When shelter-in-place orders first came down, I found refuge in the kitchen and only in the kitchen. I struggled to find time to work and felt overcome with anxiety much of the time, yet I couldn’t make cakes fast enough. (Baking, unlike writing, is an activity one can do with a 6-year-old.) I learned to make challah, then Mark Bittmann’s simple overnight bread, then sourdough (yes, I’m a cliché). We cleared off the long wooden dining table I’d once used for teaching writing workshops and hosting dinner for friends, and started setting the table properly every night, the way my mother had during my childhood. Placemats, cotton napkins, wine glasses. We slowed down.
As the days turned into weeks and then months, I grew more confident and adventurous in the kitchen — using every last leftover, trying new dishes because I found myself with too much cabbage or leftover scallions and it’s not like we could rush over to the store for that one item anymore. I believed this was keeping my family of three safe and sated. Better, even: happy, feasted. The world out there was scary and dangerous and unpredictable. But I could regain control by seizing the reins in the kitchen and feeding my husband and daughter homemade granola in the morning, fresh cookies in the afternoon and stew at 6pm. But please understand: I am no Martha Stewart. This isn’t a brag. It was a kind of mania. Like a good Jewish mother, I thought I could keep us safe with a fortress of food. I thought I could keep myself from total meltdown by non-stop whisking.
Food in general — and baking in particular — has been one of the few unfleeting sources of joy I’ve found in the last six months. I can’t send my daughter back to school, but I can bake her favorite oatmeal chocolate cookies and sit next to her while we eat them together instead of watching another episode of Earth to Luna. I can’t see my parents, so many thousands of miles away, but I can make my mother’s banana bread and feel her close; I can text pictures of my recent galette to my dad and he can text me back his own disastrous attempt and my sister can join in the ridicule. I can’t sit around a table with my girlfriends and laugh until we pee ourselves a little — but I can bake a pound cake and drop slices wrapped delicately in Saran on their doorsteps.
None of this cooking and baking is particularly useful beyond the confines of my own house (and brain?). In the scheme of things, a chocolate cake cannot end the months of isolation that have come with this pandemic. A chocolate cake cannot uncover a vaccine or solve the problem of remote learning or economic and racial injustice or potential voter fraud or climate change or the drama with the Postmaster General — all of the totemic issues that are so heavily on my mind right now. Those are Big Things over which I feel like I have very little control.
But I need to control something. For my own sanity and strength, I need to start a project with a predictable end in sight. Combine cream, butter and sugar and — unlike in the rest of life right now — the results will usually be as expected (and tangible) and they will probably be a delicious relief. You will be able to say: I made this thing. It is good. The world at large is no different, but this cookie is as it’s supposed to be, and I can stop and enjoy it.
And, perhaps best of all, baking keeps me close to those I love. They are in the stirring, in the slicing, in the first bite: memories of childhood, of summers past, of food served by others I am now making for us in honor of them. I made that rosemary lemon cake we ate in your backyard last summer! I text to a friend, and a whole slew of images come to me: the Montreal breeze, the children piled on our laps, the bright turquoise polka-dotted tablecloth. While we aren’t digging our forks in together, she’s still here with me.
When so much has been taken from us, I am desperate for us to rediscover and take in pleasure wherever we are finding it. If we can’t eat well during a pandemic — when all manner of life has stopped and the future is not guaranteed — what on earth are we waiting for?