The Internet, with its infinite slate of fantasy and entertainment, now throbs with lists of things to do while we hunker, unmasked, at home. Baking has begun to climb up the queue. Jigsaw puzzles, too. Sewing, needlepoint and knitting are popular. Book-reading and print magazines are coming back, if in small numbers.
But baking is big, especially bread. Corona has cast a spell on trips to the store which rank high on the risk meter, so the Web’s stay-at-home party lines throb with tips on stress baking, recipes for no-knead dough, no-yeast breads and so on. There is even a site for therapy in pie-baking.
My grandmother Marshall took therapy in baking to levels that not even Freud, or Dr. Phil, could imagine. Grandma had studied opera in the early 1900s, and carried her passion for the art to her ovens and flour boards with the piercing emotion of a La Bohème aria. For her, baking was a serious matter – dramatic and loving and at times, tragic.
On special Saturdays once or twice a month, her friend Gertie Lyon came to Grandma’s kitchen for a few hours to make cake donuts. On occasion, I was allowed to bring a friend and have a few donut “holes,” knobs cut from the center of a dough disc to make the donut ring. Fresh from the fryer, sugar-sprinkled and with a glass of milk, donut holes were a beautiful thing to happen in a childhood. If I ever wanted proof that heaven existed, it was right there at Grandma’s kitchen table on a Saturday morning.
She was a slight woman, not five feet tall, and might have weighed a hundred pounds fully clothed and soaking. I often wondered why, with all that baking, Grandma wasn’t wide as a juke box.
Milk and cream came from Ben Trapp’s small dairy herd, and Grandma’s recipes sometimes drew a clear preference for one milk (morning) or the other (evening). She believed milk that came at sunrise and what the cows gave in the evening were different, distinctive, and made a great difference in certain recipes.
Grandma grew a lot of what went into her pies, and what she couldn’t grow in her yard came from friends in town or in the country. Eggs came from Ben’s wife, Velda, who managed a large hen house at their farm.
Outside Grandma’s kitchen door, a spread of mint – “ground cover,” she called it – bordered a bed of perennials; in another bed, rhubarb. Much of her front lawn was shaded by great old trees that dropped bushels of walnuts. To the east, which had more sun, strawberries grew near the path to her vegetables and her rose garden.
Out to cut rhubarb or fetch strawberries, Grandma was often distracted into the roses. She could spend a long time pruning and snipping, or dusting. All else could wait.
We had pear, peach, cherry and apple trees at our house. Nearby, the Smiths had a large orchard, more apples, peaches, cherries. East of all this, a long line of wild black cherry fronted thickets of sand hill plumb. Just beyond, the woods began.
Grandma’s strawberry-rhubarb pies were a proud marriage of tart and sweet, the crust always firm and flaky, the bottom never soggy. Butter and lard were crucial for a perfect crust, she said. There were lemon meringue and coconut cream, cherry and mince meat. Her apple pies were stuffed high, and she wanted her piece warmed and topped with a slice of English cheddar, something I never understood, especially when ice cream was within reach.
Her cakes began like the pies, from scratch, no mixes, and she made many kinds – angel food, devil’s food, chocolate, German chocolate, carrot, Boston cream, Victoria sponge, and more. She always asked which we’d like for our birthday.
So here we are. As dusk arrives, we return to places we have loved, having survived threats of nuclear war, of disease and discord, and the vicissitudes of economies and politics. We are at once alone and united, lives on hold.
The comforting mists of memory soften Corona’s wicked suspense. I rummage through the old corners and dusty shelves of the past for a whiff of solace, anything to lighten the isolation and uncertainty. Deep down are the recitals of place, arias that have touched all of us who have known, at one time or another, their pull. I poke among them for assurance, something unmistakable.
Out pops a woman who loved opera and roses and baking, and milk straight from the herd – and believed Bisquick was the work of the Kremlin.