THE BAKER, THE LONG JOHN MAKER—AND SUZANNE
When I have the time and the occasion, I love to bake. Not cooking, just baking. I cook because I have to, although I have a husband who is gifted in the kitchen, and enjoys cooking more than I do.
For that, I am thankful.
I’ve psychoanalyzed why I love to bake and not to cook, and I have arrived at this conclusion: I have had to cook for most of my life for my family, both growing up and as a parent/wife; it was non-negotiable. It was a chore, and there were no options. We had to feed the masses. Baking, however, is sometimes optional.
On the farm, the girls were inside, and the boys were outside. Except Gail– she was cross-trained to do just about anything on the farm, inside the house or out. She was the second-born, and she was the Swiss Army Knife out of necessity—she HAD to learn it all. Mom needed her inside, and sometimes, Dad needed her outside. No wonder her work ethic puts ours to shame; we all relied so much upon her, and she simply did the job and moved on to the next.
I’m not sure what all she did outside, because I wasn’t there to learn from her. I did learn from her inside. She and Mom taught me how to prepare a meal for nine, and how to bake goodies for us too. I remember the baked goods felt better to prepare. The cooked meal sustained us, but the pies, cakes, cookies and other treats make others happy.
Cooking is like the exercise routine you have to perform; baking is like getting a massage. Cooking is watching the news; baking is listening to music. Cooking is doing your taxes; baking is reading a juicy novel. You get the idea.
Feeding nine people was no small chore. Mom took it upon herself as the serious business it was. She performed this Herculean task three times every day, with and without our help.
Breakfast at our house was like a diner, and she was the short-order cook. If one of us wanted bacon and eggs, we got it. If another wanted French toast, she made that. For seven kids. For all those years.
Dinner, which is the noon meal on the farm, was some form of meat and potatoes with a vegetable, or some variation of that. Supper—the evening meal—was another well-rounded spread. Then, she would do it all over again the next day. And the next.
We were enlisted to help cook as soon as we were able. It was non-negotiable, it simply had to be done. Nine hungry mouths were there open and waiting. As the years passed, nine became eight, then seven; six… I was child number five of seven, so there were five at a minimum when I was still home. When Gail left, as I mentioned in a previous post, I had to do more. Having set the bar so unrealistically high, she was a hard act to follow.
She cooked meals like we all did; like we all had to. She found more joy in baking, too. Her specialty, as I remember it, was long johns. From scratch, fried and frosted. Donuts, too. So it’s no wonder she opened a Daylight Donut shop in her small western Kansas town, and became the donut queen extraordinaire of western Kansas. For over seven years, she burned the before midnight-to-after lunchtime oil, sleeping only in short spells after the donuts were made and sold, and the mess was cleaned, and all her other work was done. Seven months after Mom and Dad died, she fully realized the life is too short secret, and shut her doors. She hasn’t looked back, but says she wouldn’t trade it.
She still cooks. And bakes. And not just for big events like last week’s Thanksgiving feast. She took the torch from Mom’s kitchen, and still burns it bright.
Now Suzanne, however, is a different story. I recall teaching her to make pie crusts about 15 years ago, because Mom never taught her. Mom was alive and able to do so, but I think she was simply done. She had cooked and baked all she cared to, and she no longer had any interest in doing any more than she had to. She earned the rest of her life off from this task.
When I was working this post in my mind before I wrote it, I asked Suzanne what, since I was obviously the baker, and Gail the long john maker, I should call her.
She laughed, and without hesitation answered: “Suzanne.”
So she remains simply Suzanne. She doesn’t think of herself as a baker in any way, and she is more than okay with that. So was Mom.
I lucked out in so many ways. My husband is a great cook, and he enjoys it. Not just the grill guy as some husbands are, but he is that too. He can take ingredients that may appear hopeless and lifeless, and turn them into a memorable, delicious feast. The only problem is that he typically can’t repeat those kinds of dishes, because it was a flash of culinary inspiration that disappears just after it came.
I’ll take it. I also take the responsibility for cooking when it’s my turn. I’d say about half the time. We make it a priority to have a sit-down meal nearly every evening, just like he and I both did in our families when we were growing up.
I must tell you a vital bit of information now, before I get into the baking part of this post. I want to make it abundantly clear that I am forever grateful that I married a good cook. I want to make it clear too, that I support him however I can when he is cooking. Generally, I don’t criticize a single move he makes when he is in the kitchen. Except this one time.
I inherited my Grandpa’s flour sifter. It was in his kitchen, likely belonging to his sisters who lived with him to help raise my dad after my grandmother passed away when Dad was young. I don’t remember him using it, but I treasured it. It is a single sifter, requiring that the handle is cranked. It was a labor of love. I used it as a ritual when I made pie crusts, because sifting the flour twice is one of my two secrets. I took good care of it, never washing it to prevent any rust from forming inside. I would pat the flour off after each use and gently put it away. It was a trusty sifter, and my expert use and care kept it in pristine condition.
Mark was cooking something wonderful; I don’t recall what it was. Whatever it was required a can of crushed tomatoes. They needed to be strained, and he wanted a fine wire mesh strainer. You can see where this is going.
He decided my flour sifter was the perfect tool.
Fortunately for him, he was redeemed. Albeit several years later, but redemption did happen.
His aunt held a lottery-style drawing for some of his grandmother’s treasures in her possession, in order that they would be passed down to grandchildren. As pictured, he won the triple sifter that belonged to his grandma. With several quick pulls of the hand, the flour is sifted not twice, but three times. It is slick and smooth, and works like a charm.
My grandpa’s flour sifter has sat unused in the cabinet since then, not even used once to strain tomatoes.
The evening after Mildred’s funeral several weeks ago was unseasonably warm, just as the day was. We got home late in the afternoon, had dinner, and I decided it was time. Time to get out the grinder.
About twenty years ago, Dad bought a wheat grinder. For months, he ground his own wheat to provide flour for so many of the dishes—both baked and cooked—that Mom was still making. He showed it off to each of us when we visited, demonstrated and then shared the freshly ground fruit of the earth if we wanted some. I always took some, incorporating it into baked goods whenever I could, and using it in cooking for breading and such.
As the months passed, he became less enthusiastic about grinding wheat, until his grinding production ground to a halt. I decided to borrow the grinder from him and grind my own, because I missed cooking and baking with it.
He didn’t mind loaning it out. I had it in my possession when they died, and have had it ever since. If my siblings want to use it, I have let them know I am happy to pass it on.
So that evening, since I was out of flour, and my brother was kind enough to provide more wheat from last summer’s harvest for me, I dug out the grinder to enjoy the beautiful fall twilight.
I didn’t get an action picture, but the first and most important task that must be performed before the wheat can be ground is to sift it, separating the wheat from the chaff. The sifting tray is sitting on top of the stack of buckets.
It is a messy and dusty proposition, so I set up shop in the driveway. And, just for good measure, I drank a wheat beer while I ground the wheat. Dad would have approved.
The wheat dust hung lazily in the air, just like it did when I wrote about the day I spent in the harvest field. Days with no wind are a gift in Kansas, and this was another one of them. Gail and Suzanne would beg to differ.
In half an hour or so, I had five half-gallon ice cream buckets filled with flour. I was set.
The night before Thanksgiving, I prepared to bake. I planted myself in my kitchen, in my element. All my boys were gone to visit Mark’s family, and I had the house to myself. I put on my favorite music, poured a glass of wine, and set out to bake two pumpkin pies, two sweet potato pies, a pumpkin cake, and pecan pie bars. Some would go to Mark’s family gathering the next day on Thanksgiving, the rest would go to Gail’s house for the weekend festivities.
I got cranked up, spinning several plates in the air at the same time, so to speak. I was mixing pie dough and other bowls of ingredients smoothly, with nary a glitch.
Perhaps it was the heaping scoop of memories, or the pinch of melancholy, or perhaps the cup of merlot–maybe all three, but it hit me.
The mixing bowl was Mom’s. She used it hundreds of times; I can easily summon a visual image of her cooking and baking with it. A very clear picture came to me, and I had to have a moment. I had to walk away from it all for a moment.
But just a moment.
And then it was gone. In the early years after they died, it may have been a full-on breakdown, rendering me incapable of finishing the task. Not anymore. I only need a moment now, and it usually is a quiet one.
Then I got back to work. I felt her peace, and it was all okay. She was here for Thanksgiving after all. Dad was too; the flour from his grinder was a part of the plan.
So Gail and I continue to bake. Suzanne continues not to bake. And that’s okay.
When those memories come back, as they sometimes still do, I feel them; give them their due. If they hurt for a bit, that pain is now more quickly replaced by the unspeakable but sure knowledge that these are simply signs that Mom and Dad are still with us. And that is always worth the pain.
In Peace, Sister (July 16th), I referred to the letter Mom prepared so carefully and lovingly years before her death. She signed off with this line that still brings me down for just a moment, then back up, then to an even higher place:
“Please don’t think I have left you. I am still very much with you.”
And, as I just wrote her line above, I heard this line on the radio: “And know a mother’s love.”
I’m pretty sure she is right here, right now.
In case you want the other secret to my pie crusts, here it is: always use Crisco. And, it goes without saying, never wash the sifter, or strain tomatoes with it.