Why I Bake

Monday, July 12, 2010

Recently I’ve taken up baking every Saturday morning with my neighbors. They file in with their dishes and types of specialty tea, one of them bringing eggs, another flour, sugar, recipe book. We catch up on the news of the week as we mix and enjoy one another’s company. I am always slightly ashamed when I bring up my “baking club” to people. I’m even more ashamed when I think of the stereotypes of the craft. I do love this time when we bake together. To me it brings up images of 1950s housewives and the pastel icing that is so perfect it screams never to be eaten. I worry now that I appear like one of those domesticated goddesses who seem to know everything about the kitchen and nothing about the real world. I worry that people think that I take my shoes off when I enter my own house.

But in actuality I’m not baking in order to become this feminine ideal or even make beautiful cakes which everyone will love. I don’t bake to become the heroine of the kitchen. I bake because I am learning so much from the experience.

I bake so I can enjoy my neighbors. It’s actually becoming the equivalent of the Saturday morning cartoon watching ritual when I was a kid. The ladies pile in full of ideas and laughter and I am reminded how much I miss them throughout the busy week. We are forced to watch each other and give opinions about the meringue or marriage. Most of the women are older than I, and so hearing them speak and listening to their responses regarding issues that I am currently struggling with is a good comfort. With our Saturday morning ritual comes a dedicated time when we all come together and escape the busy world to get to know each other and what we need in our lives, better. Today in London I don’t know many other opportunities to do exactly that.

I bake because it forces me to make the best of a situation where there is no script. Inevitably something will go wrong; we run out of flour or someone puts in too much milk, the egg yolk won’t separate and it’s our last egg. All of a sudden five women have to put their heads together and figure out what can be done in an effort to counteract impending culinary doom. For once in life the problems are small and we are able to laugh about them. The cake may not rise, despite our best efforts, but we are able to fail in that limited way. While the cake may not look the way it did in the photograph, it still tastes good. Problem solving skills therefore become like a clever game rather than seeming like a rendition of a modern day Sisyphus.

I bake because it truly opens up a world of skills that I was never exposed to growing up. In England, not only do they measure things in grams, but we actually use a balance scale to tell just how many pistachios to put in the macaroons. For the first time in my life I feel exactly what bread dough needs to feel like before it is placed into an oven. In the past, women taught each other these skills in exactly the same way I am learning them now. They would come over and have the community cook a meal; allowing the younger generation to experience all the details required to perfect the meals well before they reached the helm of the kitchen. Most days we choose recipes by Nigella Lawson who is in a matter of speaking, insanely old fashioned; making everyone whip eggs by hand or blanche almonds themselves. But from this crazy insistence on ritual comes clear traditions passed on within the community from woman to young woman so that she is never isolated even when she is stuck in the domestic realm of plainly perfect housewife.

I love Saturday mornings. It’s my favorite part of the week now. Some mornings I can here the laughter from down the road as the women meet up with each other before entering my flat. Ease and perfection isn’t always considered standard, and simple things are really exciting. I will never fit the perfected housewife mode, I don’t want to. I have other dreams and goals for my life so it’s ok when we make lousy mistakes and burn the pavlova. Real people sometimes get to talking so much about life that they forget that the pudding is still in the oven.

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