Work in Progress
Is there a recipe for happiness when a mother can’t eat, and a daughter can’t stop? In this brave, funny novel, a 12-year-old girl searches for acceptance when being bite-sized seems the only choice.
Eden Sterling is an aspiring chef who is starved for her mother’s approval– a mother who hopes body shaming will keep her daughter out of the kitchen. Then the tables turn. Mom is diagnosed with anorexia and Eden hopes her cooking will save her life. First stop is a kid’s culinary school to improve her skills only to meet Chloe, a skinny rival who knows how to sharpen a knife… and her tongue. It’s time for Eden to prove food is not her enemy unless what if it is. After learning she will face Chloe in the baking competition Chloe is a lock to win, Eden binge-eats food trays sent for her family. And as if there isn’t enough heat in the kitchen, Eden’s dessert-phobic Mom unexpectedly shows up at the competition just as Chloe accuses Eden of cheating. Will Eden get her sweet ending or let her dreams go up in flames to finally earn her mother’s praise?
Sleepaway camp was such an awesome part of my life my parents told everyone, “Eden lives ten months for two.” So, so true. Nothing was better than hanging out at the lake, sharing secrets and laughing until my stomach hurt. For some reason everything was funnier at camp.
Then came the summer of seventh grade.
The girls I had waited all year to hang out with changed so much I thought I’d been assigned to the wrong bunk. Instead of winning another gaga ball championship they wanted the trophy for Best Flirts in Skirts. And why spend rainy afternoons tie-dying hoodies when we could practice putting on fake eyelashes? Clearly, someone had decided boys were all that mattered and by someone I meant Ava Zelinsky. When she unpacked, I counted three kinds of mousse, a suitcase filled with makeup and enough outfits to dress all fourteen of us.
Not that this explained my misery.
What explained it perfectly was the whispering behind my back when I changed clothes and my so-called friends leaving for activities without me. Plus, how many times did I have to ask them to scoot over at our dining table?
I felt like a star of a TV show that had suddenly been written out of the script.
After a week, I couldn’t take the rudeness and begged my besties to tell me my crime. Had I hurt someone’s feelings? Forgotten a birthday? At first, Olivia and Hannah said they had no idea what the problem was, but they knew everything else– who still sucked their thumb, pretended to have cramps and was hoping for their first good kiss. What they didn’t know was I had come up with the perfect plan to win everyone back.
I would act like the star of my own show.
That night, I tossed in bed while my brain took off on a wild ride. I would tell everyone I had been working on season one of the Dessert Diva and would be the first kid to create the Eiffel Tower out of silver fondant. Also, a celebrity chef was begging to be a guest on the show.
Oh, hello my new bestie, Attitude.
The next morning on the way to breakfast me and Attitude inhaled the crisp mountain air and admired the rain-soaked berries which glistened like holiday lights. Soon I heard my name called and my mood brightened. Did I already have followers?
“We’ll tell you what happened,” an out of breath Hannah said.
“But you can’t repeat it,” Olivia huffed.
I felt breathless too. “I won’t.”
Olivia looked around to make sure no one could hear. “So, Ava texted everyone before camp and said to ghost you.”
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. “Why?”
“We thought it was dumb, but she said you don’t care about your looks.”
“Because I’m not into makeup?” I asked.
“Because you need to go on a diet,” Hannah whispered.
I kicked a pebble so hard it ricocheted off a tree. Unlike at home, camp was the one place everyone had always liked me the way I was.
“Don’t worry,” Olivia said. “We told her you want to be a chef so, of course, you have to try everything.”
I did want to be a chef. What I didn’t want was to spend the summer feeling bad about myself. “Do you think… should I lose weight?”
Hannah tapped her lips. “Maybe like ten pounds…or even five.”
“Unless you don’t feel like dieting,” Olivia said. “We’re not all supposed to look alike.”
I fist bumped them. “Yay for girl power.”
“Yay for girl power,” they repeated even though there was no such thing.
In actual life everyone knew girl power was invented by guidance counselors and people who sold T-shirts with cute sayings, but even the really good sayings changed nothing because the skinny, pretty, perfect girls still made up the rules. And if I did complain about not being accepted, I’d spend the rest of camp hanging out with the horses and gerbils.
“Thanks for the Ava update,” I said. “Could you maybe tell her I’m going to be a famous chef, so she doesn’t treat me like dirt?”
The warning worked! That night, Ava asked me to hang out on the porch and I felt like a genius for doing my own problem solving. Then I discovered the invitation was a set-up so our bunk could play “You’re Hot! You’re Not.” It was a stupid game where the girls voted on the parts of your body that were good and the ones that needed help.
Guess who lost points for having a jiggly belly and weird shaped boobs?
When it was Ava’s turn, I almost mentioned her weird-shaped eyes but instead, I told her she was fine the way she was, that we all were, and our looks should be the least interesting thing about us. It was a lesson I had learned from my Glamma, who had won three beauty contests and used the prize money to pay for law school.
Oops. Team Ava did not appreciate this important life tip because the next day they left a note on my pillow. Eden!!! We think you should wear a bathing suit under your clothes so it holds in your big stomach !!!
Then I did what any miserable girl would do. I hid in a bathroom stall, quiet-cried into scratchy toilet paper and wished someone had told me everything hurt worse at twelve than it did at eleven. Also, I wished I was an influencer with a million followers so everyone would beg to be my friend and get a text from my assistant, Julia. No wait. Julianna!
JULIANNA: Sorry guys. Eden and her rescue dogs are headed to Miami for a big bash with Nick Jonas. Raincheck?
The problem was I wasn’t an influencer, or a famous chef. I was Eden Pathetic Sterling, the girl who would always be bad at sports, singing or knowing which clothes went with what shoes. Time for Plan B?
Later that day I announced a bunk event where everyone could take turns taming my crazy curls before evening activity. But when even Olivia and Hannah didn’t volunteer, my weekly phone calls home started to sound like a country song. “Why can’t I leave? Oh, please, please, please let me leave…” Then Mom, a lawyer like her mother, would make her closing argument. “Sorry, Eden. I’m swamped with cases.” Next, Dad would join in. “The city is stifling, but lucky you camp has a lake and a pool.” Finally, Jayden, my fifteen-year-old bro, would let the defense rest. “Dude! No one misses you.”
What hurt worse than my family not caring about my happiness was knowing Ava would not be the last hater that targeted me for my size. But did anyone think it was my idea to inherit Dad’s short, round genes instead of Mom’s thinny-thin ones? That it was okay to body shame me because somebody decided there was only one perfect look for a girl?
I didn’t come up with an answer until the last day when the only answer was to run for the bus so I wouldn’t have to join our final friendship circle. No way could I watch the hugging, crying and fake goodbyes. Love you… Miss you already… I’ll text you every day.
But as soon as I boarded the one headed to Manhattan, I discovered Shauna Becker had come up with the same idea. Like me, she lived on the Upper East Side and loved animals. Unlike me, she was a year older and brave enough to pick up crickets by their legs.
“Okay if I sit with you?” I asked.
“Totally okay,” she said. “Just like last year.”
“True… Good summer?”
She pressed her nose to the window. “If you like crying. You?”
“Worst one of my life,” I said.
Finally, the bus rolled down the narrow dirt roads past the Pennsylvania mountains and I could feel myself breathing normally again. Soon I would be hanging with my real friends, sleeping in my comfy bed and cooking with Mrs. Adler. She was our down the hall neighbor who had been giving me lessons since I could stand on her kitchen chair and stir.
It was also time to rehearse a speech in my head and I closed my eyes.
Mom hadn’t come to see me on visiting day because of a bad cold and I was still steamed she had abandoned me, her only daughter, on the most important day of camp. I was also annoyed she had thought I was dumb enough to believe her story when last year she had won a big trial after recovering from Covid.
Maybe she would grant my one wish if I dropped the charges.
I had begged to go to cooking school, but nothing could beat her defense which sounded like the music from HAMILTON. Classes are expensive. Your schedule is full. They use butter in their dishes which goes against my wishes because if food isn’t nutritious who cares if it’s delicious…
Shauna nudged me. “Earth to Eden. Last year we talked the entire ride home.”
I opened my eyes. “Because last year was awesome. This year everyone changed, and change makes me a nervous wreck… What was the worst part for you?”
“I can only pick one?” Shauna said. “They put bugs in my bed, spread a rumor I had a contagious rash, cut my bangs in my sleep…”
“Sorry you had to go through that.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I deleted everyone from my phone.”
I gave her a thumbs up just as I got a text from my bestie, Faith Feldman. She was also heading home from camp and had sent a GIF to celebrate our annual family reunion dinner. It meant we were only hours from devouring the best mozzarella sticks on the planet and before I knew it the bus had arrived at our pickup spot.
Shauna rolled her eyes. “Someone’s parents showed up in a stretch limo.”
“Gross,” I said. “Why do rich people have to be show-offs?”
Soon we bounded down the steps and searched for our families. Mom would be easy to spot because she was basketball tall and Dad would be holding balloons even though I’d told him it mortified me. Then I heard my name called and turned to see a frail looking woman waving beside the long, black limousine. A woman I barely recognized.