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Monday, May 10, 2021

The Ladies Who Breakfast

Los Angeles food writer Helene Siegel is the author of 40 cookbooks, including the “Totally Cookbook” series and “Pure Chocolate.” She runs the Pastry Session blog. During COVID-19, she shared Sunday morning baking lessons over Zoom with her granddaughter, eight-year-old Piper of Austin, Texas.

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Helene Siegel
Los Angeles food writer Helene Siegel is the author of 40 cookbooks, including the “Totally Cookbook” series and “Pure Chocolate.” She runs the Pastry Session blog. During COVID-19, she shared Sunday morning baking lessons over Zoom with her granddaughter, eight-year-old Piper of Austin, Texas.

Jobs come and go; dogs die; husbands behave badly; occasionally a brilliant child flunks kindergarten. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected in this cold cruel world. But for the last 20 years, I could count on one sure thing: Every other Friday morning at 9 A.M., eight to ten women would meet for breakfast — all members of the Underemployed Women’s Club of Silverlake/Los Feliz. Together we munched, we sipped, and we felt better when we left.

The thread that wove us together in the early 1990s was our children’s pre-school, the neighborhood JCC. Back when our biggest worry was making it to Friday morning Shabbat on time — with our little challahs fresh from the oven — we bonded over holidays and fundraisers at the JCC.

But the club really launched in 2003, around the time the kids were in high school. Finally we had the time to meet for an hour or so before the workday began to sort through our children’s latest accomplishments. “This one’s a basketball star! Did you hear that little Maggie is playing Nathan Detroit in the non-binary revival of Guys and Dolls at school?” Some of us even ate big breakfasts before heading off to our demanding jobs. It was a fun, social way to end another time-crunched week.

Many of us held jobs in creative fields. The group included a Disney artist, advertising art director, new technology expert, fashion college creative director, news photographer, college professor, children’s book editor, social worker and, of course, a therapist to supervise and make sure no one fell overboard. We were all educated white women. As such, we expected to balance career and family — and have fascinating hobbies on the side. Many of us didn’t have the help of extended family since we had escaped to California from colder places like Canada or New York, so the club became a surrogate. We carried on through our fifties, adding Pilates or Yoga to the schedule as needed.

Once the kids took off for college, the club became our go-to community. We helped each other get through the big transitions — job losses, terrible accidents, several breast cancers, children who moved very far away and weight gain, to name a few indignities. Knowing you could report it all to the group at the next meeting made aging feel more bearable. We were doing it all together! During the worst of times, all that maternal energy could still get whipped into an organized frenzy of hot meal deliveries or extravagantly hosted home parties.

Knowing you could report it all to the group at the next meeting made aging feel more bearable.

As the clock ticked, college graduations brought the relief of tuition bills paid as well as the anxiety of the empty nest. It also brought our sixties. In a cruel twist of fate, at the moment when many were at the top of their games professionally and finally had the time to focus, we had the rug pulled out from under our formerly pretty feet.

Those in the artistic or creative industries either lost their jobs to younger, hipper versions of themselves or they settled for lower-level jobs. Art directors became graphic designers; artists became high school teachers or adjunct professors; book editors became proofreaders. Only the social workers, shrinks and tenured professors were able to maintain their positions as the world got younger. It’s smart to be wise.

Now, in our mid-sixties to seventies, we’re mostly retired, a hard word for this group to say out loud. Weren’t we all supposed to pursue our professions until we decided to stop — if ever? As powerful women, weren’t we in charge of our destinies? Were we, who had witnessed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius duped?

Fissures based on economics have become more noticeable. Pre-COVID-19, a few friends were feverishly travelling abroad — signing up for group tours to anywhere several times a year. Working down their lists. Others started studying languages, mentoring a child or getting deeply involved with politics, even hitting the road to register voters. Jealousy regarding economic resources, adult children’s ability to launch and having grandchildren is more apparent now. No matter. The breakfast club has reached forever status.

The last in-person meeting of the Underemployed Women’s Club took place on Friday, March 15, 2020. A hard rain was falling in Los Angeles when we met at a new place on Sunset. No one knew how much the world was about to change. The madness of politics was still our obsession back then.

Courtesy author

But the Underemployed Women’s Club remains; like a best friend, she will always be there. Though the group meets less frequently — there’s not that much news to report — a few of us meet regularly for masked walks or patio visits. On a boisterous text thread, we blast out the latest Randy Rainbow videos, political outrage and silly Internet memes (you want Bernie Sanders in mittens?). In fact, when vaccinations opened up for oldsters in California, guess where I heard it first? Along with a link to sign up. These ladies are hooked up!

As for breakfast, we still meet about once a month on Zoom. From the comfort of our homes, sans makeup, wearing cozy sweats and timeworn T-shirts, with uncombed hair and eating very little, we continue to bear witness to each other’s lives as we have for nearly 20 years.

Although the parking is great, I’m looking forward to meeting my community again in person — at the latest hipster café, over buckets of coffee, with unlimited avocado toast and big warm hugs.


Los Angeles food writer Helene Siegel is the author of 40 cookbooks, including the “Totally Cookbook” series and “Pure Chocolate.” She runs the Pastry Session blog. During COVID-19, she shared Sunday morning baking lessons over Zoom with her granddaughter, eight-year-old Piper of Austin, Texas.

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