I started baking in 8th grade home ec class at Peter Burnett Middle School. Back then, it was a math and science magnet across from the San Jose Federal Credit Union before it was a ghetto school as my brother referred to it more than 2 decades later.
One day, in Mrs. Chao’s class, we made corn muffins. Not from scratch, but the kind from a box. I loved the fully equipped kitchen stations; our own pots, knives and plates...autonomy - light, the chance to play house all over again. From our kitchens, we concocted exotic All - American dishes like green jello with hand chopped celery and macaroni salad with black olives and mayonnaise.
The day we made the corn muffins, I didn’t eat them as we did regularly after class. I don’t know why. I wasn’t hungry. Instead, I wrapped 2 evenly formed muffins with a paper napkin and wedged them carefully in my purple jansport backpack, between my social studies book and geometry.
When I came home, I found mom in bed, enervated, the weight of responsibilities and daily routines masking her face. It was exciting to see her during the daytime…at home, all alone with me.
I dropped my heavy bag next to the bed.
Mom had always saved me little surprises inside her purse. 1 large tarte au pommes before sending me to school in Arques on a foggy day. Cheese burgers when she came back from her flea market concession job. The free cheese bread they serve you at Red Lobster. Always, a surprise inside her purse.
Today, did she know the surprise was for her?
I revealed the freshly baked corn muffins. She ate them both. Slowly. Smiling. I loved that smile and that feeling. Seeing her happy, eating my corn muffins. Is this what love is all about? To receive the pleasure of joy in some one's eyes as their lips curl up toward the clouds.
I didn’t realize it but at 12, I equated baking with love.
In the summer, I’d bake up zucchini bread from our garden. The zucchinis hung large and heavy on the fragile trellis my dad built from scrap wood. The recipe was given by a coworker at Evergreen Valley College where mom worked in payroll. Then there was carrot loaf. Sometimes, I’d experiment and mix mozzarella lunch sticks into the bread. That was good too. For a year I baked and baked.
And then, I stopped.
Maybe it was the demands of school. Maybe I was falling out of grace with my parents, fighting to be separate, untangled by them. But I stopped cold turkey.
In my 20s, I baked desserts and little things here and there. Apple tart tatin…the recipe showed to me lovingly by my sister in law in Brittany. Pear crumble made from sugar sweet anju autumn delights for my love.
Baking takes patience…and space…and time like a flower, it needs room to grow and expand, breathe, mirroring the essence of its creator.
The year I started to really breathe again (or gasp), the courage to claim my life, the year we sold our house and everything with it to live in Central America...was the year I started to bake again. In spring, as we remodeled our bathroom…the last thing to do before putting our San Francisco house for sale…I baked to keep grounded and connected with the creative source. I learned to make yeast from raisins. The dough gave me patience and space and most of all...faith...to allow it to become what I had hoped and imagined it to be.
At lunchtime, I invited Alejandro, the Honduran contractor who helped with our bathroom remodel, to some soup and bread.
“You have this in your country?” he asked as I sliced another piece of bread for him.
“Well, yeah…the French…yes, we have bread in Vietnam.” I answered slightly confused and annoyed by my own response.
Do you need to be from a certain place to bake bread, to cook a certain dish? Is the knowledge bound by terroir or nationality? Does it have to come from your country, your culture for it to be good or accepted…or does Love know no boundaries…
What you are eating is an offering, from me to you...
I learned to bake at 12…to gently surprise my mother, waiting for that smile to light up my world…that’s why.
The rest needs no explanation.
By Mai Brehaut