When I was about 13 years old I acquired an intense interest in cooking with an emphasis on baking bread and cakes from scratch. There were a number of reasons and in retrospect I think it had a calming effect on me, gave me a feeling of control over outcomes when it seemed like the rest of my life was in chaos. That my mother permitted me in the kitchen at all is surprising, given our relationship, then and now, but I somehow managed it. Perhaps my mom figured that if I was in the kitchen, cooking, at least I wasn’t out in the world, causing her trouble or embarrassment.
That activity, with its high level of production (I’d make yeast breads, coffee cakes, batches of cookies, muffins, and then often prepare something for dinner too) lasted about a year, until I started experimenting with boys and sex.
Cooking, like Art, remained a constant thread, my touchstone with sanity, throughout my life. When I was living in a commune in Europe, it may have been my skill as an artist that gained acceptance and a certain prestige within the group, but it was my skill as a cook that helped pay my way when the commune began to implode. When I returned to the USA the most important thing, after first getting a job and finding a secure apartment, was being able to cook again. It grounded me, gave me a sense of security and, not unlike when I was 13, the illusion that I was in control of the outcome.
I have been living in Vermont now for about a year, full-time just the past seven months. I joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) program so I could walk to the farm and pick up my produce, eggs and meat – which was another way of reinforcing that quality of groundedness and security that preparing all my own meals from scratch has always given me. It’s been a hot summer, filled with activity; grandchildren, swimming in the lake, working in my garden, local politics and figuring out what path my writing will take. Last night the weather seemed to take a sharp leap forward to fall. The calendar still says August, but the temps were more like mid September. I had some packages of yeast in the kitchen cabinet that I had intended to use for the baking at Christmas that never got done. The expiration date had not yet passed. I’d been feeling restless, dissatisfied, unsettled the past few days. What better way to dissipate that negative energy than kneading a hunk of dough, feeling it change consistency as I push and pull, the rhythm of letting it rise and pounding it down again to be shaped and baked to fill the air with the sweet yeasty smell that I remember so well from my youth.
So, as I write this, the dough is rising on my hearth. I’m writing. Ethel sleeps contentedly at my feet. The cool morning air passes through the room like my thoughts, drifting, settling, then stirring up the paper stacked on my desk, and the memories of baking bread in my mothers kitchen.