Thursday, August 7, 2008


These are without a doubt the worst-looking cookies I have ever seen. And I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands, of cookies, and those are only the ones I made myself. I shudder every time I look at them, the two-dozen pale, grainy cookies lurking flatly on a ludicrously fancy crystal platter in the pantry. The chocolate chips have melted down completely into dark holes, like caverns encrusted with onyx or, more grotesquely, like dead eyes, glaring at me, their creator, and swearing vengeance. With such horrors associated with the sight of these dreadful cookies, I try not to look them. After partially hiding them under a scratched blue plastic bowl, I return to the kitchen and consider what went wrong.

I have been making chocolate chip cookies since I was ten years old. Though I don’t remember the exact day of my first independent baking venture, I can re-create the circumstances well enough. It was probably in the summer, when our mountain chalet and five log cabins would fill to bursting with pairs and families of tourists or the more interesting hordes of high school and college students on retreats. My mother—the receptionist, housekeeping mistress, concierge, coordinator, registrar, and chef of the retreat center, Alaythia Fellowship—was probably hidden behind a mountain of potatoes. She would have been washing them and then dressing them in aluminum foil jackets, preparing for the baked potato bar lunch that everyone would eat in a few hours, when they came back from the high ropes course in the forest back up the highway.

As two families of tourists checked out and crunched their way down our gravel driveway, back to the city, Mom had probably realized that between cleaning the now-vacant cabins, readying them for the next guests, and finishing the lunch, she would have no time to make dessert of any kind. And high school kids love dessert. In this realization of her own finiteness—despite a superheroic ability to multitask—my mom probably turned to me, the ten-year-old daughter who could both read and operate a mixer.

“Kristi, can you make a double batch of cookies?”

I probably shrugged, then nodded, then pulled the gigantic Betty Crocker cookbook down from the shelf above the oven, and flipped through its grease-stained pages until I found a recipe. I imagine that the first try was fine, aided by the mythic luck of first times, simply because I made more afterward. Still a cooking novice, I think I would have moved on to another recipe if the first effort had been less than satisfactory. But they were good, these cookies, so I kept making them.

Since then, there have been flat cookies, puffy cookies, cookies that I forgot in the oven for half an hour, cookies with oatmeal, MnMs, raisins, and peanut butter. I have probably made chocolate chip cookies about ten times a year for the last thirteen years (more during high school and in the last few years, and significantly fewer in the kitchen-less years of college), so I am in my second hundred batches of cookies. This number feels significant for a young and non-professional baker, who has been during this time also a musician, student, athlete, youth leader, barista, accounting assistant, student leader, and teacher. At home, I toss a few ingredients in a bowl, the measurements of which have been stretched so far beyond Ms. Crocker’s original that I call the recipe “mine,” and less than an hour later I am munching on warm, buttery cookies fresh from the oven. The results are pleasant and entirely predictable.

Which is why, slightly homesick one morning in Austria, chocolate chip cookies were the first thing I tried to import from home. The first batch, I confess, was not great, made a bit too crunchy by sugar that was coarser than I expected, but the neighbor boys liked them so much that they copied the recipe—odd metric conversions and all—and tried to recreate them the next day. The second batch, for which I chopped up two and a half chocolate bars and used powered sugar, turned out better. Neither, however, lived up to what I liked and made at home, so I sighed mournfully as I crunched my way through undissolved demerara sugar, wishing for better cookies and blaming the ingredients.

The ingredients, I scornfully remind myself, were also the problem this time. This time, I was wishing for real chocolate chips instead of crumbly chocolate bar pieces, and so I set out to make my own. I melted down a big chunk of baking chocolate with other sweets that my hosts donated, like jewelry to the golden calf, to this effort. After an hour or so I was covered in chocolate, sickened from licking my fingers too often, and the proud creator of two parchment sheets’ worth of little brown dots. These, I thought, will be perfect.

Sadly, the Kristi-made chocolate chips were not perfect, melting into blackish potholes in the pale ground of my cookies. Furthermore, I must have put in too much margarine, because they are flat and floppy, sinking into one another gooily and looking worse by the hour. I curse margarine and its associated evils, demerara sugar that is not the same as brown sugar and, redundantly, the wretched chocolate chips.

I feel humbled and ashamed of these cookies, a little cast down from my excellent-cookie pedestal by this less-than-appealing display. So easy to make the same cookies, time after time, when I purchase the same ingredients, use the same oven and same cookie sheet and even, nonsensically, the same bowls and spoons for each baking venture. But take me out of my own kitchen, toss me into a foreign country with foreign ingredients, and I am just a lost little baker, grappling with strange sugar and missing my chocolate chips so much I try to make my own.

I morosely consider how often other things in life happen this way. I drive in the same circles every week, my car appearing at predictable intervals on the same roads. For ten months of the year, I enter the same room at the same time each day, prepared to pursue the same basic goal. Even the evenings are rather methodical, mostly recurring engagements with friends, family, church. All so precise. If this were cooking, I would have perfected it by now.

But the ingredients have a way of changing on me. Roads are wet or dark or closed. Classes are jungle-wild or stone-silent. Students are angry, or encouraging, or brilliant, or in jail. Friends graduate and fall in love, change jobs, cities, houses; each tries so desperately to stay on top of their own recipes. At the very least, I am changing, an ingredient in my own life that is constantly growing and learning and falling and hesitating. In the shifting of ingredients, it is no wonder that the things I do—those small spheres in which I am responsible for creating or managing or maintaining—seldom turn out the way I had expected. Sometimes, everything turns out so differently than I had hoped that it all looks unbelievably foreign, and I cannot imagine how what I have done or said or created can be of use or good to anyone.

I am interrupted from my grim consideration of botched life recipes by the presence, center-stage, of the most recent one. Guests have arrived at Schiestl Farm, for coffee and cake, and Irmgard has retrieved a plate of my awful cookies from the pantry. I am embarrassed, immediately. Put them away! I want to beg her. I can make better ones. I promise! This is not what I wanted to make at all! But, for the millionth time this summer, I don’t have the German words with which to defend myself. So I laugh uncomfortably, shake my head and shrug my shoulders.

The guests halt their conversation, which I have long ago ceased following, to stare at the cookies. The cookies, with their melted brown eyes, stare back. I avoid their gaze, and the guests keep staring.

“Was ist das?” asks the lady guest, still peering.

“Schokolade…” I fumble for a word for “chip,” and find none, “Chip kakes.”

Irmgard nods with encouragement, and the guests break into expectant smiles. They reach for cookies, take bites while I go limp, undefended, and all baking pride leaks out of me onto the sad plate. For a moment there is only crunching, and these cookies aren’t meant to be crunchy. Another mistake.

When I look up at the guests again, they are reaching for more cookies, all smiles.

“Sie sind gut!” they are laughing. “Chocolate Kristi kuchen! Sehr gut!” And the effusions continue, to my amazement. In the background—the part of my mind that stays in English while the other part is madly translating German—my protests (The real cookies are so much better than these!) begin to grow quieter. Because it is these cookies, despite their ugliness and despite my declaring them a failure, that have been a point of interest and enjoyment for a few minutes of the afternoon. Even though they weren’t the way I wanted them, they are exactly what everyone else needed. Despite the changes in ingredients and the stubbornness of their creator.

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