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The farmer bakes a cake

(article, Jessica Sherifdeen)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] The haphazard flinging together of genes at the moment of conception stamps us with talents and deficiencies that endure for the rest of our lives. 

My sisters inherited a knack for cooking (genes which had been latent for a few recent generations). They can saunter around the kitchen, tossing ingredients together in a seemingly random and unpremeditated way, and create the most exquisite dishes, and they can scatter them onto a plate so artfully that it seems an act of vandalism to disturb the composition with your fork.

I have not got that knack. It’s not that I am one of those pathetic males who subsists for eight days on cold canned spaghetti while his wife visits distant relatives. I can cobble together a decent plate of food — romaine drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil, sardines, linguini with pesto, and a bottle of Chianti classico, thank you very much. But when I stray from my few well-worn culinary paths, I tend to get into trouble. So the kitchen is, by and large, the domain of my wife and daughters.

I don’t feel inferior because of this. I have other skills: I can judge timber, and fell a tree, and start a fire, and shingle a barn, and fix a leaking toilet. These, and a few other talents that I can’t recall at the moment, allow me to earn my keep around the place and hold my head high.

[%image heart float=left width=300 caption="A valentine's cake starts with sifted flour."] At one time I thought I might have an aptitude for baking, like my brother, whose deft, floury hands can shape all sorts of wonderful cookies and tarts. He makes bread dough so elastic that I can imagine holding an edge of it against the floor with my right foot, stretching it over my head with my left hand, and strumming the bass line to “Body and Soul.” 

I tried to make bread, but the yeast at our place suffers from manic-depressive disorder. One batch of dough would lie sullenly in its bowl, face to the wall, sulking. The next time you’d catch it in a manic phase. Leave the room for a minute, and when you came back it had climbed out of the bowl and across the table and down to the floor, looking for a party. 

I baked a sweet-potato pie one time and managed to fit 18 large sweet potatoes — about half a bushel — into a nine-inch pie. It was astonishingly dense, calling to mind a lead brick I once tried to pick up at the Cambridge cyclotron. 

On the morning in question I was rummaging around in the kitchen and came across a heart-shaped baking pan, which reminded me that the next day was Valentine’s Day, and I had the happy notion of baking a heart-shaped cake for my valentines, who were off on a shopping expedition. 

I got down the Joy of Cooking, which, like most everything else around our place, is 50 years out of date. It’s the 1943 edition, with appendices describing how to send food to the troops overseas and how to cope with meat rationing. Our stove dates from the same era — a six-burner monster with more chrome than a Buick. 

I started in on a recipe for white cake, which seemed simple enough. I was partway along with mixing the ingredients when I glanced out the window at the sun and remembered that I had covered some little citrus trees against a threatened frost. So I abandoned the kitchen for a moment, pulled on some boots, and hiked down to the orchard to uncover the trees. 

On the way back, I noticed that weeds were coming up in a bed of 2,000 Duke of Wellington tulips. I started weeding the bed, and I got to thinking about a girl named Linda whom I had admired from a distance 35 years ago. She played the French horn, and must have been a terrific kisser, but I never found out — I was too shy to talk to her. I was regretting how youth is wasted on the young when I remembered that I was in the midst of baking a cake. I laid off weeding and went back to the house.

The next ingredient to be added was two cups of flour, sifted twice. I’ve always thought that sifting flour was an absurd affectation; I just dumped it in. I continued pretty well until I came to the instruction to add a cup of prunes. Prunes? What the hell? I studied the page. I was deeply embedded in the text of a recipe for prune cake. I flipped through the chapter and found my white-cake recipe two pages back. When I was out weeding the tulips, the pages must have malevolently turned themselves. I compared the recipes, but there were irreconcilable differences. 

Should I add them up and divide by two, perhaps? Half a cup of prunes? No, that was ridiculous. But perhaps I would add some ginger, as a distraction, and some orange peel. I believe orange peel to be the solution to many culinary problems, sort of the way Catholics fix things up with a volley of Ave Marias.

The cake was not a success, although the gesture was appreciated. My wife politely ate a small piece, and over the next couple of days my daughters ran their fingers through the frosting. I decided to feed the remains to the birds.

There was an unusually large covey of quail around the place at that time — more than 20 birds. The male of the species has a feather shaped like a question mark quivering over his head, which shows him to be a less profound existentialist than his eastern cousin, who sports an exclamation point. The quail trek several times a day along a path that skirts a hedge of flowering quince, and this is where I scattered the crumbs. I didn’t see the quail, but when I checked the next day, every crumb was gone.

reference-image, l

heart, l