This piece was originally published on Medium on 8 May 2019.
Wait for the implosion, the collapse, the explosion. The bang or the whimper. The hypocrisy fueled confrontation. The too-strong memory resurfaced. The world slows, and in that quiet bubble before the crash try to breath, try to collect yourself.
Collect your ingredients:
Butter. Eggs. Sugar. Flour.
The world ends every day, just a little bit. I am not talking about nightfall; for no comprehensible reason, the universe sometimes cracks in the most mundane ways. It becomes hard to breathe while trying to send email. It becomes hard to get through the next task on the list, or remember why the list matters anyways. It’s not grief, this overwhelming feeling – or if it is there is an uncertainty in terms of what exactly is being grieved over. It’s not anger or despondency, but somewhere in between, with some exhaustion mixed in, too. The pace of the world becomes relentless and it needs to stop. It doesn’t stop, though, ever. It simply falls to pieces and it becomes impossible to put the pieces back together again fast enough. And so, in imprecise, imploding chaos, the world ends, and is always ending. The oxygen is sucked out of rooms, gravity compounds upon itself — it becomes too hard to breathe or move. The only sensible thing to do as things fall apart is to put something together, to reach for the ingredients that will never fail to become more than what they were if handled the right way.
Baking Powder. Vanilla Extract.
Baking is meant to be about precision, but life is so far from that. Perhaps that is why when things fall apart it becomes necessary to turn to the comforts of the hearth — the sweet, the orderly, the controllable. Both chemistry and alchemy, it offers a relief from the too much that has become contemporary life.
Chocolate. Sea Salt.
We take the sweet with the salt, always, whether through salt itself, or tears, or blood. I was taught by friends, and before, by people who knew better that the right way to make latkes was hand shredded, with a few drops of blood entering the mixture. Blood is memory, and so blood is a seasoning. We cook, we eat, and we remember the pain of living along with the warmth and joy of eating with family, having the opportunity to remember at all. Cake is not so different in this way. Sweet things mark bright days, big events. But there is no sweetness or happiness without the moments we compare these things to.
Orange Liqueur. A Pinch of Chili Powder.
So what goes into a cake, that lets us savor the sweetness and the complexity? What goes into our lives that make us aware of when we’re happy or when we’re not – when it is time to take refuge in comforting processes and the memories and rhythms they might evoke? Mom used to add Cointreau to the truffles mixture, right before the mandarin oranges went into the pot, citrus and a hint of something else hitting my seven year old nose before we’d dip a finger into the grainy chocolate waiting to be cooled and then rolled. That something else gets made stronger with the heat that recalls breakfasts that only my family makes. A dash of chili – not for spice but warmth and color. Alcohol and spice, like memory, like the end of the world, make eyes water, call up a touch more saltwater for the batter. Cake, like life, becomes complex.
Bake. Remove from the Oven. Let Cool on a Baking Rack.
Is the cake the cake, or the recipe? Can it be what it is meant to be without the transformative heat of the oven? What does it take to bring us from unformed batter to a more formed self, and how do we know when it is enough. Precision, science, magic – it is all the same to the batter bubbling and expanding, transmogrifying into a new form, one that will make it more appealing. It’s part of the process (right?). It takes force to change us, and it is scary and painful, harsh heat that melts us and forms us into something different. And after the change, there is the same need for rest, the need to become accustomed to a new form. Don’t touch the cake lest it collapses, attempting to reclaim what it used to be. It can’t go back to what it was. We can’t go back to what we were. So we cool down where no one can touch us and try to face the new reality, where we have become something new made of all the parts of what we were before, mixed and blended til the old pieces can no longer be separated. We Become.
For the frosting:
Butter. Cocoa Powder. Vanilla Extract. Powdered Sugar.
The end of the world is not what it seems, not just an end but a beginning. The beginning of everything that might come after if you can just get through this moment. We’ve tasted the salt, the bitter, cleansing burn of the liquor; there must be some sweetness to balance it. Transformation leaves its marks. After falling apart we can put ourselves back together as we choose. The world will still be there in some fashion (won’t it?).
Orange Zest. Chili Powder. Milk as required.
Frost the Cake When Sufficiently Cooled. Let Stand.
Complex sweetness might wait beyond the end of the world, when we can face it as something different than what we were before we fell apart and the world fell apart around us. Hope is sweet; the jammy, berry kiss of early summer sun, and the whisper of wind through the trees after the world is washed clean by an autumn thunderstorm. It’s the one thing that remains with us, even when we dare not think of it. It brings the parts together into a whole, and lets us put something back into the broken world. It’s the beginning of the end of the world, and the beginning after the end of the world. It is the promise that something can always be made, always be built back up, the promise we can always find ourselves again even when all we can do is try to put the ingredients in the bowl and hope it will turn out okay.
Remember this Recipe the Next Time The World Ends.
It’s not about the cake (was it ever really about the cake?). It’s not about the actual execution of the recipe, of making something (except for when it is). It is about remembering the process, the recipe, the way one might put something back together from the mess left behind when things start to fall apart again.