A Taste for Love: Chapter 12

After having so much fun with Jeannie, it takes me a few days to get used to being home again. I’d forgotten how nice it was to have her around all the time, not to mention having seven wonderful days without Mom’s criticisms. The fact that she bombards me with questions about Jeannie the minute I walk in the door only adds to my misery. I do my best to answer them but purposely leave out the parts about Nathan.

“Tell your sister she should stay longer next time she’s here,” Mom demands, watching me unpack. “Six weeks isn’t long enough.”

“Why don’t you just tell her yourself?”

“I don’t want her to think I’m nagging her,” she answers immediately.

I bite back a retort as I start pulling things out of my suitcase.

“Fine. I’ll text her.”

“Don’t forget.”

Like I could even if I wanted to. Mom probably has it marked on her calendar.

The other thing I don’t tell her about is how much the trip inspired me to bake again. The same day I get home, I dust off my old recipe book—leather bound just like Mom’s, her gift to me—and get to work. Several nights a week, I stay late and practice in the bakery. My hands grow accustomed to working the dough, and my taste buds start to sharpen. When Mom conveniently forgets to hire more help, forcing me to work four days a week, I hold my tongue. If I want her to let me compete, I need to stay on her good side.

Every day of the week, the shop is packed from sunrise to sunset. The secret to our newfound success is the taiyaki. It’s one of the only things on the list I made her that Mom agreed to try. The day after I post a pic of it on our Instagram and Facebook, people start coming in to order it.

Since it was my idea, Mom puts me to work making the fish-shaped waffles. I’m happy to oblige because I’ve always loved the smell of fresh waffles. When topped with ice cream in Asian-inspired flavors—taro, matcha, milk tea—it’s even better.

Thankfully, summer isn’t just about work. I get to hang out with my friends on my off days. Mom even agrees to extend my curfew the whole summer as a reward.

About a week after I get back, Grace brings Sarah by at closing time to try our new dessert. She examines it curiously and then ventures a bite. She squeals so loudly people nearby turn to stare at us.

“Where have you been all my life?” she asks the cone. “And how do you guys come up with all this insanely good stuff?”

“Well, we didn’t,” I clarify. “It’s a big trend in Japan. We just brought it here.”

As Sarah finishes off her taiyaki, Grace leans in with a conspiratorial whisper.

“Have you talked to your mom about doing the contest this year?”

“Not yet,” I answer under my breath, one eye on Mom. “I was thinking tonight.”

“Good luck, but I don’t think you’ll need it. That jelly cake was delicious.”

I made a slightly different version of it a few days back, adding a layer of mango mixed with coconut milk like I originally imagined. Grace and Sarah both raved about it, so I sent them home with a slice each before hiding the rest in the fridge. It’s been two days, and I still haven’t drummed up the courage to show it to Mom.

Once Grace and Sarah leave, we lock up and head home while I consider a million different ways to ask about the contest. I’m so wrapped in my thoughts I barely notice Mom pulling the car into the garage. She’s already stepped into the kitchen when I catch up with her.

“Mom! Wait. I wanted to show you something.”

She sighs. “It’s been a long day, Liza. Can it wait until morning?”

“It’ll just take a minute. I promise.”

Mom’s about as enthusiastic for my reveal as I am when she’s waxing poetic about the latest Asian boy. Nonetheless, she decides to humor me. I pull out a chair at the table for her to sit, and then retrieve the jelly cake from the fridge. Putting the prettier of the two slices onto a plate, I grab a fork and place it in front of her.

She stares at it with furrowed brows. “What’s this?”

“It’s fresh fruit in agar jelly. I made it for Jeannie while I was in New York.”

Mom scrutinizes my creation for several minutes. Eventually, she presses the edge of the fork into the triangular tip. It slices through smoother than butter, jiggling happily as she picks it up. I tense as she tucks it into her mouth.

She chews thoughtfully before swallowing. “It’s . . .”

Please like it. Please like it. Please like it.

“. . . delicious. Quite good.”

I pump my fist under the table. One hurdle down. One big one to go.

Mom tips her head to the side. “How did you come up with this?”

“Jeannie told me she’s been eating really healthy for modeling,” I hedge. “I wanted to do something nice for her before I left, so I tweaked a recipe I found on the internet.”

“I’m impressed. This makes for a good summer snack. Light, not too sweet, fun texture.”

She takes two more bites in rapid succession. Okay, this is it.

I take a deep breath. “I’m really happy you like it, Mom, because I was hoping to talk to you about something.”

“About what?”

“I . . . I want to participate in this year’s contest.”

She purses her lips. “You are. You’re going to help me set up and run everything just like usual.”

Why did I think this was going to be easy? I try again.

“No, Mom. That’s not what I meant.” I sit up straight in my chair. “I want to compete.”

“So you don’t want to help me?”

I wince at her accusatory tone. “I didn’t say that. I can still help you set up, but I really want to be in the contest.”

We stare at each other for a long time. I brace for the rejection long before she delivers it.

“No. You can’t be a contestant.”

My heart sinks. “Why not? I’m good enough to win.”

“Liza. You seem to have forgotten something very important. This is a contest I run and judge. If you compete and win, people will accuse me of playing favorites.”

I don’t want to admit it, but she has a point. Even though Mom is the last person who’d give me special treatment, no one else knows that.

I flatten my hands against the table. “But if I bake better than everyone else, then it won’t matter.”

“Of course it matters. It only takes one rumor of partiality to ruin everything,” Mom reiterates. “This contest is too important to our family for me to take that chance.”

“What about me? What about what’s important to me?”

She scoots forward in her chair. “Liza, there will be other contests for you to enter. Besides, this is just for fun. Your focus should be on preparing for college.”

“What if we got another judge? Then it would be impartial.”

“Even if I were to entertain the idea, which I’m not, finding a qualified judge this late in the game is impossible.”

“What about Mrs. Lee? She’s a baker too.”

I wince and squeeze my eyes shut as soon as the words slip past my tongue. Mom’s eyes bulge, her nostrils flaring as she struggles to hold back. Dad happens to walk in then. He senses the tension immediately and glances from me to her and back.

“What’s going on?”

“Your daughter asked to compete in the contest. I told her no,” Mom answers icily. “And that’s final.”

I bow my head as she stands and storms off. Dad sinks into the chair she abandoned as tears gather in my eyes. I force them back.

“Liza . . .”

“I just wanted to prove to her I’m good enough,” I say, eyes pinned on the floor.

“Good enough for what?” he asks softly. “Culinary school?”

I swallow and nod. He leans back against the chair.

“Liza, we didn’t say no because we don’t think you’re good enough to succeed. Whether you believe it or not, Mom’s told me before that you’re a better baker than she could ever hope to be.”

That doesn’t sound remotely like something she’d say, but I’m not about to correct him.

“Then why won’t you let me try?”

He scratches his head. “Because we want more for you in life. Look at what Mom and I have to do just to keep Yin and Yang going. We work fourteen to sixteen hours, six days a week. We don’t take vacations. We don’t close for most holidays. It’s backbreaking work. We do this so you don’t have to.”

I lapse into silence. Baking isn’t a job. It’s my passion. I’ll never get tired of tempting complex flavors from simple ingredients. I dream about pleating beautiful designs into dough and coaxing fruits and vegetables into animals and flowers. Why can’t they understand that?

Dad exhales. “I can see this really bothers you. Let me talk to Mom. Maybe we can come up with a compromise.”

He cuts me off before I can offer a reply. “But I want you to try to see things from Mom’s point of view. No matter what, she wants the best for you, and so do I.”

With that, Dad walks out of the room, leaving me to mull things over.

The next day, I emerge from sulking two hours late for work. Mom and Dad have already left, so I drive myself to the bakery. I walk into utter chaos. With Houston sweltering in mid-June, customers are grumbling about the long line outside. Tina is manning the cash register but can’t get the credit card reader to work. A stack of fresh pastries sits unattended behind her, and half the shelves are empty.

I slide behind the counter and reset the card reader. Tina switches to restocking the shelves while I clear the purchase line. Within fifteen minutes, we’ve got a fresh group of people inside in the cool air.

Tina throws her arms around me when things eventually calm down.

“Oh, I’ve missed you! It’s been this ridiculous all day!”

I squeeze her back. “I’m going to go say hi to my mom for a minute, okay? I’ll be back.”

I find Mom in the kitchen, neck deep in ingredients and oven trays. Her eyes flicker over to me before returning to the vegetable buns she’s filling, the hint of a smile on her lips.

“Those trays need to go into the oven for twenty minutes.”

Obediently, I slide the prepped pastries onto the oven racks. I shut the door and set one of the egg timers she keeps on the table. Mom calls out the next task, and then the next, until nearly an hour has gone by. With the ovens full and four timers ticking down, Mom gestures toward the nearest stool with her chin. I perch myself on top.

“I talked to Dad. He said you were really hurt that I wouldn’t let you compete.”

I know better than to confirm or deny, so I stay quiet.

“I’m not changing my mind on that,” she continues. “However, I’ve decided you can be the technical judge.”

I freeze. “You’re going to let me judge?”

“You know how it works, and you’ve seen me judge for years,” she says matter-of-factly as she wipes down the prep table. “We can make anything you’re not sure about and practice if you want. That way, you’ll know what to look out for on bake day.”

I have no words. A judging position? I mean, it’s not what I wanted, but maybe I can work this to my advantage. It’ll definitely look great on a future culinary school application.

“Can I come up with some of the recipes too?” I ask on a whim.

“No. You need to learn how to judge first. Besides, a good technical challenge depends on a reliable recipe. There’s no room for experimentation.”

Well, it was worth a try.

I look her square in the eye. “Okay. I’ll be a judge.”

“Good. You’ll join the celebrity judge I’m bringing on this year.”

That’s another big surprise. Mom’s not exactly known for delegating.

“Who’s the celebrity?”

She rinses the towel in the sink before replying.

“Mrs. Lee.”

I nearly fall off my chair. “Seriously?”

“Well, as much as I hate to admit it, you had a good idea. We haven’t had as many applicants as previous years, and she’s got a huge following,” Mom explains, almost to herself. “It’ll be good publicity for the contest. She also agreed to donate an additional ten thousand for this year’s scholarship.”

“Ten thousand dollars?!” My mouth falls open. “Does that mean you’ll be extending the deadline for applications?”

“Just a couple more weeks. I want to give us enough time to garner interest. Mrs. Lee’s arranged for us to be interviewed on one of the big news channels, and I’ve already paid for the ad in the Chinese Times.”

She takes a moment to check the oven as her first timer goes off. Satisfied with the bake, she covers her hands with gloves and pulls the trays out one by one. Once the buns are on the cooling racks, Mom sits down on her stool.

“I’m thinking of adding another incentive.”

“Like what?”

“Maybe . . . five private baking lessons for the winner.”

She stares at me intently. I’ve been subjected to many of her trademark looks, but I don’t recognize this one. It’s quite unsettling.

I shrug. “Sounds great. I’m sure whoever wins will love it.”

Her face breaks into a smile. “I’m glad you like it. I’ll add it in.”

The three remaining timers go off within seconds of one another, effectively ending our conversation. Once everything’s cooled, Mom sends me out to bag the fresh pastries, but not before she shoots me another mysterious look.

I’m sure it’s nothing.

The day Mom is due to appear on the local morning news show Space City Live to talk about the contest, she wakes up at four thirty in the morning to get ready. Mrs. Lee will show up impeccably dressed, and she doesn’t want to look shabby sitting next to her. How do I know this? I’m currently perched on a chair in the master bath, watching Mom scrounge through her and Dad’s walk-in closet while he’s sleeping peacefully in the next room.

“What about this one?” she asks.

Mom emerges with a matching two-piece that resembles a dress from afar. Blue roses bloom across the otherwise white fabric.

She looks at me. “You like it?”

“It’s my favorite of the ones you’ve tried on,” I answer neutrally.

She examines herself in the full-length mirror. “Good. I’ll wear this, then.”

I stand, ready to answer the siren call of my bed. Instead, Mom’s voice anchors me to the spot.

“I need your help with my makeup.”

Makeup? She doesn’t wear makeup. Not unless you count the tinted moisturizer she dabs on so she doesn’t get skin cancer. I plop unceremoniously back on the chair. About thirty minutes later—ten of which were spent with her accusing me of trying to stab her eye with eyeliner—Mom is finally camera ready. She leaves for the studio while I quickly give up on the idea of going back to sleep. Dad finds me sitting in the kitchen nearly an hour later. His eyes widen to the size of dinner plates.

“Mom dragged me out of bed this morning to help her get ready,” I explain.


“I’m going to watch the show. Want to join me?”

He nods. We move into the living room and turn on the TV. We’re just in time. The hosts are coming back from a commercial break, and they introduce Mrs. Lee and Mom. Mrs. Lee, as predicted, is clad in a beautifully tailored two-piece navy suit. A baby blue silk blouse peeks out from beneath her buttoned jacket, a bow sash detail at the neck giving it a feminine touch. Her trusty black stilettos peek out from beneath the cuffs of her slim pants. Today, her hair is gathered in waves around her face, and red lipstick completes her power look.

Despite Mom’s best efforts, she looks almost a decade older than her co-judge in her matronly dress and simple black flats. She squints at the bright lights of the studio as they walk onto the stage. When they sit, her spine is so stiff you could fly a flag off her. Tiffany, one of the show’s two hosts, greets them with a smile.

“So, Mrs. Yang, tell us a little bit about the contest.”

Mom perks up and launches into the speech she could recite in her sleep.

“This is the fifth year for the annual Yin and Yang Junior Baking Competition. Every year, we choose ten high school students to compete in a bake-off-style contest. Each round consists of an original bake and a technical challenge, and the winner will receive a trophy and a scholarship. As a special bonus this year, the winning baker will also get five private lessons to improve their skills.”

“What a wonderful opportunity,” Kirk, the other host, comments. “And I hear this is also the first year you’ve invited a celebrity judge.”

Only those who know Mom well catch the tiny clench of her jaw before she answers.

“Yes. As an accomplished baker and businesswoman, Mrs. Lee was a natural choice. I’m very excited to be judging with her this year. In addition, my daughter Liza will be co-judging the technical challenges.”

I gasp. She said my name on live TV! And she didn’t embarrass me! Dad chuckles as I slap his arm excitedly. Mom exchanges a fake smile with Mrs. Lee as Tiffany turns to the latter.

“I hear you also have a surprise announcement, Mrs. Lee.”

“Yes, I do,” she answers before staring directly into the camera. “The Mama Lee Foundation will be donating extra money to bring the scholarship amount this year from five thousand dollars to fifteen thousand.”

Tiffany and Kirk clap their hands like it’s the best thing they’ve ever heard. Mrs. Lee preens as they switch to questioning her about the new bakery. To add insult to injury, the camera cuts Mom out of the frame as it zooms in on her co-judge’s face. Once the commercial break hits, Dad turns off the TV. We sit, not speaking, for several minutes. Then he gives himself a shake and stands.

“I should get ready for work.”

Mom comes home minutes after he leaves for the restaurant. She walks in with drooped shoulders and a frown. My stomach sinks. I know exactly what it feels like to be overshadowed by someone more successful. I start to speak but quickly change my mind. The door to the master bedroom shuts, and I stare at it for a while before retreating to my room.


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