Topéca Bakery will soon have a real brick and mortar (and we have walls full of bricks and mortar, just ask our contractor) place to stroll in from Cherry Street, have a cup of coffee and enjoy some delicious morsel that hopefully reminds you of grandma’s and childhood and first dates and goodness. This place is becoming real. One day I walked in and began my day like any other, only an hour later to hear part of a wall coming down. Surprise construction is fun, really. It initially felt like just one more thing added to a mountain of ridiculousness that one cup of coffee could ne’er prepare one to scale. But then, I mused, how often does it happen that we step aside from our to-do lists, our meetings and dinners, dog-walks and dates, long enough to look inwardly and suddenly realize that we are actually under construction? That somewhere in between the to and fro, little pieces have been chipped away. A wall that was up is suddenly down. Or the opposite, new walls have formed and we must trace the cracks and seams back through basements and beams to figure out why they were constructed in the first place. Some acts of internal demolition come with purpose, intensity, and (if you’re like me) lots of therapy, either psychological or the kind that is uncorked with a friend. These are the kinds of remodels we look forward to, that we embrace with the naivety of a first-time homeowner who sees wood floors and great ceilings and falls in love with a staircase only to be left heartbroken, in only the way a century-old home knows how to do. But sometimes, our hearts begin their own work. We go about our usual routine, until suddenly we hear something come crashing down, we pause to take a look, and we are being made into something new.
There is a joy in baking, a joy in preparing food that you know will bring closed eyes, warm smiles, and groans of delight. A joy in knowing that your hands have created something that brings nourishment or, at the very least, a dance of sweetness across the tastebuds. But I must confess, there are moments when I look down at what my hands are making and instead of blueberries and farm fresh eggs and heaps of flour and sugars, all I see are calories and pant sizes and bulges along backs and fronts. There is this strange love-hate relationship I’ve formed with food since becoming a baker. Working around food all day, I have a new appreciation for how it transforms from seeds and ground to fruit and table. I’ve met many inspiring people through the farmers market who have reminded me of the purity and goodness of food. But in the midst of returning to this ultimate foundation of sustenance, I’ve also, for the first time, developed a rather acute sense of animosity towards food. Perhaps not towards the foods themselves (for how can one ever truly hate a strawberry, that plump red, speckled heart, or a stick of butter so creamy and yellow, I’m reminded of summer and warmth and soft fading light), but towards myself, towards the way my body processes these foods. Always, the chubby little girl peeks out of me, longing to be noticed as beautiful but feeling trapped inside by hips and thighs. The comments of “How do you stay looking like that working at a bakery?” are regarded not with acceptance or appreciation but with an immediate comparison between this body and some ball of dough I had been kneading earlier in the day. Why is it that food, something so good, so life-giving and sustaining and joy-bringing, can be so devastating? I go back to the faces, those beautiful faces with closed eyes, warm smiles, and groans of delight. Happiness is what makes them beautiful. Happiness is what makes me feel beautiful. Should my waistline forever remain a softer number, would I have a miserable life? I wrestle with the answer but I see those beautiful faces and think, no. Those faces full of happiness, and not one body can I remember for they matter not an ounce in that moment. Every time I look down at that pile of dough I must once again accept grace and extend gratitude for the beauty of savorable moments, for the opportunity to partake in dinners and desserts and delight among friends. For therein lies happiness, in that mound of dough which I enthusiastically plunge into with both hands, there and not some mirror; instead learning to let the mirror be those lovely, happy faces.
This is my lovely old Hobart mixer. She’s looking pretty good for 69. Sometimes she gets a little feisty and tosses her contents out of the bowl. I think this is her way of reminding me who is in charge, who has been mixing bread batters and cookie doughs for longer than I’ve been alive. Legacy isn’t something that often crosses the mind of a twentysomething. But legacy is the reason I’m here at all. Most of my family history has been learned kneading dough and rolling out sugar cookies with my grandmothers. Some of my earliest memories involve Sunday night family dinners at Nanny’s house, the smell of from-scratch Parker House rolls wafts through my nostalgia. I can feel the exhilarating squish of mixing butter, powdered sugar, and coconut for Martha Washington candies with my bare hands just like my great-grandmother taught Nanny to do, listening in eager anticipation to stories of farm life and bygone days. Reading over yellowed recipe cards with Grandma’s perfect cursive script, I’m transported to another era, where my uncle would steal sticks of butter to eat when no one was looking and my mom had to elbow her way past her brothers to get room at the table. Traditions of grace gathered in hand-held circles and strawberry pies at Easter. Family secrets and recipes passed down like family names. Remembering that I am but one part in a chain that extends far beyond any living recollection. This old mixer reminds me how brief my time on this earth is, how precious grandparents are, and why we ought to care for all the old ladies in our lives.
Some days I feel like Julia Child. Like I could conquer any and every recipe put before me – leave them in French, je vais conquérir! Every loaf of bread rises perfectly, every cake bakes evenly. I am Hestia incarnate, and croissants offer themselves as sacrifices to my hearth. These days are generally followed immediately by days when I feel like Lucy from the classic show “I Love Lucy,” and I’m lucky not to burn toast. Baking has a remarkable ability to keep a person humble. Some days it genuinely is your fault a recipe fails – oh it says 1/2 teaspoon not 1/2 cup, silly me. Some days there is nothing you can do, not enough croissants to sacrifice, to make up for the humidity spike that causes all those croissants to fail miserably in their attempt to proof. Patience, effort, ingredients wasted on a sub par pastry. And so goes life. We can’t spend too much time crying over spilled milk or overly browned butter, even though there are days when all I want to do is sit in the puddle of batter on the floor and cry. Where does this get me? Nowhere. So I dust off the flour and start again.
Some people have drawing boards, I have a kitchen table. When life begins to wind up its infamous curveball pitch, the kitchen table is where I head. Usually with a bottle of wine and at least one friend, and probably some kind of cake or cheese. This is where I empty my soul, my brain, and a few glasses of Pinot as I sort through what may lay beyond the curve. This was where I decided that my latest career turn would end at the doors of an oven, pulling out a loaf of banana bread, and taking my love of baking from a hobby to a way of life. There isn’t much crossover from film production to baking. When I agreed to become Topéca’s first full-time baker, all I had were a handful of romantic films that led me to believe I could change the world with a cookie, and a recipe book full of treasured family memories. Adventure is what feeds my soul. I usually take this to mean travel and new places, but this time the adventure looks more like a flour-covered apron and a feisty old mixer. I’m flipping through recipes, trying to find myself amidst the teaspoons and tablespoons. A dash of cinnamon and a few broken eggs are signs that the search is coming along as it should, and so is the banana bread.