Sunday, June 17, 2018

On Why I Decided I Would Stop Trying to Bake: An Essay in The Hindu Business Line

As friends would know,  I have had a very difficult history with baking. I have wanted to love it and I have wanted to be at least passably good at it. Instead, it has brought me rarely anything but misery. It has, in my many sporadic attempts over the years at trying to bake a cake or some such, made me think a lot of things. I put down some of those things into an essay that was in BLInk, The Hindu Business Line's weekend magazine yesterday.

Read a very slightly unedited version below, or see the essay on the website here. Published on June 16, 2018.


A year or two after I turned a corner and found myself thirty years old, I thought I would start to bake. The plan was to be incredibly good at it, or fall in love with the exactitude of it, whichever should happen first. The plan was to start right away, not start with learning, mind you, for how hard could it be? Someone I used to know wondered why it was that women took to baking once they entered their third decade: apparently his ex-wife had then just started, as had several women he knew. He proposed, in typical chauvinistic zeal, that we might be trying to fulfill a maternal void – what with that old clock ticking and all that – by lining up cupcakes and elaborate pastries and such like. I called the postulation the name it deserved: bullshit.

After years of living on Maggi and curd rice, a dish to which I will one day write an appropriate enough eulogy, I had long since succumbed to making proper meals. It had come after years of stubbornly holding off from loving the kitchen, for I had thought, of course stupidly, that it wouldn’t be in keeping with who I thought I wanted to become. But then, fed up with instant noodles and just the one rice dish, as one was wont to be, I began to throw things together – a little of this, some of that, topped with the other thing and served hot. Endless hurried calls to consult with the mother with stuff in the pan on boil, some mashups of found recipes and Googled hacks later, and proud to say not more than a couple of failures and just one burnt vessel along the way, I had become someone who could cook well. Enough to invent dishes from non-sequitur ingredients. Enough to cook a three-course meal for fifty+ people in a foreign kitchen. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Thus, with all the hubris of someone who could feed a village gladly, I asked myself, upon turning that hefty old age of thirty, how hard could throwing in three to four ingredients together and shoving them into a pre-heated oven that would do its thing be? Well, naivety is a recourse of the once-proud, it came to transpire.

Mother let me permanently borrow her fancy, perfectly working everything-in-it oven because let’s face it, all she did was heat dinner in it. My childhood was never filled with freshly baked cakes cooling on a tray just in time for an after-school snack. I suspect, neither were the memories of a lot of us growing up in austere 1980s small-town India. It did have cake – generic, locally bakery made sponges and a stray chocolate cake or two, a homemade spillover from an odd party – but I had no auditory memories of cracking eggs, none of the slightly browning milk smells, nor an idea of how satisfying sliding a knife into a soft sponge to cut myself a large slice could be.

The very first one must surely have been a chocolate cake, taken from one of many generic recipes online. It must have been appreciated by the family with polite little sets of claps and a nod here, a smile there, because that is what most families do: they refrain from honesty. I must have then been pumped up with enthusiasm and proceeded to bake a few more before reverting to my natural state: reading, writing, having the dog follow me about. In my journal entries, I never made it to the point where I would include a list of food I made. Ate, yes, alongside entries of friends I ate the food with, what we talked about, who said what and how much we laughed, or not. Of the food I made just for myself, of cakes, there are entries nearly never. Perhaps in hope that I will write one when the cake turns out as well as I have willed it to before closing the oven door. I am always failed.

Over the years, I have time and again gone back to baking, determined to discover a love for it, a love I knew just had to be there somewhere. The results have always been edible, fairly okay even, if accompanying a glass of great coffee, of which my home has never known a dearth off. But here is the thing: I have never loved baking, despite being desperate to. Along the way, it has felt like an affront to both feminism and to long-ingrained ideas of feminine expectations not to be able to bake.

There is a lot to unpack here.

Baking cakes and such like is a cooking process that we must have borrowed only in recent history, yet another offspring of colonial influence. Over there in the West, the 1950s, a decade before the feministic revolution was a time of the idealised ‘50s housewife. She was a perfect wife and a doting mother. She cooked elaborate meals, baked the best things. She kept an immaculate house. She obeyed her husband. She wore pretty dresses and perfected coiffed hair and served meals to a family with red lipstick and high heels, an un-vanishing smile. She not only enjoyed the domesticity, but thrived, and derived sustenance from her superior capability for it. She was also the protagonist of the peculiar phenomenon of someone who had every abundance in the post-war years, yet suffered from a lethargy, an ennui of existence. She had the problem with no name, as Betty Friedan would term it in her seminal The Feminine Mystique.

Off late, cities in the Western world have seen young women indulge in a certain fetishization for the old-fashioned housewife stereotype by taking to the domestic arts, by playing dress-up, by wearing vintage and spending hours decorating cupcakes. It even acquires a name: cupcake feminism, where women have chosen to knit, cook, sew and bake in an attempt to be subversive and rebel against the idea of a post-modern woman who can work outside the house, have a career while bringing up a happy family on the side. Predictably, there have been detractors on either side, wondering if domesticity can ever be subversive and on the other end, deeming it acceptable for women to make even this choice, if that is what they wanted. The age of feministic choices.

My feminism comes from my mother, a housewife who didn’t teach me to cook when I lived at home and let me climb trees, stay out late and become “me” instead. No one was more surprised than her that I actually found my way into a faith where cooking was both a stress-buster and a thing of joy. “You are cooking!?” she would ask, for years after, with several exclamation marks unfailingly slipping into her tone every time. Given how I fell in love with the act of growing and making food, I had expected to master the process of baking soon enough. It was my rebellion of sorts against mother who never baked, who didn’t see the point of wasting time in the kitchen more than what was strictly necessary. I was trying to be a cupcake feminist.

Baking demands a degree of trust that is absent in most other forms of cooking. In it, you combine various powders – flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, sodium bicarbonate – all of which, taken individually, have little romance, little conceptual reality. You add something wet and introduce heat and watch it change into something so wildly amazing: how can this not be magic? Baking is maths and ratios and demands a subconscious understanding of chemistry and a certain exactitude deep-set in the baker’s bones. Subjects that bring up old longings of loathing and panic, like bile.

I love that baking is like magic. I love that baking someone something always makes them feel so special and happy. Baking is really just a set of precise instructions you follow. Logically, I know there is nothing to be intimidated about. But. But somehow it is never not daunting, the prospect of baking. Not one to let go of a challenge soon, I bought myself measuring cups and measuring spoons in multi-colour, a big step for someone who eyeballs everything. I put them to hard work. I told myself to stop being silly and just get on with it. I borrowed recipes, got friends to handhold me through baking a cake, watched endless videos, forced myself to follow instructions to the T, cried into the flour, did everything (read in all caps). But here is Michael Pollan in Cooked saying what I felt: “As a form of cooking, it (baking) seemed too demanding – of exactitude and of patience, neither a personal strong suit. Baking was the carpentry of cooking, and I’ve always gravitated towards pursuits that considerably more room for error. Gardening, cooking, writing, all are roomy in that way, amenable to revision and mid-course correction.” Of course, him being him, by the end of that chapter, he proceeds to become a minor master of bread making. Me? I remain in my illogically scared self. There must, surely, be a word for this inability, even phobia, to bake.

Really, there is no logic to why I cannot do this thing: I have given it more thought than was necessary. Does it make me any less of a woman? Of course not! What a ridiculous proposition. Does it make me feel a pang of sadness that I’ll never be the wife who makes the best oatmeal cookies or possibly, the mother who makes the world’s best chocolate chip cookies? I want to say a feeble yes. But I have decided this: the husband and future child can stay disappointed, for I have other worlds to conquer.

The road to reconciling with the fact that I could never bake has been many years in building, nevertheless. The ideas of feminism, of the illusion of free choices, the acts of subversion and of rebellion and the eventual reluctant acceptance of reality, all these feels like a well-established process line of thought. And diverting from the narrative, I have evolved a hack: a no-bake cake that is a superhit.

Powder Marie biscuits. Mix with Milkmaid into a dough, add coffee decoction and roll it out. Add a layer of grated dessicated coconut on top. Fold into a long roll, pat the edges close and freeze for a few hours. I make the best coffee coconut cake in the world. The coffee coconut cake is a dream, especially with coffee. Coffee really makes everything and sorrow better.

As for the fancy microwave, I use it these days to heat dinner.

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