I’m a sort of high strung kind of person. I worry more than most Jewish mothers and can give myself an anxiety attack about almost anything. I seem to delight in nothing better than exhausting myself physically, emotionally and mentally even when there is absolutely no reason to do so. I’ve been known to contract stomach ulcers after getting a “B+” on an English paper my first semester of college and to break down in hysterics in the middle of (more than a few) math classes. In some situations (i.e. the math class situation) this inability to relax is inconvenient, agitating and frankly, mortifying. That said, my ability to relish and enjoy exhaustion has served me well during exam week, long rehearsals and other busy periods. My very best writing is usually produced when I am extraordinarily frazzled , emotionally drained and in a period of self-loathing. The owner of a certain West Village coffee shop can attest that I am known to sit in the corner near the window, ferociously pounding out and deleting the same paragraph over and over again until I get it right, pausing only to occasionally bang my head into the window pane and drown my frustration in another cup of coffee.
(In case you were wondering, I deleted and re-typed that sentence at least fifteen times.)
After a few stomach ulcers have been contracted, a couple of chapters have been written and at least one-third of the world’s coffee beans and tea leaves have been consumed, I occasionally feel the need to, you know, relax. Very few things allow me to switch off the all-consuming, worrying, oh-my-God-I-totally-forgot-about-all-of-these-things-I-should-probably-do-right-now-instead-of-this thoughts that constantly overload my mind. The top three are as follows:
1. Water. When I was a baby, the only way my mom could get me to stop crying would be to take me in the hot tub or swimming pool. I can’t remember never not knowing how to swim and to this day nothing calms me more quickly or efficiently than even the sight of a body of water. Oceans, rivers, lakes, creeks, ponds, even swimming pools send me to my happy place.I am never more fully relaxed than I am while in the water.
2. Reading. Granted, I have to be reading exactly the right kind of book in order to be totally relaxed and swept away. No matter how upset I am, if I pick up a Harry Potter book, one of the Narnia books or anything by Roald Dahl, my mood is instantly improved.
3. Baking. (What this post is actually about.)
I come from a family of bakers. One of my earliest and most cherished memories involves baking. Okay, so it’s really, really cliched and I’m sorry. I must have been about 3 and we were visiting my grandparents in northern California. My grandparents live in one of those remote towns in the mountains that consist of one Volunteer Fire Department, a general store, a post office the size of my left thumb and a church. A few hundred homes are scattered along winding walking trails and the entire place smells like pine. It’s one of those places where you can’t get (*gasp*) cell reception, (*louder gasp*) cable or satellite television, or (*gasp so loud it nearly makes you gag*) wireless internet. Of course, when I was three none of that really mattered. (Um, also when I was three people didn’t care very much about cell phones or wireless internet.) All that mattered was that I could go outside and play make-believe with my sister or run around with the dogs. Then, one day, it rained. I don’t remember if it was storming or drizzling or anything, just that we couldn’t go outside on account of the fact that a muddy three year old is not a very pleasant thing to deal with.
So we baked cookies. Grandma’s cookies. I remember very clearly standing on my tiptoes, nose pressed against the edge of the counter top watching my grandmother take all of these very different ingredients and put them in a bowl and turn them into cookie dough. She didn’t even use a recipe book like mom did. This, surely, was the greatest sort of magic. I remember getting to stand on the step ladder to help crack the eggs. She held the cold white egg between her thumb and forefinger and placed my tiny fingers around the edge of the egg’s delicate exterior so that my wrist was sort of overlapping hers. Together, we tapped the shell lightly on the edge of the plastic mixing bowl and I watched while she pulled apart the halves gently and very carefully dropped the yellow contents into the bowl.
“Be careful not to let any of the shell into the bowl,” Grandma told me. “That’s why you have to crack it very carefully.” Then, she let me crack one on my own. Trying to remember the exact amount of force she’d used on the first one, I cupped the egg in my hand and gently tapped it against the bowl.
“Good!” she said as I pulled the shell apart, using the tops of my fingers instead of my thumbs and feeling the cool, slimy whites trickle down my fingers. I felt a thousand years old.
Later, after we’d taken turns mixing in the rest of the ingredients and the magical dough had been created, I watched while grandma showed me how to roll it into little balls with your hands and place it on the cookie sheet. While I made little balls (“not too big, not too many chocolate chips in each one”) I noticed that Grandma actually scooped the dough onto the baking sheet with a spoon, using only one hand the form the dough into cookie-like shapes. I continued using both hands. I liked the way the dough felt: soft and pliable. It left a thin, buttery layer on my hands.
And the smell. The whole house smelled like vanilla and chocolate and brown sugar for hours. The scent drew my grandpa from the solidarity of his book and into the kitchen. The rest of the family soon followed, sniffing hopefully at the aroma of baking cookies and asking “Are the cookies ready yet?” repeatedly until 2 dozen cookies were cooled and ready to eat.
Grandma was and still is, famous for her cookies. No matter how closely we watched her techniques, followed her recipe, they would never taste as good as Grandma’s. Ever since that first time, baking with Grandma, I “helped” (i.e. watched and mixed the flour and baking soda together) my mom whenever she baked. My mom taught me the joys of kneading bread to relieve stress, how to make a perfect pie crust and the art of making her grandmother’s famous rolls. When I became old enough to use the oven by myself, I delighted in creating my own recipes, some of which not even the dog would touch (literally), some of which became family favorites. After I learned about the inhumane practices of the egg industry and went vegan, I learned to bake without eggs which really isn’t difficult. Like, I don’t know why people pretend it’s such a big deal. You don’t need eggs, you just need a binding agent.
Anyway, point is that I love to bake. The kitchen is the one place where I can put aside all outside concerns and get rid of my perfectionist tendencies. I mean, there’s no such thing as “one” perfect cookie. The perfect cookie for me is not necessarily the perfect cookie for you. I know there’s science in baking (you need to right proportion of “x” to “y” to get the right texture and the right proportion of “a” to “b” to get the right flavor etc.) but I’m not afraid of making mistakes when I bake. Maybe it’s genetic, but I sort of instinctually know what should go in what. Even if I make a terrible mistake and end up using Italian Seasoned breadcrumbs in a figgy pudding (which actually happened, although that was more my mom’s fault than my own) the world will not end.
Also, I don’t think there’s any easier way for me to show people I love them. Sometimes I lack the courage to tell people “I love you.” Even if I’m baking for, say, a school fundraiser or a party for my parent’s friends or something, it’s still a way of putting a little bit of love in the world. Pretty much everyone enjoys baked goods. When I bake, I know I’m creating something that will make people happy if only for a moment. I’m a people-pleaser by nature and there’s no easier way to please people than to hand them a brownie.
There’s also the whole “fear of rejection” thing. I spend a lot of time worrying that people don’t like me or that people won’t like me or that people who do like me will stop liking me and run as far away from me as possible. I mean, I know these are somewhat irrational fears, but baking is a nice tool to combat them. No one’s going to not want to be your friend when you’re holding a plateful of freshly baked cupcakes, right?
So I bake. I don’t expect anything from it. I have no burning desire to make money from baking or to become famous for my cookies or to write a vegan cookbook. I just want to bring a little bit more happiness into the world in the form of a freshly baked loaf of bread. I want to inspire change one vegan brownie at a time. I want to show people I love them by handing them a chocolate chip cookie.
I want to give every last political leader on earth a really big chocolate cupcake with rainbow sprinkles and then dare them to become an evil overlord. You just can’t become an evil overlord if your face is covered in chocolate frosting and sprinkles. Believe me, I’ve tried.