Tiffany and Greg are arguing again. This time it’s worse than before: Tiff, who thinks herself above name-calling, has likened Greg to a tree -- “shady, too tall, broad, stupid, releases carbon dioxide all day long.” And Greg in return is too offended to correct her science.
This is the last time they argue. This is the last time they voluntarily share a roof.
Tiff leaves first. She fills her suitcase and kicks the door open. Before Greg can call out, she’s gone, with the few items of food they had. Now, he’s alone in a big house. And he has nothing to eat.
The next time they see each other, it’s six months later, the dead of winter in Malakai, Kansas, and they’re sharing a roof. Granma’s roof, to be exact, for this is a family reunion, and everyone is invited. Since Tiff’s two sisters married Greg’s two brothers, it’s inevitable that both ex-husband and ex-wife are invited to the same event, to everyone’s chagrin.
And to make matters worse, Uncle Al has decided to enter two contestants in the family into Malakai’s annual Christmas baking festival, “to finally settle some matters” within the family.
They know what she’s talking about: Tiff and Greg.
Tiff’s chocolate crinkles are clouds dipped in Lindt. Greg’s cheesecake cupcakes are molten gold frozen around summit snow.
They both own bakeries now. Tiff bought a falling-apart one after leaving Greg, and Greg inherited a booming one when his father died just after Tiff left. Tiff’s yanked hers up into prosperity, and Greg has kept his that way.
All the family, two aunts, three uncles, sixteen cousins, Tiff and Greg’s adult daughter, and Granma and Grandfather, know who will win the contest. They don’t dare say it though. After years together both Tiff and Greg are fine-tuned to catch any offense or little rudeness that will help turn the marital war to their side.
Tiff’s won more battles but Greg’s too easy-going to lose the war. The divorce called an uneasy peace treaty. The family is afraid the contest will break up the truce, a domestic version of the 1939 Nonagression Pact.
Plus Tiff and Greg stayed in Boston even after the divorce, and their bakeries are the biggest rivals since the Patriots and the Tories in 1776.
Uncle Al, the uncle with a stream of red warts on his neck and scruffy lower cheek, suggests his brilliant idea the day before the contest, when the family has just gotten around to the idea that they will be living with an irritated divorced couple for the next week. Though Tiff and Greg are in separate wings of the house, it’s nigh impossible to keep a respectable distance.
Uncle Al decides to bring the whole family down town, for “maximum inconvenience,” as Greg says grumpily, though he’s right. And the theme of Malakai’s contest this year? No-Bake Specials.
Because “why not,” as Tiff snarls.
How will the contestants bake their concoctions? Why, they won’t, says Uncle Al excitedly, who knows most of the rules. The plan will force the contestants to choose recipes which do not require baking.
“Unfair,” is the word of the day. Tiff hasn’t done a no-bake in years, or so she says. She’s the manager and owner of her bakery, not the baker. So’s Greg. And Greg only knows his cheesecake cupcakes and a microwaveable queso recipe. And cereal and milk. And “that’s all,” Tiff chimes in. Their bakers, still up in Boston, are hard at work. Too bad Tiff and Greg never hung around their establishments.
They’re sitting on the porch after lunch, most squashed on the uncomfortable steps, talking with the barest minimum of rudeness toward each other. Family, you see.
Aunt Jemimah, Tiff’s younger sister, is the prettiest aunt though her name doesn’t indicate it. She’s also the smartest, and decides the dates for almost every event the family participates in. She makes the final call, and though Tiff and Greg beg, she decides they’ll enter.
Grandfather gets the ingredients, since the contestants have to bring their own. He stumps through K-mart with an angry expression on his face. He likes living alone, or as alone as you can get when you’re married. He likes walking out in the pastures with his big hands in his pockets, thinking to himself. He has too much family, or so he says. And he’s a “cheapskate,” in Granma’s words, though she loves him anyway.
He brings back pounds and pounds of flour and sugar and butter. Tiff tries to cheat and look at a recipe before hand, but Greg catches her and there’s a shouting match in the kitchen.
Tiff wins because she’s a better arguer and because Greg has a headache, a symptom of his self-conscious anxiety. He is afraid of embarrassing himself in front of his ex-wife and their family and whoever else will be at the contest. At least Kaya will be off visiting friends.
The morning’s too cold when the Malakai mayor opens the contest the next day. Everyone’s crowded around ten tables, which are set with the ingredients and a few mixing utensils. There’s twenty contestants total; Malakai has a population of 3,340. Most are old women who look like they know what they’re doing. At the end of each table are two red plates where the finished products will go. Tiff’s cheeks are flaming red. Greg looks sick. Both look like they’d rather be married again than participate in this contest.
Fourteen of the sixteen cousins are running around in the dry yard where the contest is held, climbing the shriveled cottonwood tree, playing tag, skinning knees, and wiping runny noses. Kaya’s in town, and Mitch, who’s fifteen, thinks he’s too old to be there. He stands uncomfortably behind Grandfather.
When the mayor shoots his .38 up into the cloudy sky, everyone jumps and Granma glares at him. Tiff and Greg set to work. All four hands are shaking. All sixty-four teeth -- or less because both have had rotten teeth pulled before -- chatter wildly. Everyone else has an expression like soldiers going into battle; tense, hard, focused. Their hands don’t shake and they get things done fast.
Tiff mixes up a molasses and oat chill-and-eat cookie batch that looks like pooling sewer water. Greg has no more success; his no-bake brownies look like molten petroleum. It’s the right color, but the smell is more similar to a rat corpse than brownies that human mouths will eat.
Twenty minutes in and everyone’s done but Greg and Tiff. Their two red plates both hold something at least. But those “somethings” look exactly the same; dull grey, a little too thick, a little too flat.
Tiff looks distractedly at Greg’s. Greg looks tiredly at Tiff’s. They’re supposed to eat the other’s concoction as well as Uncle Al and Granma, who are helping to judge. Al and Granma look like they’re dreading it, too.
The other judges have made their way through the other contestants’ offerings and are now waiting on Al and Granma to make their call and give a score. Just by looking everyone can tell the two will max out at a solid 3. 3.4 if they’re feeling generous.
Well, “it’s time to die,” which Uncle Rick says apprehensively. The four who’re going to eat the concoctions -- it’s a little optimistic to call it “food” -- look most apprehensive of all. Some are wondering whether the next meal they eat will be hospital food.
Granma whispers to Al, who nods and talks quietly to the head judge. They’ve decided to “pass,” as they say on Tiff and Greg’s entries. No one blames them, least of all Tiff and Greg. The judges have refused to judge these two entries.
Tiff steps forward first. Everyone looks shocked, except for Greg. He looks horrified, and a little proud. She takes a big steel knife from the array of utensils and cuts hers into quarters. Then she cuts Greg’s, roughly, unevenly, looking at him as if daring him to protest. He doesn’t. The shape of it won’t affect the taste, so why bother?
At the same time, Tiff and Greg, making aggressive eye contact, pick up a quarter of their own “food” and shove it into the other’s mouth. Why they did this, no one knows. It’s “a bit like eating wedding cake,” as Mitch observes, a teenage boy’s disgusted expression on his face.
And he’s right, too. As soon as Tiff and Greg eat the other’s creation, it’s like a wall has broken between them. They start laughing, almost hysterically, and everyone joins in after an awkward pause. The two rival non-bakers, who unfortunately own bakeries of their own, are rivals no more. Why? It's not unimportant that they can both laugh at themselves. And the wind, shaking through bony empty branches, sounds like laughter too.
Uncle Al watches in satisfaction and Granma starts to cry from happiness. Grandfather looks as displeased as always, except for a slight relaxation of his hunched shoulders. The other contestants, three of whom are sporting ribbons, watch and try not to smile as they munch on delicious-looking and delicious-smelling baked goods. Greg who’s even nicer than a tree, and Tiff who married one, laugh and cry and start to gag on their mouthfuls. With sewer-water and petroleum still caked in their mouths, Tiff and Greg laugh away six months of hate and fall into each other’s arms.