The long way round

There are times when I’m thumbing through the tattered files of my memories, that I come across a moment that is hilariously revealing. As a gay man who spent most of his life closeted and fighting to stay in the closet, these moments are a dime a dozen: making a wig out of my mother’s garden twine, pining for a stunning periwinkle cloaked cape, and choreographing “I’m a Slave 4 U” in my underwear.

Yeah. Totes straight.

Those clues to my true sexuality were about as hidden as an old man’s moose knuckle with his pants pulled up to his nipples. In those old boxes of memories, there are other hidden things I wasn’t expecting to find: the path to becoming an amateur pastry chef, the reasons why other careers never felt “right”, and my proclivity for smartass remarks that make even my loved ones want to slap me.

In my senior year of English in high school, we all had to record and make senior videos. These were videos that included photos of our lives up until that time, our wants and wishes for the future, and who we wanted to be. At the time, I was working at Dairy Queen and loving it. I worked there for five years and had a blast making ice cream cakes, sundaes, cones, and blizzards. Even at home, I was baking and cooking everything I could. I even got into making and rolling my own pasta for homemade fettuccine alfredo. If I wasn’t making the kitchen look like an active crime scene, I was in front of the TV watching the Food Network until my eyes hurt. So, in my senior video, I said I wanted to be a culinary artist. I can still see my teacher’s face when I said that: scrunched up and twisted, like a baby who just decided that their mashed pea puree would look better on the floor than in their mouth. That face made me second-guess just about everything. That same year, I was also one of the top tenors in our state for All-State Choirs.

Music has always been a big part of my life. My mother was our church pianist, my dad played the guitar and mandolin. I started playing the piano in first grade. I can remember practicing hand positions and scales and learning everyone’s eternal jam, “Hot Cross Buns”. I sang in church constantly at our Sunday night services where anyone could sing a song or a hymn. I was nothing short of a diva. Shocker, right? But, growing up in a religious family, these behaviors were reinforced by the idea that talent is a divine gift, ’ and therefore a ‘calling’ for your life. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I was told, “If you don’t use the gift God gave you, it’s a sin. You musn’t squander the gifts you’ve been given.”

Therefore, to avoid squandering my “God-given gifts”, I dove headfirst into that musical rabbit hole. I went to college for music. I studied abroad for music. I was in a Young Artist program for a prestigious group,and I performed as a concert soloist with the heads of professional music departments. I had no issues getting work, and by all accounts, I was incredibly successful very early in my journey. This made it easy to feel like music really was at the core of who I am, who I was meant to be, and who I will be. Resting on my laurels, I slid by not noticing the growing storm clouds.

In 2013 I applied to a few Masters programs. I networked, prepared tirelessly, drove hours to schools, and auditioned. I was accepted to all my schools. I was elated. Life was going swimmingly…until it didn’t. No one offered me any sort of financial assistance: no scholarships, no grants, no teaching assistantship. My student loans would not even cover one semester. I begged and pleaded with the departments, prostrating myself like an initiate priest taking their vows. I could not understand why this terrible thing was happening to me. I was MEANT for this life! This was God’s plan for me! Why me, God? Why, me???? *insert torrential rainstorm*

All joking aside, this roadblock, this failure, rattled me to my core. I had a plan. I was a “musician.” What was I to do? The terrible emptiness that followed my final call with the financial aid office is something I can still feel to this day. I was housesitting at the time and I just went to the front porch, sat on the porch swing, and watched the rain fall. All those Simple Plan music videos I watched during my emo-preteen phase had prepared me well for this very moment. As the shock faded and I started to pick myself up, I went into first-aid mode. I dug out all the bad in that wound and tried to find what was left. I dissected “who am I?” as if it were a frog splayed out on a lab table, spread eagle, with its entrails being shown to him. When my depression was at its worst, I probably smelled about as bad as that frog did too.

I spent years in that desperate rut, but finally, the answer came to me. I had been looking at it from a career standpoint, when I really needed to look deeper–people are not careers. We are not jobs. I realized what I love most in life is making people feel a sense of “home,” and in doing so, making them feel loved. There’s a good episode of Friends that displays it perfectly: Monica is trying to get people to hang out at their apartment. She does everything: bakes, cleans, remodels. In the last scene, the gang finally comes back over to her apartment and she collapses in the chair after working tirelessly, and passes out saying “I’m the hostess, I’m the hostess.” Her friends are happy with their freshly baked cookies and everything looks homey and cozy. That’s me.

Following that feeling brought me back to food. With the weight of expectation off my shoulders , I let myself really discover who I was by doing what I loved. I love food. I love the feelings it gives people. I love the power it has to bring back to life those that have passed, those we’ve loved, and the times we shared with them around the table. Is there really anything as caring as a plate full of freshly baked cookies or a pie from a friend?

So here I am today, still chasing my gut. I know who I am now, for the most part. It took me years of parsing through the good, the bad, the painful, and the joyful to get here. Some days, I’m tired and exhausted and I may fail at being joyful, but my hope is that people will always know my love for them through the food I serve.

I hope you feel loved, I hope that you feel at home…and most importantly, I hope you feel full.

Failure is a Virtue

Many, many moons ago, I used to run cross country. I was a chunky, soft sixth grader, following after a friend who had joined up and recommended I joined too. I remember practices, every day after school, running for what felt like hours. Turns out, it was more like a half hour, followed by some other sort of cardio workout. I would jog slowly down our freshly opened new school’s walking tracks, the small white pebbles of gravel scurrying under foot to flee from my shuffle. I ran like a tiny, tired fighter, tight fists, held as if to defend from a punch to the gut, swaying back and forth in front of my chest. When it came to race days, I would always finish dead last. After fifteen times coming in last place, I’m sure the coach had no earthly idea why I even bothered to show up . Nonetheless, I kept on going. Then, in the penultimate race of the season, I was running a race in Seneca, IL, a small farming town in northern Illinois. The race trail meandered through the town, near freshly shorn corn fields, and over craggy sidewalks, mangled from overgrown tree roots. We were coming up to the last half mile. I was puffing away when I realized I had the chance to actually pass someone. I could finally make a marked achievement in my year of suffering and sweating through innumerable gym shirts I’d never take home to wash. With the finish line now in eyesight, I made my move: I pushed my chubby self just an ounce harder and passed my fellow running mate. In my head, it was an olympic feat with crowds cheering in slow motion, my opponents tripping in their grief behind me. I was victorious! I was a winner! I finally wasn’t last! I later discovered that the kid I passed was having an asthma attack and couldn’t finish. But still, one man’s asthma attack is another man’s second-to-last place finish. As an adult, I look back at that Cross Country season and am as perplexed as my running coach likely was. Why keep doing something that brought me so much frustration and failure? Why keep showing up even to practice if you know you’re not going to be the best, or hell, even place towards the middle of the pack? As confused as I am as to why that chubby kid kept on running, I am every bit as proud of him. I think that was the first time I truly learned the lesson of perseverance. I didn’t hate running, but I was decidedly bad at it; and yet I still kept going. By the end of the season, I had made some new friends, somewhat proven myself to not be a complete joke (thanks to my athematic opponent), and I improved my two mile pace to under twenty-one minutes – a feat of damn near herculean proportions, as far as I was concerned. I’m reminded of my Cross Country struggles as I recently finished the Netflix series “Nailed It!” For those of you who haven’t watched, the premise is simple: three very amateur bakers attempt to replicate two popular baking trends like cake pops, mermaid cupcakes, or a wedding cake, and invariably wind up hilariously missing the mark. It’s basically like watching Pinterest fails happen in real time, and I highly recommend it. While the show is meant to be funny and lighthearted, I really think there’s more to it than that. We all start on any journey at the beginning. Sure, there is natural talent, but anyone in any art form will tell you talent pales in comparison to tenacity. It takes work, practice, and many many failures to start producing anything show-worthy. Note that I said “show-worthy” rather than “anything of value,” because failure is the greatest teacher. When we fail, we learn. Not a soul in this world has learned any great life lessons from an easy win. Sometimes it takes a catastrophic failure to teach us the lesson that we need to learn. I look back at that twelve year old boy who finished last every single race,I see his tenacity, and I grit my teeth. We are not failures because we fail. Baking is something I have always loved, from my childhood summers at my grandmother’s house all the way up to the newest season of Jake Bakes. When I started getting serious, I took up a new recipe or technique every week for a year. Let me tell you, that first year was FULL of failures, some more epic than others. However, in failing in baking, I found something sweet -love. Love for the process, love for the ingredients, love for the people I was baking for. Sure, my first creations sometimes looked more like amorphous globs from a Stephen King novel than a croissant, but aside from a terrifying baking powder incident, they still tasted every bit as delicious. I’m still haunted by those quasi-turd like scones.

My first carrot cake in 2016

My most recent carrot cake, 2018

So many of my friends are afraid of baking or have just given up because they are self-proclaimed “terrible bakers”. Good news! Everyone is a bad baker in the beginning so you are right where you are supposed to be! It doesn’t matter that you mixed up salt with sugar, cinnamon with paprika, or flour with powdered laundry detergent. What does matter, is that you try again. Luckily, most recipes are fairly cheap to make so trying them a few times won’t hurt and I’m sure your coworkers won’t mind the extra goodies too. Even if it’s not baking, I hope you do something that you aren’t good at this week. I hope you stumble and have to learn something. I hope along the way, as I was lucky enough to experience, you learn something about yourself – something you didn’t know or maybe just needed to be reminded of. Like a husky sixth grader running with all his might, I hope you run your best race this week. Who knows, you might even surprise your family, friends, or even more importantly, yourself. Now wouldn’t that be something.

Why We Bake

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.