amy. Young me absolutely agreed with this sentiment. Then Marmee delivers this beautiful line: “My dear, don’t let the sun go down upon your anger. Forgive each other, help each other, and begin again tomorrow.” For a long time I think this statement was lost on me, as I, like Jo, did not understand how one could ever forgive their sister for such an atrocious act.

Marmee is the glue, a lot like I feel my own mom is the glue of my family. Rifts between sisters can cut so deep and feel so personal; it is often difficult to ever see a way through them. I am lucky to have the mom that I do. She is caring and insistent that we all love each other. Of course, sometimes the sun does go down on my anger, but my mom, like Marmee, teaches me how to rise with forgiveness.

I think as I grow with the text, I begin to understand more the scope of the other characters. Jo might be where I see myself, but she is not a perfect person. The advice she internalizes from Marmee and Meg and Professor Bhaer is key to her growth, and it is key to mine to understand this. Being fierce and passionate is all good, but if it is not coupled with learning it will only take a person so far in life.

We combine the wet and dry ingredients into one bowl, and I ask my little sister Emily what March sibling she identifies with. Emily says, “I don’t want to be the one that dies.” She’s never read the book, much to my dismay.

My mom and I both decide that Emily is, in fact, much like Beth March. Emily is a loving person, and she has the same sort of care for other people that Beth does. I try to tell my sister that boiling down Beth to “the one that dies” completely misses the point of her character, but Emily won’t listen.

After the film came out in 2019, I had people telling me, “You’re just like Jo!” and it felt like this secret joke I had with myself to think, Really? How strange. I definitely didn’t obsess over her at a young age. And I certainly didn’t take pieces of her personality for myself because I wanted to be like her. What a shock!

Seriously, I loved Jo. And I still do. It takes a lot of courage to go out into the world and enter an industry that does not want to see you. But as Jo learns, and I feel like I’ve been learning with the pandemic, it takes an equal amount of courage to go out and taste the world but then return home.

It’s finally time to pour the batter into the Bundt cake pan. The recipe specifically calls for the pan to be un-greased, and my mom is shocked. She says this is the first time she has ever baked a cake without greasing the pan. Still, we follow the directions. I get to lick the spoon. Afterwards, my mom insists that we all sit down to watch a movie while the cake bakes, but instead I climb back up to my room and begin to scribble in my journal. The little details of extra cracked eggs and un-greased pans are tiny gems that I do not want to lose because memory is fleeting. I pull them from my brain and put them on the page, little stories to be explored later.

One of the biggest questions my friends had after watching the movie was, Why didn’t Jo end up with Laurie? I think there are a multitude of reasons and ways to interpret this.

What I see in Jo is both a longing for freedom and understanding. She connects with Laurie in joyful moments when they joke and laugh and quarrel. But beneath this is another piece of Jo that Laurie never reaches. Their camaraderie is love to me, but it isn’t the sort of love that leads to marriage in the text. It feels platonic, and I think Jo understands this while Laurie does not. Platonic love is by no means less than romantic love, it is just different. So for Jo and Laurie to enter an engagement when their love is not meant to be bound and constricted by marriage would be ineffectual.

The ending in which Jo marries Professor Bhaer feels highly deliberate, but also as a young girl, a little bit disappointing. I do think this friction is healthy for opening up questions. Why does Jo need to marry? What is her greatest success in the story? What has she learned?

It always felt right to me for Jo to not settle in love, which is why Gerwig’s interpretation of the umbrella scene with Professor Bhaer earns my adoration. Marriage in Little Women exists in a very specific cultural context of the Civil War time period. This particular film adaptation provides a lot of space for Jo as a woman with ambition. She chooses to marry, but she is also publishing a book and writing more and teaching. Marriage is not her greatest triumph as a character and the film highlights this. Cutting between Jo debating with a publisher over the ending of her book and the scene under the umbrella leaves the audience with questions of reality and story fabrication. Would a woman like Jo really marry? Perhaps so, or perhaps she would stick to her personal freedom. Perhaps she would go on to tell her own stories, and only include marriage at the end because of pressure from publishers.

I like to question and analyze Jo’s ending and the commentary it provides on the time period. Is Jo’s marriage one that is born out of love, or is it more to make the character respectable enough to be published? Of course, life in current times comes with its own set of expectations for women, and I constantly situate myself in thinking about what choices I am making, and if I am making them to “fit the narrative” or because they are my desires.

The icing recipe calls for 3 cups of butter. For the bakers, a group of which I suppose I am now a part of, that is six sticks of butter to ice one cake. My mom asserts that this is ridiculous, and we subsequently decide to half the recipe.

This turns out to really be a ‘trust-the-process’ moment because three sticks of butter in the mixer looks really intimidating. After powdered sugar, milk, and mixing, we are left with a bowl of what can only be described as some of the fluffiest whipped cream icing ever. Mom is elated. I am surprised.

We pull the cake from the oven and let it cool. Emily and mom find some raspberries in the fridge, and I place them equally spaced out around the ring of the cake to make it look like a little crown. We take a step back and look on, satisfied with our creation. It’s the first non-box cake that I’ve ever made, and the results look delicious. Judging by the quality of the icing, we are all anticipating that the cake is going to taste delicious, too.

“Jo would be proud,” I say, as if she is a real person. But she is to me, in a way, as she is reflections of a person I see when I look in the mirror or write in a journal. And I also suppose she was a bit real to Louisa May Alcott, too. It is believed that shades of Jo come from Alcott herself, so I would think that she felt a sense of reality in Jo March as well.

I think the most important thing that Little Women teaches me about sisterhood and womanhood is that it is a journey. Moments of life will be beautiful and terrible and everything in between. We will love, we will grieve, and sometimes, we will have to endure situations for the sake of practicality and formality.

College Sophomore Julia is most certainly not at the point in life that Jo is at in the chapter “Harvest Time” at the end of the novel. As Little Women shows, the harvest prosperity phase might come at the end, but there is so much love and beauty in all of the moments in between—especially when one has sisters.

While I continue to live out my own story, I think I will always carry a piece of Jo with me, as well as a piece of each of the women in my own life. The one thing that has not changed since my first reading of the book in fifth grade is my adoration for Jo’s sincerity, loyalty, and persistence. I am excited to take the next steps in life and see what adventures of my own I encounter. For now, the most exciting thing in my own life is the freshly baked slice of cake on my plate.

My real life sister, Emily

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