Summers in rural Illinois are hot and miserably humid amidst the cornfields. Both of my parents worked long hours and during our summer vacation, my mom would drive us out to her mother’s house, fifteen minutes away, to spend the day. Most mornings my grandmother, or “grammy” as I call her, could typically be found sewing a quilt, fiddling in the kitchen, or readying her sprawling gardens for a day’s work which my brother and I would unenthusiastically help with. I’ll never forget summers at her house. We would work all throughout the morning and early afternoon, hauling wheelbarrows full of mulch, bent over weeding the gardens, or even mixing cement to build a custom stone footpath through the yard. The grass would begin the day soaked with dew. As the morning heat riled up, the droplets slowly turned to sweat on our brows, mixing with dirt to draw streaks of mud on our faces. Finally, when the cicadas’ drones grew loud and the sun drew to its midday fever pitch, we would retire inside for a snack, some Diet Rite pop and cold iced tea. I always looked forward to this moment: a job well done and a reward well earned.
We would climb up on tall chairs at the end of the kitchen, peering out through the windows to survey our verdant kingdom as it started to gasp in the mid-July heat. Behind us, the closing of the refrigerator door would herald our just reward: Grammy would have baked something delicious the previous night. There would be fresh banana bread with peanut butter frosting, blueberry muffins, fresh apple sauce, lemon bars or some other treasure from summer’s ripe produce. She was always baking and cooking things for my Grandpa’s lunches and we were more than happy to take the remaining goodies for our snacks.
This is where my love for baking and being in the kitchen comes from. In my grandma’s kitchen, I first learned how to make a roux, how to bake banana bread, and, most importantly, how happy food can make people. My aunts, uncles, and cousins may not have always got along but somehow- at every gathering in that kitchen- we managed to set aside our differences, and enjoy the company and food. I have a sneaking suspicion that much of that was to do with the food… especially grammy’s famous rainbow jello dessert.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I bake and in turn, why anyone does. We have to eat, of course, but why do we take loving care in crafting magnificent and decadent food? What is it that draws us to spend hours laboring in the kitchen? In my case, and I think for most people, its a form of time traveling through memories. Every time I cook, I’m filling my pans with my story, my memories, my love. Even when I’m in a rush to just get something done or on the plate, it still has a hint of my life in it: a twist of joy, an extra dash of my dad’s sweet tooth, or a pinch of my mother’s love. It’s why when I like you, I’ll cook for you and if I really like you, I’ll want you to cook for me: I want you to share in me and I to share in you. When my grandma taught me to mince the celery and onions- two ingredients I loathed as a child- for the chicken salad, it was her way of sharing her world and encouraging me to see that the things I may think I don’t like, are very much lovable. And when my dad taught me how to make cornbread, it was him revealing a piece of his life to me and that cornbread always tastes best in a screaming hot cast iron skillet, smothered in honey and butter.
So why do we cook? Because we love telling stories. We love to hear stories; we love being a part of stories. To me, a family recipe book is like an old hymnal in a church, tattered and worn. Its a book full of our histories, our cultures, our shared experiences. Every time we bake something from it, we’re singing the same song our loved ones sang. I bake because I love rereading the stories of my family, my childhood, and my world. Joy, sorrow, laughter and heartbreak have never tasted so sweet as when they are poured into a cake, lovingly folded into flour, and swirled with frosting- sweeter still when shared with a friend and a glass of cold iced tea. I hope this week you’re able to write yourself a story, or at least read one over again. I’m sure it will taste just as sweet as the first time you read it.