Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cooking with Maya Angelou

We had a recurrence of the flu bug this week and I've just spent the better part of four days cooped up in the house. Sometimes when my kids get sick I feel relieved that we get to cancel out of life and stay home; it almost feels festive in the way of a much needed snow day. But as my enthusiasm for the unexpected break wanes and the demands of my sick child mount I always, always end up feeling caged in, as if the rest of the world is passing us by while we stay home languishing in dirty laundry.

For the first couple of days I ministered to my sick child with grace and compassion. And then she started feeling well enough to turn her nose up at the cup of apple juice in my out stretched hand. "I asked for grape," she smarted. Suddenly playing Florence Nightingale stopped being fun. I left the apple juice on her nightstand and wandered through my house feeling forlorn. I felt like telling my daughter that she was welcome to walk herself to the nearest hospital and ask them for grape juice. Instead I went downstairs to my kitchen understanding that for the health and sanity of our entire family, I really, really needed a project to get me through the weekend.

My friend Jenn has a knack for going out into the world and finding things that I will absolutely love and then wrapping it up with a pretty bow and giving it to me for Christmas or on my birthday. One year she brought me hot chocolate on stick that she ordered from a fancy chocolate store. She has given me novels that she instinctively knows I will love, socks and a scarf that she knit herself, and the most fabulous cookbook in the whole wide world:

So, don't tell anyone, but I'm pretty sure Maya Angelou is a secret relative of mine! And please don't get started with the whole But Lauren, how is that possible since you are so obviously white, and Maya Angelou is so obviously black?  I don't know what to tell you. The universe works in mysterious ways and I feel connected to Maya in the same way I feel connected to Dwight K. Schrute. There are just some people out there who speak the same language.

photo credit
On Friday afternoon I turned on piano music and spent the afternoon in my kitchen making Maya's homemade eclairs. I've never made eclairs before, I don't own a pastry pipe, and my improvisation with a ziplock bag wasn't what I'd call a hundred percent successful. My eclairs looked more like subway sandwiches than delicate little pastries, but they tasted okay for a first attempt. I elected to make the custard filling instead of whipped cream and it didn't thicken the way it was supposed to, and although the chocolate drizzle on top tasted dark and intense, it was the tiniest bit gritty. But I wasn't deterred by imperfections. The dedication at the beginning of the cookbook reads, I dedicate this book to every wannabe cook who will dare criticism by getting into the kitchen and stirring up some groceries. I dared criticism. My husband came home from work and took one look at the pile of lop sided pastries and a certain wild look in my eye and he said, Wow, looks amazing. Which was really the only answer.

As I spent the afternoon working in my kitchen a few profound thoughts came to mind:

Gee, I really need to buy some new slippers one of these days. 

It's amazing how one recipe can transform the feeling of my entire house into a charming little french cottage. The kitchen is warm. The air is redolent of melted chocolate and warm sugar. Baking is like a glaring welcome sign that instinctively tells every person who walks through my door to come sit at my table and rest a while. 

I wonder if my other girls are going to get sick? I don't think I can bear the laundry!

Would it be inappropriate for me to write a post about baking eclairs right after my ultra inspiring "Get Fit" post from last Friday? 

After reading over these "deep thoughts by Lauren while she is baking subway sandwich sized eclairs" you perhaps have a better understanding of why it's important to put away the pens and pencils, mops and brooms, and especially those soul sucking electronic devices and spend some time in the kitchen every once in a while. There are few past times that feel as restful to me as baking. All of my olfactory senses stand on edge, and my thoughts are content to bump along with the current of "stir the chocolate, add the milk, whisk, whisk, whisk."

I went to bed Friday night feeling relieved that Elisabeth's symptoms were improving and Saturday would be a brand new day...and then she threw up again at four in the morning. All over her bed. And sheets. And pillows. And special blankie. And stuffed animals. And Saturday was not going to be the brand new day that I had in mind and I woke up feeling certain that it was time to take drastic measures.

I left my husband in charge of the sick patient for a few hours while I went running and then grocery shopping all by myself, which I might add is a luxury that after eight years of parenthood has not lost its appeal. I love grocery shopping alone. I pushed my cart down each aisle at a glacial pace with Maya's cookbook in hand. I put things like collard greens, a smoked turkey drumstick, a whole butchered chicken and thick-cut bacon into my cart. When I got home I gave my family members a kiss on the forehead and with a smile told them, I'll be in the kitchen. And this is what happened next:

  • Smothered fried chicken
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Collard greens
  • Buttermilk biscuits
  • Caramel cake with caramel icing

By five o'clock every single member of my family was skulking around the kitchen inhaling the goodness that was to be their dinner. No lopsided pastries or lumpy sauce this time, and every recipe was made from scratch. I smoothed a table cloth on the table, my older girls set out my grandmother's china, and then we sat down together to bless the food and eat. Oh, my. I'm so glad I ran hard earlier in the day because it was fried this and butter-filled that, and then we finished with caramel cake and a tall glass of cold milk. This is what Maya Angelou wrote in her cookbook about her grandmother "Momma's" caramel cake:

Quilting Bees were eagerly anticipated by southern black women [...]. The women planned for weeks. Then they selected and cooked their favorite dessert dishes and brought them to the gathering [....]. Mrs. Sneed, the pastor's wife, would bring sweet potato pie, warm and a little too sweet for Momma's taste but perfect to Bailey and me. Mrs. Miller's coconut cake and Mrs. Kendrick's chocolate fudge were what Adam and Eve ate in the Garden just before the Fall. But the most divine dessert of all was Momma's Caramel Cake (13).  

As our forks scraped against our plates and the last drops of milk swallowed we sat talking about Martin Luther King, Jr and his I Have a Dream speech. Katherine, who is six, then related all the details she learned in school this week, which I was happy to discover were many. I love hearing my kids re-tell school facts and history stories to me at the dinner table with the fresh eyes of someone whose just seen a shiny coin for the first time. As I stood at the sink washing the dishes later that evening Katherine came to me and said, Mom, I know lots of people with big dreams. Writers and art people, and people just like that Martin Luther King who want the world to be good. And that right there was it. I've taught Dr. King's speeches in my English classes every semester since graduate school and I've never heard such a clear and sweet articulation of what his dreams mean to the rest of us. To hear my six year old tell it, there are lots of people with big dreams. The world isn't mean and hateful, it's plum full of people trying to do good and be good.

I had a slice of caramel cake for breakfast this morning and then gave the rest away to friends. Some things are simply too sweet to keep to yourself.


  1. I enjoy reading your thoughts. It always feels like I am cuddled in a luscious blanket on a cozy couch reading your entries. I hope the other girls didn't get the bug!

  2. Wow, marvelous blog format! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging glance easy. The whole glance of your web site is excellent, let alone as} the content!
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