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 a huge part of my life my parents told everyone, “Eden lives ten months for two.” So, so true. Nothing made me happier than hanging out at the lake, sharing secrets and laughing so hard my stomach hurt. For some reason everything was funnier at camp.
Until the summer of seventh grade.
The girls I had waited all year to hang out with acted like their memories had been erased. Instead of remembering we were Gaga Ball champs they wanted the trophy for Best Flirts in Skirts. And why spend rainy days tie-dying hoodies when we could practice gluing on fake eyelashes? Also, someone 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 the fourteen of us.
Not that any of this explained my real misery.
It 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? It seemed the only times they were nice was when they wanted to use my flat iron or borrow a book.
After a week, I couldn’t take the rudeness and begged my two besties to tell me my crime. Had I forgotten anyone’s birthday or posted a photo that hurt their feelings? At first, Olivia and Hannah said they had no idea what I was talking about but those girls knew everything like who still sucked their thumbs, pretended to have cramps and were hoping for their first good kiss.
What they didn’t know was I planned to win everyone back by reinventing myself.
The next morning on the way to breakfast I was inhaling the crisp mountain air, picking flowers and admiring the wild berries that twinkled like holiday lights. Who wouldn’t love Nature Girl? Suddenly, I heard my name called and my spirits lifted.
“Eden, wait up,” an out of breath Olivia said. “We’ll tell you what happened, but you can’t repeat this.”
“I won’t,” I said.
Hannah looked around to make sure no one else could hear. “So, Ava started a group chat before we got here and said to ghost you.”
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. “Why?”
“We thought it was dumb,” Olivia said. “But she said you’re not like us…you don’t care about your looks.”
“Because I don’t like wearing makeup at camp?”
“Because she thinks you need to go on a diet,” Hannah whispered.
The “D” word echoed as I kicked a pebble so hard it ricocheted off a tree. Unlike home, camp was the one place I never had to worry about being judged.
“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 five pounds.”
“But only if you want to,” Olivia said. “We’re not all supposed to look alike.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “Could you also tell Ava I’m going to be a famous chef with my own TV show? If she wants tickets, she has to stop treating 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 which of your body parts were good and which ones needed help.
Guess who lost points for having a jiggly belly and weird shaped boobs?
When it was Ava’s turn, I thought about mentioning her weird shaped eyes, but didn’t want to get sent back to Lonelyville. Instead I told her she was fine the way she was, that we all were, and our looks should be the most boring thing about us. It was a lesson I had learned from my grandmother, Glamma, who had won a bunch of beauty contests and used the prize money to pay for law school.
Oops. Team Ava did not appreciate this important 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 !!!
I did what any girl would do. I searched for a bathroom furthest from our bunk and quiet-cried into scratchy toilet paper. I was familiar with humiliation because I had an older brother who called me names, a mother who pressured me to be perfect and friends who teased me about wearing the same outfit twice in a row. But none of that stung as bad as this. The girls I had spent four summers with, the ones I had trusted with my secrets and kept company when they were homesick were willing to throw away our friendship for Ava Zelinsky.
If only I had known being twelve was so much harder than being eleven.
As I sat atop the toilet, I wished I could become an influencer with a million followers so everyone would beg to be my friend. The problem was I was terrible at sports, singing and knowing which clothes went with what shoes and the one talent I did have was boring.
Know anyone who became famous for making sourdough grilled cheese sandwiches?
The next day I announced a bunk event where everyone could take turns taming my crazy curls before evening activity. So fun! But when even Olivia and Hannah didn’t volunteer my phone calls home sounded like this. “Why can’t I leave? Please, please, please let me leave.”
Mom, a lawyer like her mother, gave her closing argument. “Sorry, Eden. I’m swamped with cases.”
“Plus, the city is stifling,” Dad said. “At least camp has a lake and a pool.”
Then Jayden, my fifteen-year-old bro, let the defense rest. “Dude! No one misses you.”
What hurt worse than my family not caring about my happiness was worrying Ava was right about my loser looks. If only I had been lucky enough to inherit Mom and Glamma’s model-thin bodies instead of the short, round Sterling genes. Thanks Dad.
On the last day of camp, I bolted for the bus rather than hanging around for our last friendship circle. No way could I watch the hugging, crying and fake goodbyes. Love you… I’ll text you every day. Then I snuck on, and discovered Shauna Becker had beaten me to it. Like me, she lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and loved animals. Unlike me, she was a year older and brave enough to pick up spiders by their legs.
“Okay if I sit with you?” I asked.
“Totally okay,” she said. “Just like last year.”
Guess I had forgotten. “Good summer?”
She pressed her nose to the window. “If you like crying. You?”
“Worst one of my life,” I said.
“So, you’re not coming back?” she asked.
“I’d rather repeat sixth grade.”
Finally, the bus rolled down the narrow dirt roads and headed to New York City. Time to wave to the Pennsylvania mountains, dream about 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.
Mom hadn’t come 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 thought I was dumb enough to believe her story when last year she had won a big trial in the middle of having the flu. But maybe if I dropped the charges she would grant my one wish .
I had begged to go to cooking school, but nothing could top Mom’s defense strategy which sounded like, wait for it, a song from our favorite musical, 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?”
“That bad?” I finally asked.
“They called me Insect Girl and put bugs in my bed… spread a rumor I had a contagious rash…cut my bangs in my sleep…”
I reached into my bag for my last good tissue. “Sorry you had to go through that.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I deleted everyone from my phone.”
“Good idea,” I said as I got a text. It was from my best friend, Faith Feldman, who was also heading home from camp. She had sent a GIF to celebrate our annual family reunion dinner and woot, woot, we were only hours from devouring the best mozzarella sticks on the planet. And before I knew it, the bus 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 were bounding down the steps and searching for our families. Mom was easy to find in a crowd because she was basketball tall and Dad insisted on bringing balloons even though I told him at my age it was mortifying. Then I heard my name and turned to see a frail looking woman waving beside the long, black limousine. A woman I barely recognized.