It’s a kind of magic
January 29, 2017 § 2 Comments
I spent today in a pleasurable haze of writing and baking, the smells of cinnamon and vanilla wafting through the house like a prayer as my fingers rapped out an irregular rhythm, making words, painting sentences, telling stories.
I love the alchemy of baking. I love that you take the simplest of ingredients – flour, sugar, butter, eggs – and create something that is at first unprepossessing, but later transforms into something new with the simple addition of heat. I love the warmth it adds to the air, the slow motion rising and reshaping, like a live time-lapse video behind the oven’s glass screen.
And there are many similarities between baking and writing, even if the ingredients and tools are not the same.
Of all the culinary arts, baking is the most precise. Too much butter and your cake will be limp; too much flour and it will be dry and dull. Add moisture to the raising agent too soon, and the bubbles meant to lift the batter into mouthwatering softness will evaporate into thin air before they can do their work.
Just as the baker mixes together the right quantity of this and that, the writer must take those most ordinary building blocks of communication – words – and meld them together in just the right combination, just the right order. The baker stirs to combine. The writer combines to stir.
Neither will be rushed. Of course you can speed up how quickly you measure and mix both the batter and your words, but you run the risk of disturbing their balance. There’s a delicate chemistry and process to both, which must be honoured.
And it’s so important to get the temperature right. Too hot and your cookies burn; too cold and they’re doughy and raw. So it is with writing: too much rewriting and your words are brittle and scorched; too little, and they’re turgid and pale. Somewhere in the middle, you learn to leave them alone, to let them find their own rhythm across the page – sauntering here, marching there, meandering sometimes, or coming to a brisk stop.
In baking and in writing, you also learn that sometimes you just don’t get it right. Sometimes it flops despite your best efforts, and you simply scrape it all into the bin and try again. Because you still have your building blocks – flour, butter, eggs, words. You will measure them all again, combine them in the right order, and produce something better next time.
Most of all, you learn that what you produce will never be perfect. One biscuit will be slightly bigger than another; that chocolate cake always rises slightly more on one side; this vanilla flan tends to sink in the middle. And every time you read what you’ve written, you’ll see a new, better way you could have expressed this or that.
But ultimately as long as the eater – or the reader – enjoys what you’ve produced, those tiny imperfections become completely unimportant.
* The topic for this post was suggested by Gus Silber, a friend, colleague and devoted fan of cinnamon buns, who would be a master baker if he baked half as well as he writes.