I can write a short story. I can write a book. On a really good day, I can draw a decent picture.
I can make ink–velvety black ink and lovely watercolor-types. I can craft a quill pen. I can hand-stitch books.
I can clean a house. I can do laundry–but only passably–I’m not so good with stains. (Most any stain is destined to be a permanent part of my wardrobe.)
I can grow herbs in pots but I’m really bad at yard work–I’m afraid of spiders. (I try to view them as friendly fellow passengers in life, but it doesn’t work for me. When cornered, I’ve been known to crawl up a wall backwards and later everyone wanted to know how I did it.)
I’m terrible at investment planning and the stock market. Positively horrible at such things. (I tried reading Suze Orman books because they’re supposed to be imminently understandable, but I learned only that I was in more financial trouble than I’d realized. Fixing it was beyond me.)
Listing all the talents and skills I do not have would be depressing. But this much is true: it bothers me that I cannot bake.
It’s not for a lack of trying. When I was around seven years old I checked out a library book that was supposed to teach me how to cook. I recall the funky nuggets that resulted from my attempt to bake biscuits–too bad I didn’t know there would be a future craze for healthy dog treats–I might have been on to something, in that case. When I was ten, I got in trouble when my mother awoke one morning to the sound of hammering. She entered the kitchen in a surly mood and found me hammering ice cubes on the counter in a vain attempt to create snow (we lived in Southern California–snow was a mystery to me). I got in even deeper when she approached for a close-up. You see, in the book Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, her family made pretty maple candy by swirling syrup on top of snow. My mother simply didn’t share my vision. The syrupy, watery, disgusting mess on our kitchen counter didn’t work for her.
When I was fourteen, I tried to bake a cake. I envisioned a beautiful layer cake. My mother had told me to use a toothpick if a cake ever fell apart. She said when frosting was applied to the cake, no one would know there was a toothpick in the cake, and to simply remember not to give a guest that part of the cake. What she didn’t explain was the exact meaning of “fully cooling” a cake. When the cake was comfortably warm to the touch, I thought it was cool enough to frost. The entire cake fell apart. I put around a hundred toothpicks in it but there weren’t enough toothpicks on earth for that cake. I ended up propping it against the wall to hold it up. Then mom came home. Not a pretty memory.
So, let’s see….a couple years later I baked frozen pizza in the oven without removing the plastic wrap first. I thought the plastic was some sort of space-age technology that wouldn’t melt. Turned out space-age technology hadn’t been applied to frozen pizza yet. My next memory of cooking was when my dad bought a top-of-the-line microwave and I decided to reheat a pork chop. A roaring fire ensued. I yelped for help, but help did not come quickly enough. I dove into the conflagration–the flames were pretty high–and attempted to beat the flames back with the only weapon I had at hand–an empty mayonnaise jar. When the fire was finally out (I think my mother threw towels over the mess, but I really can’t remember much besides the smoke)–the plastic rack-holders on the inside of that high-dollar microwave were completely melted–only a nasty bit of run-off remained. Dad never got over that one.
By the time I was a parent I still didn’t operate all that well in a kitchen. One night I decided to serve my toddlers pork and beans with hotdog slices–I mean, that’s pretty hard to mess up, right? And having survived on my cooking up until that point, my wee bairns were definitely not picky. But neither of them would eat that dinner. So I tasted it. Wow. It was really, really bad. I gave it to the dogs. The dogs refused to eat it. That meal was a turning point for me.
I bought cookbooks and I studied them. I mean, I sincerely STUDIED them. Eventually, I learned to cook a few things passably well. My kids grew up bragging to anyone who’d listen that no one could make a grilled cheese like their mom could. Okay, some people don’t consider a grilled cheese sandwich to be much of an accomplishment, but I’ll take my victory, thank you very much.
Now I’m a grandma, and today I received the honor of taking care of my two-year-old granddaughter for the day. We had plans, too. Company was coming over, a friend of mine with three small children. I was supposed to bake a cake, and my grand baby was excited because I told her it would have frosting and sprinkles. The cake was baked. I was proud. It was nearly burnt, but not quite, and I figured frosting covers a multitude of sins. (I remembered to cool the cake FULLY before frosting it.)
But this is where the tale turns dark. The company couldn’t come–my friend was sick. My granddaughter and I decided to walk to their house with a plate of cake and a video for them to watch. It sounded like a good plan, but…
The cake fell apart. Remember the Cake of a Hundred Toothpicks? This one was worse. I didn’t even bother with toothpicks. I managed to salvage enough for four slices for my friend and her wee ones. They weren’t pretty but they’d have to do. My grand baby and I walked over, and she proudly presented the plate of cake. Then we walked home, hand-in-hand, while she jabbered excitedly about the cake with sprinkles she would have when we got home. I just didn’t have the heart to tell her the awful truth….
In desperation, I gathered up the chunks, hunks and crumbs and plopped them into a cheerful yellow container. I dropped globs of frosting atop the pile and threw a healthy measure of sprinkles on top. As I brought the container to the table where my granddaughter sat, I told her the truth–her cake was broken. She eyed me very seriously then looked into the bowl I held. To my surprise, her eyes opened wide and she squealed in delight, “I LOVE DUMP CAKE!”
I don’t know how she came up with that term. But it was fitting. So I said, “Yeah, Dump Cake! It’s good, huh?” And she ate a big serving, and she liked it. A lot.
She liked it so much I decided to taste the “Dump Cake”. It was not very impressive. Which goes to show that frosting and sprinkles, do indeed, cover a multitude of regrettable mistakes. But I felt happy. Because even though I still can’t, and may never, bake a good cake, I remembered how different the world looked (and tasted) when I was two.
It’s 2:39 pm here as I type this, and today has been a really good day so far. I’ve been looking at it with fresh eyes. My granddaughter has just asked me for macaroni and cheese. I found a box in the pantry. When I was 12, I was insane about macaroni and cheese from a box. It was one thing I actually knew how to cook. Maybe today I’ll get two bowls out…
So if your day is going badly (as many tend to do), it might help to take a deep breath and take a look around you. The pressures/high speed of the world we live in tends to jade us. But if we can master the art of seeing what used to be, we can, to some extent, choose our own reality.
(Speaking of reality, below is a picture of today’s Dump Cake:)