I did something I haven’t done in a very long time yesterday—I baked for the pure pleasure of it.
Might sound weird to people who aren’t into that sort of thing. But, for those who’ve come to appreciate the zen qualities of doing a load of dishes, mopping linoleum, dicing onion, peeling carrot, sifting flour, creaming butter and sugar, whipping eggs, sautéing mirepoix … well, the kitchen is our church.
Sometimes, when I am anxious, I draw a hot soapy sinkful and thoughtfully wash the dishes. Paying special care to each fork, cup, plate as if I were having the Pope over for tea.
Always makes me feel better.
And, yesterday, I needed to feel better.
Received three literary rejections in one day. That’s a new record for me. One, from a literary agent, was a response to a query I had sent yesterday morning. Same-day literary rejection? That’s unheard of.
So, I went to the kitchen.
Washed the dirty dishes. Wiped the counters. Got out the flour and eggs, carrots and brown sugar, vanilla, olive oil, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, oatmeal, bowl and whisk, spatula and chef knife, and went to work.
Found my old cooking bible in the utility room. This thing is a monster. Has to be four inches thick and dates back to the 1950s. This book has taught me everything from authentic french bread and Pâte à Choux to the best doughnuts you’ll ever taste, and so much more.
Made oatmeal carrot cake muffins, a healthier variation on the carrot cake recipe in the cooking bible. It’s a formula I’ve perfected over the years.
That was the first time I made those in ten, maybe fifteen years.
I know, who cares about muffins. But these little guys have a special place in my family.
There was a time when baking—cooking from scratch—wasn’t just something you did to celebrate a holiday, it was necessity.
Growing up, we had very little. Everything we ate was homemade.
And I, being a big fan of cooking since I was old enough to sit the kitchen table and watch mother—a goddamned artist of home cookery—I picked up on what a difference there was between store-bought foods and recipes made from scratch.
As I got a little older, I quickly realized the price difference between the raw ingredients in the garden and grocery store versus those prepared food items.
Not to mention the nutritional differences.
For the cost of a dinner at McDonald’s, my family of nine could eat all week on homemade oatmeal, pancakes, breads and biscuits, soups, stews, and casseroles.
Hell, we didn’t even own a microwave until I was a senior in high school. And that was given us second-hand by some family friend.
I remember the first time we had popcorn that wasn’t cooked in a big iron kettle on the stove.
Pressing buttons and watching that bag plump into life seemed like magic.
But I still prefer popcorn made the old way: layer of ivory teardrops sizzling in a bath of corn oil. Warm sweet aroma of roasted corn steaming up. The PING-CLANG-PANK of kernels ricocheting off the aluminum lid. And the out-of-rhythm jazz drums as the pot filled and lid slowly rose, unable to contain the hot crunchy goodness.
Later, when I was cooking for my own family, frugality was still our motto.
I was a line cook by trade, and the wife worked 12-hour shifts at the nursing home. All her time not spent at work or college was focused on studying for her degrees in education.
We had just enough money to get by so long as we juggled bills and incurred no crises—such as a flat tire or some kid school project which required cash we simply didn’t have to spare.
To keep us fed, I calculated the costs of a great number of meals until I had—down to pennies—how much it would take to keep us in pasta and soups, breads and biscuits.
I remember making homemade tortillas and refried beans, a tremendous amount of work, because it was one of the cheapest dinners you could have. Seems like it cost 50 cents to feed the four of us a dinner of bean burritos.
Think about that the next time you go to Taco Bell.
Our savior came in the form of oatmeal muffins. They were healthy, cheap to make, and so versatile.
Add blueberries, you’ve got blueberry muffins. Dump shredded carrot and cinnamon in there, and you’ve got carrot cake muffins. Omit the sugar and add a dash of garlic powder, you have savory dinner muffins.
Muffins! Muffins! Muffins!
We got sick of dollar store spaghetti and split pea soup but I never heard anyone complain about the muffins.
For a good chunk of years, the wife was gone all the time. We didn’t have money for gas station snacks or restaurant meals on days when she might be gone to work and school for fifteen hours.
So, she took muffins.
Muffins for breakfast.
Muffins for lunch.
Muffins for snack time.
In the fall, when apple harvest came, we’d drive out to my uncle’s place and fill our trunk with transparents.
I remember autumn days making gallons of apple sauce, apple butter, apple pies, apple doughnuts—friedcakes and Bismarcks—and, of course, apple muffins.
But, thinking back, as much as the necessity of it, cooking was a balm for my soul. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so calm at any time in my life as when I’m at work in the kitchen.
This was all back before I took on writing as a full-time hobby, and the wife worked her way up to the top of her field.
The years have gone by and the wife and I have both gotten wrapped up in our careers.
We no longer have to worry about how much a loaf of bread costs or if we can afford takeout for dinner, which is nice.
But there’s something simple, almost spiritual—if I were the kind to employ such a term—about gathering just the essentials and making simple suppers with my own two hands.
Some folks, in order to center themselves, need to get back to church or nature, but I think it’s long past due that I got back into the kitchen.