Memoir

Having and not having the cake

Baking in a time of lockdown

I KNOW WE were all doing new things in the summer of 2020, the summer at the end of that year, not the beginning. New hobbies for a new world, or anxiety hobbies for an anxiety-filled one, or just a desperate grabbing at anything that might defer another bout of online shopping. I hadn’t spent my lockdown doing jigsaw puzzles – too little space, too energetic a dog with too indiscriminate a mouth – or making sourdough or banana bread, though I understood the impulse there at least, something about productivity, something about tactility, about time. Instead, I’d spent most of my lockdown at my girlfriend’s house, fleeing the sudden fullness of my own shared home, and she used her oven so infrequently that there were shoes stored inside and it seemed awkward and unkind to mess with such a system.

In the summer of 2020, instead, over those dusky, muggy nights that I love so much, what I found myself doing for the very first time was watching baking shows. Or rather multiple series of just one baking show, The Great British Bake Off, a full decade after it first aired (the skinny jeans and feathered hair are testament to that). I know that doesn’t sound all that remarkable, but I had never watched any of the competitive cooking shows that seemed to dominate the entire mediascape for a time, not a single one, not even or especially not at that time when they were very difficult to escape. When contestants’ faces would cover whole sides of buses and the major news sites ran episode recaps on their landing pages and my still-toddling niece would rate my mother’s meals for presentation as well as taste, and the sales of any particular ingredient – ling or lamb or longan fruit – would skyrocket at Coles in the week after a series favourite used it in their showcase dish and all kinds of people were talking about three-ways, which was very startling if you (like I) didn’t know they were referring to vegetables.

I didn’t expect to ever find myself here, but that too seemed part and parcel of that year.

 

THERE’S A CAKE at the centre of the climactic scene in Margaret Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman. It’s a vanilla sponge, simple enough, made from ingredients and in pans entirely new, and the attention and careful movements its baking involves see the protagonist, Marian, ‘humm[ing] with pleasure’.

Marian bakes, methodically, measuredly, procedurally, and then shapes and decorates the cake in her own likeness – a ruffled pink dress, pink shoes, pink fingernails, piped swirls of chocolate icing for hair. This is, obviously, the edible woman of the book’s title, and Marian offers it, with a fork, to her fiancé, Peter.

Peter can think of nothing to do but flee Marian’s apartment as quickly as he can. It’s clear he is disturbed by Marian’s cake and sees it as solid evidence that she is mad.

I’ve often thought of cooking shows as analogous to this scene – all of that elaborate preparation, the exhortation to show something of the self, the presentation on a platter – and considered Peter’s swift exit a more appropriate response than tasting and critiquing the strange objects that have been made.

It’s hard to see the appeal, that is, when for you there’s nothing of the pornographic in the food porn these shows all relish and rely upon: there was nothing there that I desired, nothing that I wanted to touch or even put my mouth remotely near (let alone in three ways). Without that, all you’re left with is a bunch of moderately attractive people cutting up carrots for the best part of an hour, and far, far too infrequently setting something on fire.

What I’m saying, I guess, is just that an awful lot changed in 2020.

When these shows were at their zenith their ubiquity felt like an affront, and it felt like one small but ever-present reminder of my abnormality: everybody loves this, the billboards, the buses, the internet banners, the merch and the supermarket tie-ins all were saying. Everybody loves this, except for you, you freak. It didn’t help that I’ve never been any kind of good at respecting any kind of high seriousness, even when it isn’t one directed by a man in a cravat towards a handmade sausage. It didn’t help that the kind of particular, obsessive attention they paid to food was something I was striving, at the time, to excise from my self, from somewhere that seemed close to its core. It didn’t help that I was dating a filmmaker whose friendship circle inevitably included more actors than I’ve ever had cause (or care) to spend time with and who had almost all eliminated at least one entire food group from their diets because something something detox/paleo/intolerant/quit whatever. I attended one birthday dinner with this group and saw them place a collective order for twelve pizzas, ten of which were to be gluten-free, and burst out before I could stop myself, less than 2 per cent of people have coeliac disease you cannot all be the 2 per cent. It was not my finest moment. They were not my finest years.

Disdain is a strange thing, always fiercest when it is defensive, even though we so often assume it must involve superiority, is reserved for things we feel are far beneath us. Disdain is easier than desire. Everybody loves this, except for you, you freak.

 

IT TURNED OUT, despite all of this, that I loved Bake Off. And not just for how completely and ridiculously British it can be, with all that cutaway footage of buttercups and squirrels and pouring rain, its contestants saying things like oh my giddy aunt or totty-byes or scrummy, and complaining about the unbearable heat whenever a day hits 25 degrees. Or even that it’s lovely – that seems to be the word most people use whenever Bake Off is mentioned, which is also startling if you (like I) were ribbed constantly in childhood for using it (I still don’t quite understand why). Everyone involved in Bake Off is always lovely; and that everyone involved is always lovely to each other I know my girlfriend credits with having helped her through the hardest months of her life, so I guess I owe it that as well.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. I love baking, after all. And I always have – it’s always seemed important that I mention that as well. I’ve always loved baking, so much so that my ever-hopeful father, for a time, put dedicated effort into explaining the chemistry at work within whatever I was baking whenever I was baking, purely on the ever-decreasing chance that this might convince me to take that subject – his subject – in my senior school years (it did not).

That baking is methodical and measured, though, even procedural, is nonetheless exactly what I’ve always loved about it. It’s physical and absorbingly sensory. My brain slows down, grows quieter. Process and repetition. A hot oven on a cold day. It’s never really mattered to me what I’m baking. Whatever it is that results – the biscuits, the brownies, the cake – has always been beside the point. Baking is not cooking: I know I’m not alone in thinking these entirely separate, but I hold it separate too, I know, from food.

My girlfriend’s older son recently demanded we watch with him an episode of his new favourite made-by-and-made-for Netflix show. It was breathless and frenetic, hosted by a comedian with an elastic face, and had a premise entirely encompassed by its name: Is It Cake? What the judges have to determine are not the virtues of the cakes the contestants have prepared, but which of the many versions of a single item – hamburgers, handbags, rubber duckies, plastic buckets, sneakers, succulents – on the plinths before them is the cake they have prepared. The others are all decoys – which is to say, actual items. I want to say that this, too, is analogous, that I’d just as happily be baking a houseplant or a handbag, and it’s true – but that might seem like solid evidence that I am mad.

When I’ve had to defend my relationship with baking in the past – and my goodness, I have had to – it has been against accusations that there’s some perverse displacement in it, that it is a way of being near the food without consuming it, a voyeuristic pleasure in deferring that desire. But it was never me watching, through a screen, a bunch of people who I do not know slowly taste but never eat a series of painstakingly assembled dishes. Or else the charge has been that baking must be an act of people pleasing (love me! I brought you cake!) but definitely not a pleasure of my own, as if it’s only the act of eating that makes any other pleasure valid. (You can’t just have the cake but must eat it too.) I’m not arguing that nothing like this is ever present when I pull the beaters from the cupboard and set the butter out to soften on the counter – nobody’s desires are ever simple and unequivocal, and darker currents tug within us all. But it always seemed ridiculous that my relationship with baking was being challenged when these kinds of cooking competitions were everywhere, and unproblematic, that no one seemed willing to let my cake just be a cake.

And since we’re here, may I just say: my relationship with baking is long term and secure. It’s supportive and it’s nourishing and it is always hot.

 

PERHAPS IT SHOULDN’T have been a surprise that I love Bake Off. There’s something of a Venn diagram of expertise within the show for our household: I love baking, and my girlfriend is British, so I would help her differentiate shortcrust from choux, and explain how sugar caramelises in stages (it’s chemistry), and she’d explain that not too bad is British for exceptional and treacle tarts do actually exist outside of children’s books, except they do not contain treacle, and no one else considers this a travesty. So far so cute, I’d thought, until she banned me from mimicking any accents and making jokes about spotted dick. Or Hobnobs. (But who names a biscuit Hobnob?)

But it was watching Bake Off, and noticing what it resists, that made me realise what may well have been at the heart of my resistance to its genre as a whole. Bake Off does not belabour its narratives, overburden them with metaphor or pathos: no one talks about the ways that raw ingredients are transformed, even alchemised, by the baking process, or how bread and sponge alike rise in the oven, or almonds turn sweeter, fuller in flavour under heat. (It’s chemistry – that is, not metaphor.) And it doesn’t do this to its people, either, even when the means by which it might are immediate or visible: one contestant uses a prosthetic leg, which he (and only he) mentions just twice across an entire series; another mentions her ADHD for the first (and only) time during a semi-final. Each time, the information is relayed only when and because it is relevant to whatever is in the oven. So too with the various cultural backgrounds of the contestants. Backstory is in the background, and it is not the story. Nobody is baking in order to come to terms with or to overcome or to embrace or to let go.

What I’m saying is: the cake is just a cake.

The Edible Woman is a strange book in many ways: it is heavy on the grotesque, and many of the characters spout pop-Freudian psychobabble that Atwood delights in skewering; it feels both very modern and decidedly of its time (my copy italicises that strange foreign word pasta). But it also has a deep ambivalence and indeterminacy that make it difficult to place on firm ground. And nowhere more so than in its culminating scene.

So much of what’s been written about the book has focused on interpreting Marian’s baking, and her cake, on suggesting the thoughts and desires behind her actions, which Atwood has deliberately elided. The cake is a sacrifice, a transubstantiation. Or the cake is a rebellion, an act of self-determination and reclaimed agency. It’s a symbol of subordination, and an insubordination. The cake is fetishistic, cannibalistic, performative, hysterical.

Marian eats the cake herself (she eats herself the cake?). ‘It’s only a cake,’ she says.

 

FOR A WHILE, while I was watching so much Bake Off, I was delighted and fascinated by how I found a new and lovely playfulness when I was baking. I started trying out new things, armed with my newfound extra armchair expertise. I made the kinds of pastry I’d previously written off as too difficult, taught myself to pipe rosettes and ruffles and swirls and shells and stars. I made a number of those very English things-called-pudding-that-usually-aren’t-puddings that my girlfriend professed a love for when they were featured on the show (including treacle-less treacle tart). There was such pleasure in learning, in building new knowledge and new skills (perhaps that’s why so many of us turned to new hobbies that year), all the more so because there was always so little at stake – there’s no tragedy in a failed cake, after all. That playfulness, that pleasure, felt important, and I wondered too if it was this that so many people had found in all those cooking shows, if this might be, all these years later, a reconciling of sorts.

But then I stopped baking.

I stopped baking all but entirely, because the summer of 2020 was followed, inevitably, by 2021, and the winter of 2021 saw Sydney’s second, longer, more seriously felt lockdown kick in. And it very quickly became evident that there is only so much cake that an isolating household of two women can deal with, especially when neither is particularly good at eating, and when all of the usual ways of palming off excess baked goods – workplaces, tutorials, catch-ups with friends, doorstop drops for neighbours – are unavailable and also definitively uncool. No one wants your germ-cake when they just want the vaccine.

I stopped baking, and I know I must have felt it, for a time, like a restlessness, an itch, the way I’d felt it when I didn’t want to disturb that oven full of shoes. But I can’t quite remember the experience of it now. Perhaps because of how quickly it fell away, or because of how many other directions my attention was being pulled in at once at that time, perhaps because there was so much in my life that was new. I’ve always been fascinated by human adaptability, how immense and swift is our capacity to adjust, and the way we do this without really noticing most of the time. I know it’s instinctual, hardwired, that it’s a mechanism by which we survive – but I can’t shake the feeling, now, that I left parts of myself behind in these pandemic years, and I’ve forgotten which or what they are.

I forgot that I stopped baking, too. I forgot this simple, reliable pleasure that has been with me across my whole life, which I’ve had to defend so often and so staunchly, which I love. I forgot this so entirely that something has jolted in my stomach, sharp and scorching, when I have met again, in these slow and cautious increments of re-encountering the social world, some of those friends and colleagues I haven’t seen at all across these last strange years, and they have mentioned my baking. And each time, I have had to consciously connect myself to the person they’re referring to – this older self that neither they nor I had seen me shed.

We all did so much that was new in 2020, and I know so many of us realised or were relieved of so much of the old that didn’t work and didn’t suit us, even if just for a time. There’s so much that I don’t want back; but what seems harder now is figuring out what I do, which parts of my life and my self I want to inhabit once again should I be able to find them. I don’t know how we choose what we get back. I don’t know if we even get to choose.

But process and repetition, I know, is how I built them in the first place. And remembering has got to count for something. I found old apples in the fridge over the weekend and I baked them into muffins and I moved, the whole time, by muscle memory, smooth and physical and absorbed. I don’t quite know what we’ll do with all of them, abundant muffins, but what results has never been the point.

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