On the first afternoon of the first visit to Matt’s family in Georgia, Kelly Wooten (his mom and an insanely delightful person) got up from lunch and said “I’m just going to whip up a snack cake.”

ms. kelly, wondrous whipperupper

Several discombobulating experiences had already occurred at the Wootens’. His parents greeted me with giant hugs, as if I had known them a very long time, and a beribboned journal and small welcome note on the guest bed. Then, candy dishes. It was noon, and three fistfuls of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Nuggets and Dove Premonitions or Sentiments or whatever had already made their way into my tummy because candy dishes winked at me behind lamps and on bureaus. My parents don’t do candy dishes or welcome notes, and my urge to say  “thank you” every three minutes was beginning to embarrass everyone.

And now, this snack cake. How do you just “whip up” a cake? A cake, by my reckoning, is a complex, messy and mysterious object that

gets made over hours and days of saying “maybe we should make a cake…” and then procuring the ingredients and still missing a few of them and then substituting with Chai powder and milk and creating something so inedible that not even your humungous calorie-sucking younger brother will eat it.

Then I thought, Waverly would love this woman. “Whip up” is a phrase one may use to describe their cooking. When Wave writes about her childhood meals with such detailed sensory memory – and sense of recipe  – it’s obvious her mom introduced her into the life of the kitchen early. I imagine Wave chopping celery the way she does now (scary restaurant prep-style), a giant knife in her stubby five-year-old hands. Wave does not hold any misplaced wonder or fear about how food gets made.

My mother might have already pegged her daughter as too spacey to wield a rolling pin; also, she liked her dominion in the kitchen, and I was perfectly happy to be reading instead. So I mostly stayed away from the kitchen, except for omelettes with lots of chopped onions (the eggs had to be beaten in a copper bowl, according to my mom, for better aeration) and sometimes brownies from a box.

Until fifth grade or so, the kitchen was a warm, pleasant cave of bowls, NPR and the smell of melting butter (we must have cooked with a lot of butter, because I remember thinking it was essential to melt a big pat of it in every pan, including the first few times I made bacon). Things clanked, Terry Gross interviewed, butter sizzled, my mom frazzled, and food appeared.

In fourth grade, I learned how to boil water. It was a process that seemed dangerous to the point of foolhardiness, mostly because of the old gas-burning stove and its ticktickticktickticktickFWOOM! If the spark didn’t catch right away, the FWOOM would flash out blue for inches sideways from the bottom of the kettle (and maybe catch a nearby paper towel on fire and then maybe you would have to wave a flaming banner through the air and maybe drop it and stomp on it until crispy black shards littered the floor).

The first recipe to suffer at my hands was chocolate chip cookies, that self-fulfilling prophecy of a recipe on the Tollhouse chocolate chip bag. Unsure about fractions, I misread the cup measures (I thought that 1  3/4 cups meant one unit, being “3/4” of a cup, of flour). When we held the baking sheet vertically over the trash to scrape off the deflated mess, it dripped off the tin in goopy strings.

My senior year of college was the first year I closely watched someone cook.  Far from a conjuring trick, cooking turned out to be a practical process involving love, fear, experience, epicurious.com and presence of mind.Waverly’s hands worked systematically, with no wasted movement, and little external narration of her experimentations, so if you looked away for more than a minute, her dishes seemed to magically appear. Our roommate Michelle was a whirl of clanking bracelets, big sleeves, cigarette in the air, and at the center of it all, two small nail-polished hands chopping Japanese mushrooms and sprouts and whipping up bowls of noodles that she sucked down with total pleasure. Emily was a meticulous baker and chopper, her movements more languid, taking time to look at the incredibly symmetrical pieces of carrot she produced before they went in the pan.

energy bars for breakfast!

energy bars for breakfast!

I love all the styles of cooking I’ve watched, from cataclysms of frosting to clean-as-you-go assembly lines. The cooking style that continues to wow me,  though, is cooking without drama, the men and women who “whip things up.” They move from idea to creation so quickly. They don’t stop to mull on perfection, they take missing vanilla in stride, and they do it all with the knowledge that it will be gone soon. They are zen Buddhist monks creating brown-sugar mandalas.

Kelly did make that snack cake, in about fifteen minutes, with her stand-up mixer and a new recipe. She just for fun, just to have around under a big glass dish to snack on. When we came to visit for Christmas, she made chocolate chip cookies within about 20 minutes of walking in the door, and they were delicious: salty, sweet, chocolatey, chewy.  It’s the kind of easy doing and giving that’s adulthood, that makes homes and makes us at home in the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: