Work in Progress
Middle school girls know their ABCs– angst, bewilderment and catastrophe. But in A LOT ON HER PLATE, Eden Sterling also understands “D” for dejection. The 12-year-old chef wishes her mother could love her as she was. Not urge her to use Photoshop so she appears as “healthy” as her skinny friends. “D” also stands for destiny and one child’s struggle to choose her own path when she is starved for approval.
There is no easy recipe for survival in a home where the mother can’t eat, and the daughter can’t stop. Especially when dinner at the Sterling’s is called “feedin’ Eden time.” But soon the tables turn. When Lori Sterling is diagnosed with anorexia Eden is certain she can cure her mom with her yummy cooking. She even sneaks into a culinary school to improve her skills, only to meet a fat-phobic classmate who demonizes her. It’s DIETLAND meets DUMPLIN’ in this timely novel that explores food and love and the quest to have both.
If Netflix made a TV show about my family, they could call it, The Sterling’s Are Insanely Busy. But I predict it would get cancelled after season one because we were also insanely boring. Every Sunday my mom gave out the new family calendar and it looked identical to one from the week before. Still, she’d beg us not to make changes because it would turn her life into a game of Jenga.
No worries. My dad barely glanced at the calendar. My fifteen-year-old brother, Jayden, couldn’t keep track if it was pinned to his shirt. And my life at twelve wasn’t so exciting that things happened unexpectedly.
Until one weekend something unexpected did happen.
It was the Saturday of Labor Day and everyone was doing their “thing”. Mom was stretching before her run through Central Park. Dad was mapping his bike ride to Brooklyn. And Jayden was dribbling a soccer ball in the hall because he thought he had practice in an hour. Wrong again, bro.
But other than binge-watching the Food Network and collecting recipes, I didn’t have an official “thing”. So, when Mom asked me to pick up a package in our lobby, I said sure. Maybe I would run into my building besties or catch up with our doorman, Alonzo. I missed everyone after spending the summer at camp in Pennsylvania.
“Thank you, Eden,” Mom said. “By the way, it’s a back-to-school gift for you.”
“Sweet. Is it a new phone because mine keeps dying?”
“It keeps dying because you’re always on it.”
Cue: sad face. “I’m always on it because nobody colors with me anymore.”
Mom looked confused. Was this me being sarcastic? Or was I revealing a secret wish to be five again, which would require a hug? Instead she checked the time. “Please hurry back. It’s our special day with Glamma.”
Special? We were going bra shopping with my grandmother at the store she brought my mother to when she was my age. Good times! “Do we have to go today?”
“Yes. It’s on the calendar.”
I didn’t argue because unlike TV shows family plans were rarely cancelled. But for someone who was obsessed with mommy bloggers mine was clueless. What normal girl wanted to try on bras in front of her mother and grandmother? Plus, I would give it a minute in the dressing room before Mom made a wish. Let Eden thin out. She’ll be so much happier.
What she meant was she would be so much happier because on the upper east side of Manhattan, skinny daughters were like penthouse apartments. If you had one you were the envy of those who didn’t.
I tore out the door and made it to the elevator before she could lecture me on her two favorite topics. Healthy snacking (“Read labels!”) and good hydration (“Drink more water!”) Or, as I called it, The Lori Sterling Method of Tortured Living.
Ugh. Jabbing the down button six times didn’t make it show up any faster. But was I allowed to ride the service elevator like Jayden? Not until I could fend off a scary delivery guy.
With no one in the hall to judge my moves, I stood in front of the shimmery gold mirror and impersonated a Ninja. It was laughable so perhaps my selfie pose would impress. Hand on hip. Lips pursed. Meet Eden Sterling, the most popular seventh grader at Greystone Day School.
Cut, cut, cut, the director would have yelled if my life was a TV show.
If I’m being honest my snacks are more popular than me. In the mood for Twizzlers? Find Eden. Thirsty? Eden has coconut water. Hopefully this wasn’t the reason Henry Goodstein told my best friend, Faith, he liked me.
I reread her last text to make sure.
FAITH: Doesn’t matter why Henry likes you. Don’t you want your first kiss?
EDEN: With Corey Boxer!!!
FAITH: Doink. Practice on Henry and then you’ll be good at it with Corey
EDEN: Or, I could get a tutor
FAITH: They have those???
If only there was an emoji for people who didn’t get jokes. But Faith was right. Henry could be my rehearsal partner so my performance would rate when Corey realized he liked me.
Finally, the elevator opened.
“Good morning, Mademoiselle,” Alonzo bowed as I walked past his gleaming desk and plopped into my favorite red leather chair. I had forgotten how much I loved the glass sculptures and tall vases filled with rose-colored bouquets. And though our lobby looked like other doorman buildings, only ours served tea and scones every day at four.
“Alonzo! What is up?”
“The sky is up. The stock market is up and…”
“The ratings are up.” I finished his sentence because it made him happy to talk about his son, the TV actor. Maybe one day he would star in The Sterling’s Are Insanely Busy.
“Are you here for your package?” Alonzo asked.
“And to hang out so my people know I’m back.”
Like magic, the elevator opened and out walked our retired neighbor, Mrs. Elder, with her miniature poodle. “Millie!” I said. “Give me kisses.” I nuzzled her nose and hoped she didn’t think I needed a tutor. “Did you behave for the groomer?”
“She did, “Mrs. Elder said. “And I’m so glad you’re home because I’m baking apple pies tomorrow. Care to assist?”
“Yes, please!” I was obsessed with Mrs. Elder and her million kitchen hacks. Plus, she had these lucky measuring spoons which felt magical in my hands. I just had to hope Mom wouldn’t turn the invitation into a teaching moment. Eden, guess one of the leading causes of coronary heart disease. It’s butter.
Mrs. Elder hugged me. “Come over after lunch and bring your new recipe finds.”
“Okay,” I said. “But they look really hard.”
“If anyone can figure them out it’s you. You’re going to be the next Rachel Ray.”
I smiled so she wouldn’t guess my crazy thought. Kids should be allowed to get traded to parents they liked better than their own.
“Of course, it takes years to become a great chef,” Mrs. Elder said. “The trick is to be fierce while you’re learning.”
I would love to be fierce, but didn’t you have to be born with the gene like my mother.
She hugged me goodbye just as Alonzo returned with my package. A big package, which made me do a happy dance. I had begged for these white jeweled sneakers Faith thought would be perfect for my first-day outfit. Or maybe Mom was surprising me with the puffy purple bag I added to her Amazon cart. Shhh. It had all these secret pockets to hide snacks.
What if they were both inside?
My excitement shifted into high gear as I juggled the box while opening our front door. Then, dread returned. My parents had mentioned something about making some home improvements while I was at camp, but they failed to give it to me straight. They were demolishing half my childhood and donating the other half to Goodwill.
Buh-bye front closet, where I played hide and seek. Adios maple dining room table, my homework headquarters. And see ya comfy couches where we watched movies. Instead I came home to find a powder room with lighting bright enough for night games, stiff black leather seating and a granite table that looked like it had been ripped from the side of a mountain. Fortunately, the wooden bar stools in our cozy kitchen were spared the dumpster.
I carefully placed the box on the counter just as Mom walked in. “What took so long?”
“Alonzo asked me to save the planet, and I couldn’t find my cape. Can I open my gift now?”
“Eden, we’re late. And please go change. Those shorts are…”
“Inappropriate. Put on that cute romper Glamma bought you.”
Noooo. Not the romper. Bright floral prints were not my style and what if it was snug? Mom, the lawyer, would use it as Exhibit A. The defendant is not drinking enough water. But if I cooperated, maybe she would agree to my terms. “If I change can we stop for bagels?”
“Let’s have yogurt instead.”
“Yum. Yogurt. Says no one ever.”
“Fine,” she said. “Open the box.”
I didn’t know what my dream sneakers had to do with starvation, but I punched a hole through the center of the carton and ripped open a flap. It made my heart quicken to imagine how many likes I’d get when I posted a picture of my fashionable feet. Then I pulled out a squishy package and felt my eyeballs sting. “Mom? Were you ever twelve?”
“Of course,” she said. “And I remember it well.”
“So, you remember wanting adorable sneakers and getting protein shakes instead?”
Mom folded her arms. “Must you always overreact?”
“Just tell me what they have to do with school. Do they taste like science experiments?”
“Studies show that students who start the day boosting their metabolism perform better on tests.”
Studies also showed what daughters of carb-deprived mothers knew. Boosting metabolism was code for losing weight and mine thought I was fat. I ran to my room and slammed the door so hard the mirror shook.
But when I gazed, I didn’t see a girl who needed to be redone like our apartment. I saw coffee-colored eyes that sparkled and brown beachy curls that bobbed like waves.
Mom, I wish you could love me for who I am, not who you need me to be.
“Eden!” she yelled. “Glamma is waiting and you need bras.”
“Yeah, Eden,” Jayden mimicked from his room. “You need bras.”
“Knock it off,” Dad called from the kitchen. Then he lowered his voice. But when you are in the next room in an old building the heating vents tell all. “Go easy on her, Lori. She doesn’t even know yet.”