Holiday baking is this really incredible, magical ideal I have always had. My grandmother was the sort of woman, of her generation, who loved others through the food she made. She canned, preserved, baked and stewed almost 24/7, in one way or another. She believed, to her core, in hard work and I realize looking back that she lived the life of an authentic feminist, just at a time when this was more a way of life and less a mouth driven, man-bashing subculture. That woman truly needed a man for nothing, but had chosen to love one until his death. She was incredible, my grandmother… And the holidays were no exception. Her cookies, (often times colored and pressed, in that vintage way that is all about nostalgia now) her candies, cakes and pies were seamlessly there and ready, dependable and delicious, just like we’d grown up knowing they would be.
My own mother wasn’t much of a baker, or a cook really, but she certainly believed she was. Even now, in her state of dementia, when she begins talking about the days before her illness, she was the cook to beat all cooks. My childhood consisted of lots of microwave dinners, (unevenly heated and disgusting, mind you) bologna sandwiches and then when my step father was around (5-10 days a month) we had real meals. Sometimes my mom cooked them, (if that were the case, a box or can of something was typically ALWAYS involved) and sometimes he grilled them. Cakes involved mixes, eventually cookies involved mixes. She was all about that short-cut cooking which was introduced to America around the same time she was. It makes sense. It wasn’t that she was lazy… The woman painstakingly made chocolates to die for, and they were loved by many, many people, across the nation.
I remember when I learned how to cook, (a sordid and woeful journey, poor Chw…) I was very excited to share with her, my skills. That is how most young girls are. No matter what ill hurts lie between a daughter and her mother, that desire to get her approval is strong. My first big success was lasagna. An elderly woman, who was very dear to my husband, was also the brilliant cook to create his all-time favorite dish and as a wedding gift she was teaching me, from her wheelchair, how to make it. My mother was full of complaints and disgust over my perfected deep dish of love, and I was devastated. This became a theme, really… Mom, look at my new couch! It’s hideous, I’d never own something like that. Mom, I finally perfected a lemon cheesecake. I had thought it would taste way better than this, it’s almost inedible. And on, and on, and on.
And now I sit, at the start of another Christmas season. I have my dutiful little list all written out… What I will bake, and for whom. When. And slowly the dread of doing so, and the self-doubt of why begins to trickle in. Over the past few years I have the same pattern, and though I plan and list otherwise, it will play out the same. The past few years have been the first where I have not had a holiday season filled, to the brim, with friends and family upon which to force my confections. This is far more bitter than sweet for me. This season it is mostly just the two of us, and Chw’s perspective is that of- there is no need to stress yourself out and go to the trouble when it’s just me and I probably won’t eat much of it anyway.
And I am sad.
I always say that I don’t love baking, but I remember loving it. I remember sugar cookies, ornately decorated, every season of my motherhood, until we moved back to Michigan. I remember reveling in my cheesecake masterpieces, creating cakes centered around loved one’s likes- for their birthdays, I remember delving into flaky pastries and pies and tarts and loving it all.
And then nothing.
No new cheesecake adventures, and truly I miss it. I do. But if I were to craft a new cheesecake, half of it would go into the garbage, and that hurts my feelings, though it probably shouldn’t. No cookie exchanges, no holiday parties or gatherings. It is easy to see how the holiday season can become so depressing for people. I look back on the good old days, where holidays were full of love and faces and people, my home always full and people enjoying what I’d made as we conversed and laughed over board games and quality moments. I knew then, that these were the life moments I loved, and how great things were. I remember pausing my life for a micro-second, simply to absorb how great it all felt. I remembered to appreciate it, always. What I never expected was it gone completely, all that is left is the reoccurring holiday list…
It is doubtful that any of it will get done. The thought of doing it exhausts me, (because, why?) but the thought of not doing it stabs me somewhere gutturally. And I think about these women before me, the holiday sugar journeys and how grateful I am for them. Maybe this season and phase of my life are meant to go in other culinary directions. I am strongly (and overwhelmingly) toying with the idea of tamales. I grew up with the eating of them a Christmas eve tradition. This was also in New Mexico, where everyone you know makes them, and they are readily accessible. I, myself have never made them and I am thinking that, maybe it’s time…
I am also toying with a few other adventurous little recipes to try out, since it is just us. I am both excited and tempted to just stick with doing nothing at all.
What about you? What baking/cooking will you plan to do?