by Michaella Thornton
It’s a little before 5 a.m. and, instead of lying in bed and wondering why I cannot sleep, I get up. Maybe it’s my anxiety about Omicron and trying to keep my too-young-to-be-vaccinated child safe while navigating single-parent frugality (keep her home, but still pay preschool fees to keep her spot). Maybe it’s my Missouri raising or the pastoral summers I spent with my grandparents as a child, people who were children during the Great Depression. Kids who wore flour-sack dresses and whose adult eyes misted when they described the sweetness, the wonder of a Florida orange in their stocking or the weight of a silver dime in their hand after threshing wheat at age 10.
Maybe it’s because I need to steady my hands. I need to use this stolen sliver of time and these four rotting bananas sitting on the kitchen counter. Ripe and sweet in their spotted darkness, they are perfect for banana bread.
A lot of writers baked, still bake, as part of their creative process. Emily Dickinson’s black cake has been made famous by Apple TV’s series, Dickinson,as well as the poet’s lesser known but beloved coconut cake. On the flipside of one of her handwritten recipes, Dickinson drafted the poem, “The Things that never come back, are several.” She was, as the Emily Dickinson Museum notes, “most comfortable, perhaps most at home” in the kitchen.
The kitchen is not, of course, a safe or nurturing or desired place for all of us. There are many, many reasons, as Sabrina Orah Mark reminds us, to “fuck the bread.”
And yet, the kitchen is where I do some of my best thinking and brainstorming, early in the morning, late at night, sweeping the crumbs off of the counters, letting the rhythmic swoosh of hot water and soapy sponge make a noticeable dent in the dishes that have piled up, keep piling up, in my life.
Sylvia Plath found consolation in Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, calling her “my blessed Rombauer.” As Valerie Stivers points out in the Paris Review, Plath “laments that instead of ‘studying Locke, for instance, or writing – – – I go make an apple pie.’ But the pie makes her happy.” Pie unites the greats. Lorrie Moore writes of a playwright in her short story, “The Juniper Tree,” who “would have written more plays if she had made fewer pies.” Just as Grace Paley wrote before Moore, but in verse: “I was going to write a poem / I made a pie instead it took / about the same amount of time / of course the pie was a final draft.”
And for writers, whose days are usually tied up in rejection and longing and assembling just the right words and scenes and sentences, isn’t there something to learn, to meditate on, in the transformative act of baking? These are all the ingredients I’m assembling in my brain as I think about the parallels between writing and baking and the craft inherent in both pursuits:
- My mother’s pie scraps: how she would sprinkle the leftover pie dough with cinnamon and sugar and bake these pastry remnants on a cookie sheet. How, as a small child, I would watch the illuminated oven, feel the heat of the oven door on my hands. How the warm crust dissolved on my tongue like a wafer of pleasure, of butter and sugar, of simple joy, of loving these tender scraps more than the whole damn pie.
- The obligatory creative nonfiction blah-blah-blah of, “Reader, here’s the etymology of ‘scrap.’” How perhaps sharing this tiny bit of knowledge of where “scrap” comes from (14th-century Old Norse “skrap”) will somehow make this small piece about “small pieces” more authoritative, less rambly, less associative and magpie-y, less homespun and more polished. The act of scraping, which predates “scrap” by a good century, is defined as gathering “by great effort, collect with difficulty” (circa 1540s), which sounds exactly like my writing process. Maybe yours too?
- Writing when you have the time, however small or oddly shaped. I’m channeling the wisdom of writer Meg Pillow. She teaches those of us assembled in little web-cam boxes in May 2020 to set a timer. To piece our stories and essays together like a quilt. This advice gets me started, keeps me going. To write just one good sentence spurs me on, gives me hope.
- A ramble of strands I brainstorm with a writer-friend at a coffee shop before coffee shops feel unsafe, yet again:
- scraps of time
- scraps of ideas
- scraps that one day form a cohesive whole
- scraps we hold onto to save for later, for perhaps for no other reason than we like this memory, this idea, this possibility before discerning plot or structure or form
- scraps for composting, nutrients to return back to the earth
- scraps as something sacred, valuable
- scraps: what some of us are living off of, making do with, and why?
- the scraps of joy we savor and/or miss (the crumbs, as Mary Oliver mentions in “Joy Is Not Made to Be A Crumb”)
- scraps spun into gold
And I guess this bulleted list I’m trying to conjure into something cohesive and substantial is a reminder that writing, like baking, is a chance to cheat death. A chance to “dilate the moment,” as Phillip Lopate reminds us. To bind all of these disparate and conflicting and messy bits together, to create something tangible and nourishing out of the ethereal, the decaying, these little fleeting wisps and slips of it all.
 Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of scrap.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/scrap. Accessed 29 December, 2021.
Read more of Kella’s work here at Reckon:
Fiction – The Hottest and Longest Lasting Fire (Best of the Net Nominee)