Top | First Person

Baking by heart

(article, Martha J. Miller)

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On October 1, 1982, my mom woke up feeling some minor contractions. Although I was running three days late, she decided to wait things out and get on with the day’s to-do list. 


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She'd been around this block once before already, three years earlier, when my sister, Ashley, was born. So she knew just how long these things could take. And making dessert for the neighborhood dinner party scheduled for later that evening was imperative. She’d settled on a recipe for Chinese almond cookies, a buttery shortbread with a single sliver of almond pressed into the cookie tops.

[%image mommy float=right width=400 caption="Martha and her mom."]I imagine her standing in the kitchen that morning, her massive pregnant belly pressed gently against the mustard-colored countertops and the mixer humming and thumping from the slap of dough against the side of the bowl. As she scraped the last, clinging bits of dough from the mixer’s bowl, the contractions likely began to grow and quicken. By the time the cookies were cooling on their racks, the gentle scent of almond filling the air, I guess I had decided to try one for myself.

My parents never made it to that dinner party, getting to the hospital just in time for my arrival, but the cookies did. A neighbor picked them up from our empty house later that evening and delivered them along with the news of one brand-new baby girl to our small-town West Virginia neighborhood.

As a little girl, I spent a lot of time in that yellow kitchen, tearing lettuce for salads or shucking corn alongside my mom, dad, and sister. The kitchen was where you used your hands and didn’t care what you dropped on the floor or got on your shirt. Where recipes often didn’t come out as planned, but were devoured anyway. It was a place to be yourself, together.

[%image diningroom float=left width=400 caption="Setting the table for a dinner party."]In those early years, the kitchen was the engine that pulled our family along, and my mom was our conductor. She put on internationally themed dinner parties, organized the school’s annual cakewalk fundraiser, and cranked out more than two dozen birthday cakes in 10 years. 

Her custom birthday cakes were a 1980s hit parade of our childhood whims: Cabbage Patch Kids, Cookie Monster, and for the year my sister took up horseback riding, an elegant pastoral scene replete with a rock-lined pond and horse. Never mind that the chocolate-frosting rocks wound up looking more like blobs of horse leavings, a fact my sister and I still give her some good-natured hell about.

Then, the year I turned six, my dad left. My parents divorced. Eventually, our home and its yellow kitchen went up for sale. Life went terribly sideways for a while. 

My mom was now alone, raising two school-aged girls in a new city. Working two jobs left her with less time in the kitchen, but I still often found myself in there. On quiet weeknights, I’d reheat the dinner that she’d somehow found the time to make that morning. Or I’d go through the steps I’d watched her complete a thousand times to cook dinner with my sister or by myself. 

Because when nothing in life felt the same, the kitchen — even a stark white rental one — felt like my mom. It felt like the best place to find her and feel her strength. Maybe because our life together almost started in one.

For most of my 20s, life was sideways again. I worked six different jobs in seven years, couch potato-ed my way through two rounds of unemployment, and dodged five rounds of layoffs by a hair. At 24, I severed all contact with my dad. At 27, I was diagnosed with a terrifying pulmonary condition that required major surgery to remove my right lung. A year later, I suffered a rare complication from the first surgery, which resulted in dozens of inconclusive doctor’s appointments, endless trips to five different hospitals in three states, and finally, another surgery far from home.

Looking back, I can see that I spent the better part of the past decade feeling helpless and lost. And also that I logged a lot of time in the only place I ever felt found: the kitchen. 

The kitchens of my 20s turned out to be no different than those of my girlhood, where I first cooked with my mom. I sought refuge in front of the oven daily. In the rundown kitchens of countless rental apartments and in the cramped confines of my first adult home with my husband, I quieted my anxious mind with recipes for Suzie’s Congo squares because that’s what we ate every summer at Claytor Lake, or Grandma Yie’s rolls because my mom made them every Christmas.

No matter how many times I’d failed at work that day or how uncertain I was that the next doctor would make me better, I knew that my mom was right when she showed me how to stir yeast into warm milk so it would begin to foam and bubble. Many days, this passed-down kitchen know-how was all I knew for certain. But just as when I was a girl, it somehow was enough. 

It seems obvious to me now that these past, present, and future kitchen moments would get me through. But learning life’s hardest lessons requires living inside of them first.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A cookie can symbolize a relationship."]I turned 30 this past October, and I can’t stop thinking about those Chinese almond cookies. Biologically speaking, my recent preoccupation with these cookies makes sense. My husband might call it a mind-body obsession (I’d call it a phone call from my ovaries), but I actually think it’s more than just the tick-tock, tick-tock.

Life feels upright again. I find that there’s a kind of centered ease to me now; a confidence and strength that first took root in my mom’s kitchen and continued to grow out of the failures and the loss and the hospital beds of my 20s. The kind of strength that all mothers need — and that the best ones learn to master. 

Like a gradual settling into one’s self that comes with each failure endured, each battle survived, each cake baked, all prepping you for life’s most essential of occupations.

I'm not sure when I'll become a mom, but for the first time in my life, I feel strong enough to think about it. Perhaps my mom felt that way, too, as she stood in the yellow kitchen on my birthday almost 30 years ago, patiently baking through the contractions. She could not predict the life that waited for me, or all that it might give and take away, but she could show me the place to ride it all out.

Lately, I’ve been picturing what it might be like to press my belly against a cool countertop; to help little hands press slivers of almond into dough; to take on a life that is bigger than my own. When the time comes, I will show them the place to find me always. The place to make Chinese almond cookies and to know, for sure, something of yourself again.

p(bio). Martha J. Miller's essays and stories have appeared in Oxford American, the Washington Post, and National Geographic Traveler online. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and an ever-growing vintage cookbook collection.

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