The evening after I left Botswana for good, my aunt pulled the loveliest loaf of sourdough bread out of the oven. It was the simple and perfect combination of rye flour and her home-grown sourdough starter. I ate it hot, toasted, and slathered with butter and the creamiest honey I’ve ever sampled. We sat on the couch savouring slices for dessert, while watching Ina Garten bake a three-tiered chocolate buttercream cake. We laughed together at the delicious excess, and I forgot for a moment or two the previous afternoon’s goodbyes that had left my eyes red.
I had two slices for lunch the next day and savoured each bite, until it was time to drag my duffel to the front door. I closed the gate behind me and prepared to bid South Africa farewell, the unmistakable taste of home still lingering on my lips. Two long flights later, I walked into a much colder house. For the first time in years I did not have to face the prospect of leaving after a few weeks of long-awaited hellos; I was a permanent resident again.
Jobless and directionless, I found myself slightly terrified.
There were countless things that needed to be done – unpacking was certainly high on the list – but there was only one thing I felt like doing.
I started to bake. I spent my first Saturday back in Canada whipping up a pumpkin pie, a sweet potato pie, and a large batch of granola. I restocked the pantry with flour and sugar, and started buying an abundance of unsalted butter sticks. I became an avid Smitten Kitchen follower, and this resulted in my first chocolate babka attempt. I was too intimidated to go it alone, and was grateful for a wonderful friend who spent six hours teaching me to proof, knead, and turn. Our efforts were more than rewarded. It was as if chocolate and butter had married to produce a sweet and fluffy dough baby, with a heavy sprinkle of sugary crumble on top for good measure. If you think I sound crazy, I assume you’ve never tasted a great chocolate babka, and would suggest you do so as soon as possible.
There were adventures in cookies, chocolate ganache, and apple crumble. I made my first batch of cinnamon buns, going through several sachets of yeast before I was convinced they were activating properly. I made pie crust after pie crust, willing the flutes I shaped to stay in place when they baked. There was a failed experiment in royal icing; my distaste for the flavour was compounded by an apparent inability to pipe the stuff onto Martha’s sugar cookies. My cupcakes are not fantastic yet, and I suspect I’m about ten years away from tackling anything with tiers.
I possess no culinary prowess – I follow recipes to the letter and hope for the best. How then, can I explain that I am happiest standing at my counter with a rolling pin in hand, covered in a fine film of flour? Perhaps it is the same joy I imagine we all experience when we create something with our own hands that might be offered to those dear to us, whether or not the edges burn or the icing melts.
Soon after I came home my mom had to undergo major surgery, followed by a long and tough recovery. Not a night went by in those first few weeks that we did not share a meal that had been delivered to us by family and friends. They organized a supper rotation and made sure that our fridge was never empty. When I think about our little community, I realize that this is how it has always been. Wherever we are celebrating life, struggling through illness, or mourning death, there will be an abundance of food. Without knowing what to say, we can still show up, armed with sustenance.
I have been told that we must avoid confusing food with love. Even as the food itself nourishes, real fullness cannot be found on a plate. I suppose I see truth in this sentiment, but I would also argue that while food might not be love, making it is certainly an act of love.
A hearty meal is a gift that heals. The right cookies will put a smile on a friend’s face. I will even venture to tell you that a slice of homemade bread can ease the pain of difficult goodbyes when words really won’t do.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.
– Mary Oliver