Recipes On Comfort Post Two: Oatmeal Cookies
This is the first piece I wrote for this compilation of Albion stories. A large connecting point from here on out is the relationship and role of food, female family dynamic, and what the it means to be "rooted in tradition" when that tradition is not the healthiest. Each story starts with a "recipe" on how memories piece a person together.
1 c. butter or Crisco
2 hours Sneaking raw dough under the table
1 bag semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tsp salt
4 c flour
45 minutes of anticipation and swatted hands, mixed carefully, generously
If I were to think on it, the prettier edge of things, the way I would want to polish my life and present it, it would sound like this: I don’t remember ever learning how to cook. Like walking or breathing, it was an innate sense of creation that had no epicenter. Inhale, exhale, dash of paprika. Left foot, right foot, pinch of salt. How do you pick out the right onion, the best cloves of garlic, the best pepper; what is the proper ratio of water to rice, of meat to sauce - and on and on.
By touch, by muscle memory, by the root of my being and by being rooted in the soil laid by those before me: my great grandmothers, my great aunts, my great grandfathers.
Food - cooking - was connection and growth; food was an act of rebellion and contempt. Food was an enemy and a scapegoat and a friend. I couldn’t say, on paper, how it began or where I started on the grand map of the culinary. I can only guess at the foundation and test the convictions etched deep in my bones against what is written, is remembered.
My mother was a cook and my father was a baker: before I learned the alphabet I knew how to shape a loaf of bread: cottage and focaccia, rye, sourdough. When I was six I could walk through the garden and tell you every edible plant and its uses in and out of the kitchen. I was taught how to use a paring knife (honestly, Paul, if we don’t teach her she’ll just do it herself) when I was five, and pestered, bouncing on my tippy toes, until I was allowed to help in the kitchen. I could tell you when a jam had hit the gelling stage when I was ten, knew exactly when an herb was perfectly dried and still retained its color for appeal. I knew all of this without knowing, without saying, just knew. Had been told. Had been practiced. Had been etched.
Monica and Doris could not cook to save their lives: Minnesota is a dull copse of Norwegian settlements, dotted with Swedes and Poles and no flavor beyond salt and pepper in between. Monica, my maternal grandmother, would only make scrambled eggs and soup, because she worried about choking hazards. Doris tried, but she was the kind of person that believed mayonnaise could go unrefrigerated and that turkey should come well-done. To eat at her house was to take your own life into your hands. No one left Madelia after high school, and no one stretched beyond the designated ancestral dish at potlucks.
My parents, then, were an anomaly. Anarchists. They left Madelia and it's traditions behind them and with it their families and the well-worn table spread. Food was a part of their rebellion: recipes discarded and disregarded.
My grandparents couldn't cook. My great grandparents could. It was from them that my mother learned, matching flavor through taste and love, the only guiding star the memory of that homestead kitchen and the way Rudolph and Clara Schmeazing made my mother feel as a girl. Safe. Warm. Lights dimmed yellow, radiating. Old worn floors and soft handled wooden spoons; I can taste those things in the meatloaf my mother makes. The way she seasons blind, the way her eyes skip over the tattered yellow cookbook left by her grandmother: a tether, the hand she held as she stepped forward from that little town, away from bland, lifeless, and into her own life. Passed down deep in the bones.
Food was subversive, soft, safe, dangerous.
It was the promise that things could change and the bedrock would remain the same, unnassailable. Mom and dad were challenged for leaving, ostracised. Growing up as kids, we had the old classics as a foundation, but every other spice in the cupboard superseded the old; like the turn-over replacement of cells, new every year, the surface of the slate was wiped clean. The evergreen adage neglects, though, that while the slate is washed of all its markings, the earth took millenium to forge that slate. Years of pressure and compression and heat; clean the surface, but forever the immutable stone.
I was born to love food.
I was born to hate food.
As a child I ran my hands over the Albion cookbook, marveling at the sepia pages filled with runes and archaic languages: Olio, lard, krumkake. A magic tome, bound in a tight black spiral, able to summon forth the things I loved most to eat. To give me a moment outside of time and space to be at ease with myself; a respite in the form of egg beaters and confectioners sugar. Little splotches and dribbles in faded colors reminded me that I was not the first one in this book; I would not be the last one. Names accompanied each conjuring, names of all the women and wives waiting in the bleak Midwest winters for the promised early spring of social visitation.The eyes of other practitioners had perused these spells and cast their holy magics in their homes: A spell of protection. Of love. Of silencing those niggling little voices of doubt and worry that claw their way into living and refuse to let go.
I loved food.
I hated food.
I stopped eating in the sixth grade.
The pictures show the grim progression; up two inches, down one pound. Up half an inch, down two pounds. A sapling in reverse I refused to grow rings to mark my age. Hateful words led to hateful thoughts and slowly and all too quickly I decided to shrink. Decided isn’t the word; coerced. I was coerced, by my traitorous brain, by the thoughtless things adults say and the thoughtful words children so expertly fashion into knives. I own bound volumes of recipes. Of yearbooks. Of family photos and datebooks. To read them now, I can see, feel, the revulsion to the pit of that primordial well so deep and full of family function, still touch the pressure cooker pain at the thought of what eating was: one more chance to grow bigger, to take up more space. The magic spell now a curse; the vital well now run dry.
You look so skinny! They say to me, then and now.
She never gains any weight! They would gloat.
I would eat in public: gorge. It was a point of pride for Doris that I could eat like a horse and never put on any weight. I hid it so well. I hid absolutely nothing. A paradox: what do you do as a pathological people pleaser when eating grants you praise and the context of your body is a trophy? You become functional. You bide your time. You become a traitor in your own country and hope to god no one notices the stuffing in your napkin, the lentils pushed to the edges of your plate, your shifting allegiance.
Do you remember this picture, Glynnis? No.
Remember when we went out here-? No.
Food was the enemy. My body was under siege. I became dizzy, frantic in the fray. I would work myself into the dirt but there are moments I forced myself one step too far, one calorie too few, and they show me pictures and I cannot recall when it was or what I was doing there: I remember the thing I pretended to eat and the abject terror of being found out. My bones and their etchings ached, less incantations, declarations of family and comfort, more the war worn scars of a lifelong veteran. The keeper of family lore and legend kept in grains of rice and cups of flour and I could use none of it without my shrunken stomach shrieking.
My access to magic, lost. The soft and subversive, gone.
I write this to remember the ugly undercurrent to the beautiful veneer: crack it slightly and like a rotten egg it flaunts the oozing putrescence at its core. But beautiful nonetheless for the paint and the polish and the thing lurking underneath. And there is no end to the long string of photos, the scribbled scrawl describing their content: it continues and so do I.
I don’t remember ever learning how to cook. Or what it was that I ate as my first meal out of infancy. The story goes, at every family gathering, that I learned to run before I learned to crawl; I spoke sentences before syllables and greeted everything with smiles and open arms. My mother, hoping for peace in the wee hours of a bright cold morning, sipping coffee in her flannel robe turned around one day and saw me sitting, smiling, waiting for her to notice, a chubby six month old who had slipped her wooden crib prison, cavorted down two flights of stairs, down a hall, just to greet the day. To say hello.
That story is worn, smooth tracks worked into ruts and furrows in the family repertoire. I don’t remember it ever happening, but it has become a sequence in my structural DNA. I have been told so much of who I am and where I have come from and where of course I must go. And always, always it seems to end right back in that kitchen, first on Garfield, then on Aspen, then on Robin. Old linoleum, pink flowers blooming, faded, buffed down black walnut in long creaking planks, fresh clean ceramic tile. Sitting under tables, sneaking cookie dough, frosting covered spatulas: a trove of treasures to a child. And a black mark when I was older: I couldn’t be that, and the thought raced in electric traces over my scalp and palms. I wanted nothing more than to go back and be the baby from the stories, arms wide, wishing, waiting: but I never remembered how, exactly, I had been that way. Just frozen flash images in polaroid bright pigments, glossy, unreal, things I can touch but wholly out of reach. Pictures and parents told a different story, and I was growing inward.
I was twenty when I learned how to cook. For myself, slowly, carefully. A novice. A magician’s assistant, I couldn’t touch the profound spells for myself. Not yet. Not for a little while, anyway. The thought of butter turned my hands sweaty, mouth sour, but I could make oatmeal. A mean oatmeal. And over time, a lot of time, a lot of learning, I could touch the old runes, and I found not their sorcery, but my own. The world had changed, I had changed: the pictures on the mantel and in the books all spoke their truths to time but did not underwrite mine. History had changed, but the bedrock had not.
And I learned for myself the things I would remember.
I want to be that kid under the table, tackling the impossible, taking what gives me joy.
This time, though, I will remember becoming her for myself.
That’s what recipes are for, afterall: Directions to become again.