It’s Saturday. There’s an applesauce spice cake in my oven this morning. It holds a few of my favorite, most emotionally charged flavors. Sweet and sultry cardamom. Bittersweet chocolate. “A kick of black pepper,” to quote the recipe. Cinnamon, the queen of the cupboard. I needed to test a few recipes for a coworker brunch next weekend, and the spice cake was at the top of my list. That brunch will be the first of a season of housewarmings for me, despite having lived here for six months already.
As I have learned from a dear friend to make my habit, I turn on the oven light and sit on the floor to eat facing the glow. In the past three weeks, I have braised a chicken with vegetables so tender it made me weep. I have baked a flourless, crumbly-dense chocolate cake in a water bath and served it beneath a somersaulting heap of fresh raspberries. I’ve made three loaves of banana bread from a newly favorited recipe that includes jam in the batter and times the loaf’s covering/uncovering so that its edges don’t burn while its center sets. Buttermilk pancakes with wild blueberries. A dangerous-looking apple pie without a top crust made at work by a client support group, which wouldn’t have earned any awards but which shone with deep symbolism. Right now, on my kitchen floor, I’m eating leftover Eggs Florentine shared with an old friend last night over cheap wine. Spinach and cheese and a ring of tender egg-white cradles each velvet yolk. It’s not bad for having spent the night in the fridge. Not bad at all.
Each of these dishes has been for someone else – of course I ate some, but they represented feasting. So far this year, many events have called for feasting. Reconnections, shared sorrows, reconciliations, celebrations and confessions. Mutuality, togetherness, with-ness. All things one can’t do as well by oneself. Things that belong in conversation. Things that belong around a dining table.
But what I want today is some solitude on my palate. I can feel a gnawing for it in my stomach and in my bones, a craving to stand all by myself before the universe. It’s noble, a straightening of the spine. It’s risky, a knife hid within a sleeve.
This morning, the morning of the spice cake, I woke by myself in a cold apartment. This is typically a disaster for me. I have lived my life mostly with roommates or family, intentionally; I don’t do as well on my own. Any time I have cold, empty spaces to fill, without external structure, I feel a small panic. How to begin? It doesn’t make sense: homemaking without children, cleaning without guests, silence without expectation. It’s true that I needed to test new recipes. But more deeply, I needed heat. Task. Direction. And I needed to believe something for myself, to taste something by myself in my wilderness before any more feasting. Hence the spice cake.
Not that I needed to give myself something, to re-discover my own needs in a sea of others’ needs – this kind of dualism doesn’t fit the richness of my participation in the communities that matter most to me. Luther said it: “If thou iniquities dost mark, our secret sins and misdeeds dark, oh who shall stand before thee?” And later in that same hymn, “grace, grace alone availeth. Our works, alas! Are all in vain. In much the best life faileth.” Nobody stands before the universe; nobody stands before a cold oven. Unless God makes a body stand, I reckon.
But let’s be specific. Crushing cardamom pods and peppercorns didn’t earn or offer anything. Whisking spices and sugar into flour didn’t signify something outside of itself. I didn’t find myself. There wasn’t any schmaltz. Chopping, steaming, and mashing apples was just a way to start moving. Movement in a wasteland. Opening space for understanding.
As I went, I remembered my Pentateuch: Leviticus. Numbers. How the tribes were commanded physical acts of worship, so they would remember things that were true. Physical acts would help them believe true things. They made tassels on their clothing, railings for their rooftops. They ate this animal and avoided that one. This morning, I was waving an offering before the Presence, heaving up meat and firstfruits, laying a showbread in front of something Holy.
And receiving back, tenfold and a hundred. There’s grace for me in watching a cake rise. Magic provision in the properties of wheat and sodium bicarbonate and salt. Transfiguration in steam and eggs and sugar. Mystery in chocolate. I can sit by a warm oven and remember a God who feeds me. Today, I can do that.
But can I reasonably expect to find my way by accident, to share out of my poverty, to receive manna enough for each day? To expect that cakes will continue to rise, that meat will continue to brown, that alchemy of spirit and feeling and belief still happens? It seems almost possible. And noble. And desperately risky.