Summer Food Series
As part of the Summer Food Series, I have been running essays written for my colleague Jennifer Cognard-Black’s “Books that Cook” class. The students read novels focusing on food and then drew on the authors’ insights to explore their own relationship with food. Melanie Kokolios looked at her mother’s muffins to better understand her passage into adulthood.
I hear echoes of the novel Like Water For Chocolate in the account although fortunately Melanie’s mother is not as controlling as Tita’s Mama Elena. Readers of this blog will be hearing more about Melanie this coming fall as she is the peer mentor in my first year seminar on Jane Austen. Melanie is one of our brightest students, having been the only junior inducted into our college’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter this past spring semester with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
By Melanie Kokolios
If there was anything more closely scrutinized in my mother’s kitchen than the blueberry muffins she made on weekend mornings, it was me. It takes about thirty minutes to bake them, but she always kept an eye on them to make sure they weren’t burning. Just the same way she hovered over me in the kitchen (which was always too small, and too expensive to upgrade). She never liked the way I held the knife or stirred the pot or washed the dishes. Most of our cooking sessions ended with me sulking on the couch and picking at the rug with my toes while she fixed all my mistakes. Sometimes I swore I could hear her ticking behind me the way the oven ticks as it heats up to the 375 degrees necessary to alchemize the batter into muffins. Before I knew it, there she was: hot as the oven, taking the knife out of my hand, telling me to go find something else to do.
That was the thing, though: if I left her alone in that kitchen, she made magic out of it. She took two cartons of fresh blueberries — the antioxidant-rich darlings of health gurus, the prize crops of Maine, the blue in any Fourth of July cake — and turn them into something else entirely just by soaking them in lemon juice and a little sugar for fifteen minutes. I’m not even sure where she learned that trick. She just seemed to know that’s what they needed. It wasn’t the kind of magic I dare try and force, either — if I begged her to make them, she’d complain about how early she’d have to get up and refuse to make them.
I think she knew the magic relied on surprise. She must’ve loved being the first one up, the house still and a little cool. She would pour out one cup of sugar, level it carefully, select two eggs, and take out the economy size bottle of vanilla extract. There would be no sound in the house except the grating of the sugar against the beaters as she beat it into the butter. Her fingers would get pleasantly sticky with egg whites, and she’d get to watch the mixture turn gold as the eggs disappeared into it. Then she’d pour in an assured splash of vanilla extract. The room would fill with its sweetness and the batter would change color again. She’d have just enough time to add the salt and the baking powder, to fold in the half cup of milk and the two cups of flour, and to grease the muffin tin, then cradle the warm cup of coffee and debate whether or not to add liners.
Then it was time to fold in the blueberries with the same practiced ease that’s a mix of efficiency and gentleness, the same way I’d imagine she once changed my diaper or heated my milk. After that, she’d fill up the wells of the muffin tin, two thirds of the way and no more. Next she would have to get out a small bowl to mix together a tablespoon of sugar and a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg, and she’d sprinkle it on top of each muffin. Then into the oven with the carefully crafted treasure.
By then I’d be in the kitchen with her, leaning over the counter, swinging my legs, and holding myself up like a gymnast on a bar and imagining a day when I’d stand that tall unaided. If I was lucky she wouldn’t have cleaned anything yet and there would be beaters to lick and the sweet creamy prelude of what I could already smell in the oven, rising and filling up the kitchen. No matter how often she spoke wistfully of a dream kitchen that was twice as big, this one was still bigger than the kitchen she’d grown up with, a kitchen her Puerto Rican mother never allowed her into. That was a place to work, not play. But my grandmother was never a good baker, and so my mother found her niche. The warm, fluffy creations that I hovered around her waiting for were one of many things that she had been making since she was eighteen or so, the loophole she’d used to wriggle herself into her mother’s kitchen.
I thought that since she regretted being kept out of the kitchen she would want to let me in. We disagree a little bit about this part of the story, just like we disagree about how many blueberries to put into the muffins. I think they should be full to bursting; she likes them a little sparser. I think she pushed me out of the kitchen; she says I never took enough of an interest. It’s like the push and pull in the muffins themselves. The light, sweet taste of the bread, that miracle of chemistry and human ingenuity, against the too-real burst of blueberry juice, that natural fleshy sweetness that stands up and demands to be noticed.
They’re the part I anticipate the most, the part that drives me to wild desperation and fits of begging even now. I don’t think it’s an accident that muffin is a euphemism for vagina — the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve become convinced that sex and eating blueberry muffins are one and the same. It was right around my high school years that I started wanting into the kitchen. Maybe it was because my body was figuring out how to create life that I wanted to learn to sustain life the way she’d sustained me, first with her body and then with her kitchen.
But I was wrong. I was still relegated to the other side of the counter. I could learn by watching, she insisted. She just couldn’t handle someone else in her kitchen doing things differently than she wanted them done. It was her realm. But I didn’t want to learn by seeing; I’d been doing that since I was a little girl. I wanted to do. I wanted to be what she was – the kind of mother who still made homemade dinners and expected us to sit down together for them in an era when my friends only sat at the same table as their families for Christmas dinner. It was what she wanted me to be, too. For every time she praised me for wanting to go to college and have a career, she complained that at my age she could’ve run a household and I could barely dust my room.
When I lay on my bed after those bitter dinners, listening to music she didn’t like, I always blamed her for the lasagnas and pork chops and turkey burgers I would never make if she didn’t teach me. I didn’t think of the muffins. Those were her sacred province. She was my mother, and she would always make me blueberry muffins on random Sunday mornings. I would never have to learn to make them for myself. In the end, I too had to find a way to weasel into a kitchen. My loophole was my friends, who were tired of take out and who trusted me enough to allow me to experiment in their parents’ kitchens with fajitas and jambalaya and dirty rice and pasta. The further away from home I worked myself — first to longer sleepovers, then to more adventurous daytrips, and then finally to a college deep in southern Maryland — the further I went from boxes and mixes to the fresh ingredients I’d always watched her use. Because I did watch, even though she thinks I didn’t. I worked away from her, going from spending most of my time at home with her to living in a dorm two thousand miles away and only calling on Sundays.
But the one thing I never made for them – or even contemplated making – was the muffins. I did start making another blueberry breakfast, a turnover with a cream cheese filling, that was a delicious substitute, but it was a substitute nonetheless. One of my friends made me muffins from a box — sad, floppy things with blueberries so tiny I wondered if they were actually blueberries. There was no love in those – but then again, the love in my mother’s baking had changed, grown strange and sour and stale. She didn’t make muffins as a Sunday surprise anymore. Instead she made them on mornings when I was away at a sleepover or on a trip, so she could tell me with just the right amount of feigned disinterest that she’d already made them and there were none left. I think that’s why I hesitated to ask her for the recipe. They’d become a symbol of my absence — a bargaining chip designed to remind me that I was supposed to regret leaving home for that far, humid shore.
It’d be misleading of me to say it was always like that. I did regret leaving home, in large part because I missed those muffins deep in my gut, the way I missed the sun in the winter. They were usually one of the first things she made when I came home, and then she served them with the smile I knew from childhood, the one she wore when she arranged the finished muffins in interlocking circles on the plate and brushed off my compliments with a shrug.
Over time I’d learned to make many of my favorite meals – the homemade turkey burgers, the Italian egg sandwiches, the fried rice, even our treasured rocky road candy – but the blueberry muffins remained, a warm decadent connection between us as tangible as an umbilical cord. I knew I needed to learn how to make them. But I didn’t know the words to ask her for the recipe. She already told my father how grown up I was getting with a sad sigh every time I described my latest culinary explorations. What if I asked her how to make them and she grew hurt and angry and assumed that once I knew how to make them I wouldn’t need her anymore? And what if I couldn’t make them by myself and she got the smug satisfaction of knowing that she was right and I didn’t belong in a kitchen at all?
The truth was that I needed her the way I needed those muffins. I did all the things a teenage girl should — lied about where I’d gone with my boyfriend that night, eaten every kind of junk food imaginable in my first semester of college, gone on trips I knew she disapproved of, complained about how controlling she was to all my friends — but I still needed her like a child. I needed her to assure me that one day I could sustain a family the way she’d sustained ours, that despite my determination to sit with my legs open instead of crossed and to take kung fu instead of ballet I could be a lady the way she was; that in spite of my clumsy hand with a knife and the awkward way I held a spoon, I could someday cook such magic for my own children that they would be drawn irresistibly back to my kitchen the way I was to hers.
As it usually will, desire overwhelmed fear. One day this spring, my cravings for the soft sweet-tart confections overcame me. I knew I wouldn’t be home until late June; it was early April. I needed my muffins now. So I called her and asked the question I’d wanted to ask for months. Will you give me the recipe? Not can you, but will you. And sure enough, she gave it to me without hesitation. I couldn’t believe I’d ever doubted she would. Maybe all along her harsh corrections in the kitchen were magnified by my own teenage sensitivity, and she was just trying to teach me. I couldn’t go back and find out, but I could go forward with the recipe she’d given me.
When my own muffins were done and in my hands, they were just like hers. Warm, spongy, heavier than you’d expect. The crispy and spicy sugar-nutmeg crust on top was an assurance of the goodness of creation — Creation with a capital C, the creative act of baking, and the continuous creative act that is the bond between a mother and a daughter.