Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Holy Order of the Immaculate Muffin

I've been trying.

Since I was a kid, since before I came to fall in and out of grace, measured in 1/2 cups. I've been trying.

I came to it as a stranger; a pilgrim, as my friend Henry would say.
Though I'd never seen it myself, held it in my hand, I'd heard people talk about it. Talk about it in that way that sets folks eyelids fluttering, knees wobbling.
Like snake charmers and revivalists. Like yogis and swamis and the like.
I was looking to be charmed. Needing to be revived.
And so I made cornbread.

Rather, I tried.
God, how I tried.

At first I came at it with arrogance, with ego, with force of will - all the things that will fuck up a perfectly good cornbread.

I had thought it was simple bread and I was a complicated man. Boy, did I have that backwards.

Irony is never a good starting place.

Through my 20s I made thick, lifeless bricks of cornbread that hillbillies could use to build pyramids. I ran my ovens too hot. Inevitably I would rush the bake. Inevitably I would run my forearm into the rack; young men are measured in scars. Time after time, scar after scar, I learned nothing but only became more disappointed with each sandpapery paperweight or bludgeon masquerading as cornbread.

Boy, I was mad. Everyone had lied to me about cornbread. I was mocked in the aisles of the supermarket buy boxed mixes. I dug my heels in and continued to bow down, genuflect and lower myself to the bottom shelf, because that's where they keep the cornmeal.

Through my thirties I ruined batch after batch by adding whatever struck my fancy. My cookbooks, my armory of spells and folklore, sat uncracked, untouched, unloved - stacked above the cupboards, dogpiled. I cheated on the recipe like a touring rock musician. I played the part of plantation dandy in our sprawling Brooklyn apartment in the rural lowlands of Prospect Heights. Not surprisingly my cornbreads were often mush. Half baked and muddled. I would always check the oven too much. The oven that ran slow. The oven that was held together w/ bailing wire and twine. So it goes in your 30s, in Brooklyn. Each disappointment chipped away at me. Each soupy mess made me question my skill as a cook, my depth. Cooking is a magical thing. I came to doubt.

I doubted myself. I doubted the original, mythical cornbread that everyone had talked about. I doubted this non-existing thing that was the bar for every actual cornbread that fell short of the mark, shy of the finish. This weekly exercise in failure had brought me nothing but shame. Even the feral cats in the abandoned lot would not eat it. I walked by the cornmeal the way anonymous and guilt ridden lovers do in the long walk between trains at 14th Street.

And then I stopped. I turned my back on it. I laid into biscuits. I started working w/ high gluten flour and making bagels. I started making long batons of french bread, stubby rounds of Italian. I used no longer used my cast iron skillet, so heavy and powerful, for baking. I abandoned cornbread and viewed it as some old, brown god that the natives had placed on a pedestal. I regarded it as quaint phase of evolution.

Yeast was good for me. I understood it. It understood me. I came back to recipes and scales. I came back to quiet process, to peaceful patience. Over time my breads became better and better. I found a way to whisper to the dough, to be patient with the sponge, to let the oven be. In this way I was charmed by the tenacity of yeast that is thick in the air - unseen but prevalent. Every week I stood in my kitchen and had my own tent revival, shouting sermons and stomping my bare feet on my kitchen floor. Still, I was incomplete. The cornbread haunted me.

Last week I swung at it again.

This last weekend I made cornbread muffins for my Mom as a side for a crab cake dinner. I figured if I tried in her kitchen, the kitchen of my youth, I would have some extra luck. I was wrong. I followed the recipe closely. I was disciplined w/ the use of a timer. Still, the cornbread muffins I made were dense and coarse. They stuck to the pan, embarrassed to be debuted. My mom was kind, and the meal was good. But the cornbread muffins were awful. I was defeated.

Three days later I tried again. This time w/ grilled portobellos and a roasted pepper slaw. I let them go to long, didn't compensate on the cook time for it being muffins as opposed to full bread, and again I was presented with a small gang of cornbread cobblestones perfect for any preindustrial alley.

And then there was last night.

Last night I was pretty dragged out from a long day at work, and a long bike ride home. I couldn't think of food, much less prepare it. My wife made a really, really nice salad. We didn't have any croutons or nuts on hand so I took one of the left over muffins, that I had left in a bowl on the kitchen table as if to remind me of my failure, and crumbled it into the salad.

It was amazing. A-Maze-Ing.

In that moment it became clear to me that the thing I had been doing wrong (wrong from the start, as old E.Pound would say) was thinking the cornbread was one thing, and then blaming it for being something else. The previous failure didn't matter at that moment I was eating that salad. The failures of my youth, the failures in my Brooklyn kitchen. The failure of that dark time when I decided I would no longer try. It was clear to me that the magic lay in understanding the thing, and not forcing it. The magic was in the thing itself, as well as w/in myself, and would come to fruition when I gave it enough space to simply be what it is.

There is beauty in that which is terrible. There is hope in every failure. There are surprises only for those who are open to it. The question always is the intention. Am I cooking to impress? Am I cooking to quiet that voice that won't talk with its mouth full? Am I cooking to flex my will and strut? No. I am cooking to eat better, to be more fulfilled, more complete.

To be fed. In more ways than one.


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