Musings December 2021

The best thing about seeing the winter holidays in the rear-view mirror, for some of us, is that we can come out of the kitchen. 

For those of us who aren’t good cooks or who don’t like to cook, we can feel free to put away the recipes and the aprons and the bandages from doctoring cuts and burns. 

It’s much the same relief I feel when I’ve eaten the last Reese’s cup from the bag of candy I bought for trick or treaters: Ah, that’s over!

Yet, I can’t avoid the holiday pull of the kitchen. My favorite food writer, M. F. K. Fisher, said food is mixed, mingled and entwined with security and love. No wonder food is bonded with memories, celebrations, family, friends — and holidays.  

I read about a woman who said when she was a girl, she knew it was Christmas time when her mother began cursing the divinity. Nothing religious — just the candy that wouldn’t set.

I come from an extended family of good cooks, but that gene skipped some of us and with a giant leap. Some aunts tried and failed, some failed and didn’t care, some failed and didn’t know it. My mother, the best cook of all, was shattered when she came to my house one Thanksgiving meal, looked in on me in my galley kitchen, and reported sadly to the people in the living room, “She’s looking up a recipe for gravy. Scary, isn’t it?”

Although I have spent thousands of hours in kitchens watching people cook fabulous meals, I didn’t learn cooking by osmosis. I have watched people repair car engines and pill a cat, and I can’t do those either.

Still, when the weather turns colder there is a powerful urge to cook — hearty soups, pies, bread. It must be an instinct inherited from my gatherer ancestors. This afflicts me in other seasons. Once I bought a 4-pound carton of strawberries determined to replicate family desserts. One grandmother made moist strawberry cake I loved, the other made strawberry pie in a crisp crust. With 4 pounds of strawberries, surely I could recreate at least one of these.

I printed a stack of recipes from the internet, pulled out my tattered “Betty Crocker Cookbook” from 1976 with a recipe for strawberry shortcake and began happily hulling strawberries and mixing batters and crusts. 

Strawberry cake reminded me of an English folksong one grandmother sang about two little babes lost in the woods “and when they were dead the robin so red brought strawberry leaves and over them spread.”

That was so depressing, I switched to an African-American folksong, “Shortnin’ Bread” with the verse about “Three little children lyin’ in bed, two of them sick and the other most dead.” They’re healed with a serving of shortnin’ bread, which isn’t the same thing as shortbread or shortcake. 

What songs to sing to children! Well, it was a long time ago. These folksongs date to the 1800s, yet “Shortnin’ Bread” was recorded by an astonishing list of artists, including Fats Waller, Taj Mahal, Etta James, the Andrews Sisters and the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson was obsessed with it, recorded it many times and said it was the best song ever written. That is certainly food for thought. In the current hyper-woke climate, no artist would record it. I hesitate to sing it in the privacy of my own home. Even alone. This must be how the citizens of Salem felt in 1693.

My strawberry pie and cake efforts fell as flat as my singing. But that doesn’t mean I’ll give up. Somewhere, oh, somewhere there is a strawberry dessert recipe for me. But I also think, year after year, that I can overwinter geraniums in the garage.

When Emily Dickinson wrote that “hope is the thing with feathers,” some say she was writing about the human capacity for hope. January is a good month to think about that, to look forward with hope and to venture bravely into the new year. Even into the kitchen.

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