I haven’t been posting many cooking blogs lately, mainly because I honestly haven’t been cooking anything of interest. Obviously, the work is satisfying and enjoyable and I haven’t hit any plot snags.
Yesterday, I really hit a wall. I talked with my editor, who is smart and helpful and knows my work and voice very well, since we have worked on many books together. I took the dogs for a walk. Washed some clothes, which I then hung meticulously on the line in the spring winds.
Then I found myself, bewilderingly, in the kitchen as if I had sleepwalked there. I was pulling out pans. Peering at ingredients. Digging through recipes. I put on my Ipod and let Patty Griffin wail while I mixed up some dough and started it rising for krautburgers (the one thing I still must make with ground beef–they just don’t taste very good with anything else).
Tossed through the box of notebooks my mother has only grudgingly, worriedly, let me borrow for inspiration for the MIP (yes, there is food in it, I discovered. Is there ever not food in my books these days?) The borrowed notebooks are filled with the usual tattered stained beloved (and not so beloved) recipes that fill every kitchen. They belonged to my grandmother. There are many of her recipes in there, and some of my uncle Jimmy’s and quite a few of my grandpa’s, who was a good enough cook that he once had his own restaurant in Temecula, California called Ed’s Kitchen. On a big white card, I found Ed’s Carrot Cake. I remembered it as something luscious. It seemed perfect for my mood.
The recipe was written in my in my brother’s handwriting, circa 1976. To make the cake, I had to flip the card back and forth, reading ingredients, then figuring out how to use them. The first ingredient was 1-1/2 cups of Wesson Oil. That should tell you something. I thought, “Hmm,” but I wanted to make this recipe, not Barbara’s Riff on Ed’s Carrot Cake.
It was a perfect brainstorming recipe because it had lots of steps. Grating carrots, mixing the dry and wet ingredients separately, chopping pecans and plumping up some raisins. It smelled good as it was baking, very slowly for an hour.
Meanwhile, I scribbled notes on the book and started chopping cabbage and a giant sweet onion that smelled green across the entire room. “I had to live with the story of my parents meeting my whole life.” And “boy could Peggy dance” and “sisters divide up qualities between themselves.” I thought about the fact that all my food has southern roots, and how mixed up life gets in the food our beloved ones cook for us.
When I was a girl, I loved krautburgers. I was always, always starving and would come home from school and see those little loafs rising beneath a dishcloth and my heart would start humming. This batch turned out beautifully, lightly golden and steamy rich with onions and cabbage and beef tumbling out. I ate three, in honor of my girlhood self, though I should have stopped at two.
Good thing, because Ed’s Carrot Cake was so bland and boring I couldn’t imagine how I loved it as a child. All that tasteless oil! Not enough spice, and I would rather add some molasses or brown sugar to give the sweetness some heft. I nibbled enough to analyze it, but not even CR, who loves dense cakes, could get very excited about it.
But I loved thinking of my brother, writing down this recipe when he was ten or eleven, loved imagining my grandfather (with that lock of darkest hair falling on his handsome forehead and his rascally grin and his mechanic’s split fingers) sharing the ingredients with his grandson. I loved imagining my grandmother tucking it into her notebook. I loved making it, exactly as it is, as I mulled over the plot of a book about families and how they work together.