Wednesday’s Passing Fancy/Nonfiction: In the Kitchen…and Dreaming of the Woods

I vowed decades ago to not cook as a general rule again –just a few basic dishes–unless it was crucial to get in there and have at it. Or, too, if I felt deeply moved to cook, say, for a very special occasion. My culinary activity and knowledge are pared way down. I’m talking about chili, spaghetti with sausage plus salad and steamed broccoli; long simmered beef stew; meatloaf with potatoes and green beans plus salad; or a dinner salad with a tuna mixture on top. You get the idea. I guess this is at the core of any cooking ease, but I worked harder at it to feed five kids, a husband and any others who straggled in. But I never liked it much. It was rush rush, get each dish going at the right time, get it on the table, hot, before they are out the door again. But I managed–the kids set the table, cleaned up a bit with me– and we almost always had a sit-down dinner with everyone.

The problem was, I was also reading a book or thinking of a poem or answering a child’s endless questions–I was not attentive in the correct manner. Which made for burned meals more often than I care to admit. It wasn’t so important to me, personally–I wanted the family to get adequate nutrition. My husband liked to cook some but he was often gone on business trips. It was simply get to it, get cooking or starve us all. (And these days if he isn’t here, it’s likely sandwiches, salads, soup, take out.)

My attitude likely has something to do with the fact that food and I have never gotten along so well. I have digestion disorders long treated with many medicines that only partially help. So, I have not craved food like most. A swift amendment: I did (do) crave all kinds of good food, but was/am not excited about eating=pain=suffering that occurs so often. I can’t even describe the heady longings that come over me for spicy Indian food or new Thai dishes or just great fresh salsa piled on a ton of tortilla chips along with a fat bean burrito. But I am cautious; I need to be. So I am used to milder and specific foods and less, not more. Rice and bananas, applesauce and toast are my Plan B pals–sort of like baby food, I know. But a back up that works. Some days a pear seems a rare luxury; I am in heaven as I sink my teeth in. But it’s just how it is, as if someone with a permanent lisp or chronic pain or itchy eyes and terrific sneezes around cats when your spouse adores cats–and you love each other, too. One manages the issue and keeps on living.

In any case–not to put you off, but most folks assume everyone loves to cook and eat during holidays–in any case: today I was in the kitchen, ready to go, despite longing for the woods, which I must have close to me every day.

I baked gingerbread cakes. Two. My plan was four, but after the two took half the afternoon, I said that was enough for one day. I am a tad rusty. I’ll consider more tomorrow. These are to share with our family in the area (to take to them, as they aren’t coming over). For the first half hour I was actually relaxed…even happy, mixing and measuring and greasing the pans. Very unusual to act as if I knew what I was doing and feel it’s true. But wouldn’t you know it, I got distracted by thinking about the amount of ginger the recipe listed, how strong that would be on the tongue, then no cloves anywhere to be found, only cinnamon and ginger. What would be best to do?

I had to research things again. And then got off track. So many options for basic gingerbread. When I got back to measuring and stirring, I looked in the huge bowl with half-blended ingredients. Then at the small amount of flour mixed with spices in a littler bowl. And I was suddenly not sure how much flour I’d already measured or how much had been already mixed in.

Remember, this is double the original recipe. It was a lot of flour and molasses and butter and other stuff. It took work to use the hand mixer, more work to use the wooden spoon. And even more flour had to go in–or was it a lot more?

Then came that seizure of uncertainty, the kind where I just want to run away and cry out. I am a reasonable grandmother; I do not need to panic over any cake. I need to take stock. But this can happen. I’ve been known to even throw in the towel occasionally, as this is what cooking can do: stare me down, threaten to defeat me. Especially if it is to be a special offering. Not born with natural cooking talents, I’m usually determined, organized. So to start like I did, relaxed and waltzing about the kitchen…it was stunning to be stopped by my own neglect/ forgetfulness/interest in research… if not actually baking.

My husband, trying to help (I think), said that next time I ought to measure out all the dry ingredients first and then… I tried to not glare at him. Well, I do know that, didn’t do it, thought all was well. Confidence in the kitchen is a dangerous thing for those like me. I wonder over the fact that so many people feel kitchen creativity is akin to tying nice new shoes with appropriate and attractive shoelaces–and there, good, off we go.

But words–I know how to call up, choose and measure those okay. So I talked to myself more sweetly and thought of my children whom I love beyond any sort of measure. Then looked at the cake batter and let Marc stir it a bit and give his opinion. I decided to go forward in my own way, to get it done. It got poured into pans and cooked in the oven, its spicy fragrance like forgiveness for any mistakes.

I then made the lemon sauce. He wanted to help with lemon peel grating but no, I grated, I squeezed with my bare hands then measured the juice, then stirred the saucepan and said to myself, This lovely, light, partly opaque sauce will be so good on that warm gingerbread. Just like my mother’s always was.

Oh, yes. Like my mother’s always was. Served richly warm with the sweet/tart lemony sauce and a small side of vanilla ice cream on pretty china plates, with water goblets shining in the final afternoon light, and a tablecloth so colorful and smelling of freshness made better with a steaming iron. And I knew she cared for us all; she made the effort, gave us beauty and good food along with good manners and a penchant for laughter and tale telling and so much more.

So that’s why I was in the kitchen today. Why I just stepped out on the balcony for a time, looking into the woods, feeling that magnetic pull to the trails. But then said no, not now. I can walk tomorrow, after I eat a bit of food Marc will mostly make. And in the morning we’ll chat with family over Zoom as so many will. And I’m daily relieved we’re well and doing nicely–no one has lost their mind, no one has died, o thank God…. Some days are much better than okay. Some not so acceptable. I some mornings do not easily rise from the warm covers, that naïve but tempting shelter. Then remember how much I get to learn and write, take pictures and read, and the walks and hikes and people to love. The ineffable mystery of it all which keeps me rising, anyway.

Life seems more moving and wonderful to me, if also more tender, fragile. The days are like a delicate span of a spider’s web strung with drops of shimmering beads of rain, and swaying in sunlight and wind and into a length of darkness. We live it a moment only, then another and another. It can be torn away without mercy. We can repair much of what is ripped or broken. Not all, no, surely not. It is this humanness we share, a clarion bell calling us to action or to repose, to deeper acceptance or to persistent re-creation. To get up, to be. Connect.

Meanwhile, in the coming ordinary day, another gingerbread will be made. Or not. Maybe I will add only scones. They also will go to children and grandchildren. Because I do care to make things in the kitchen for them.

My son and his wife are making turkey dinner to take to the streets, the homeless. That gives me pause. How dare I fuss over gingerbread? Is it shame I feel? No. All of life matters, that’s why I can write about gingerbread. And we do what we can, and do more when we are so moved. It all breaks my heart with its miracles and simplest things, and mends it, too.

Blessings to you and yours. And gratitude for all who have come before us.

Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: Gathering Here, There

May your quite simple or elegant repast

serve you well, shared at tables of hope

and warming cheer, of peace and forgiveness.

And may your soul’s good ease capture

a gift of delight, and voices free music, and your

hands hold gently all hands in widening circles.

And even if not so fine a thing as all this,

do not turn back, the longing falling away.

May you not regret each trying, and not

dismiss balm and beauty of care we are meant for,

but keep asking for power of Love to bless and

fill you long, long after candles burn down.

When you leave the table, you are not truly alone.

Remember this: that eternal flame glows for you.

Merry Christmas.