Saturday morning I met my old roommates for brunch at a newish place in 12 South, the three of us gathered around an enormous round table that had me leaning in to listen and talk. We’ve been doing these get-togethers…
This morning before we got up, talking ourselves into starting the day, Tim suggested baked goods. "Cake?" he started. No, we'd just had banana cake. "Muffins?" No, I made him streusel-topped blueberry muffins on Saturday, the one thing he wanted…
Two years ago, I made my dad caramels for his birthday. They were hard and crunchy, like gold-wrapped Werther’s, the kind that would crack like glass when you bit them.
While I’d been after something a little more chewy that time, since that’s how Dad likes them most, it turned out candy-making could be something of an art, especially when you were new to it, so all I could muster were those smooth caramel stones, best for placing between your tongue and the roof of your mouth and slowly melting away. I gave them to him, presenting them proudly, and I put my candy thermometer away.
But then this year, when Tim and I were up visiting a few months ago, talking to my dad in the kitchen about dinner plans or about something we’d baked, Dad, almost out of nowhere, asked if I’d thought about trying caramels again. Maybe soft and chewy this time? he’d asked, hopefully, like it would really mean something to him if I could.
Now I know a lot of people would say their dad is great, the best, the guy they always looked up to, but my dad, who continually surprises me with his generosity and compassion and ability to think of other people more highly than himself, really is something special. And since he so rarely asks me to make him anything, I didn’t just want to make him these caramels—I had to.
Which meant it was time to revisit the art of candy-making.
There’s a reason they call things an art, you know? The art of painting, the art of marriage, the art of caramels—you can’t just check some tasks off a list and expect genius. There’s some skill involved. Some creativity and some adjusting and some finding a rhythm. And usually, art isn’t easy.
For me, as if trying to make candy in the first place wasn’t challenge enough, I also wanted to do it with better ingredients: without corn syrup and without white sugar.
But while art isn’t easy, it is worth it.
Because guess what? It worked.
It took three tries and two bonus trips to the grocery store, but last Wednesday night, while Tim and my brother-in-law and I drove up to Chicago for the holiday weekend, it was with more than thoughts of turkey and sweet potatoes and homemade cranberry sauce: It was with these soft and chewy salted caramels, created with sorghum syrup and sucanat, sitting in the back seat, individually wrapped and tucked inside a burlap-covered mason jar.
Happy birthday, Dad.
(He was worth it, too.)
It’s pretty easy to see things I’ve inherited. I have my dad’s olive skin, my mom’s round face, the bump on my nose found in both sides of my gene pool. I like good conversation, working in the garden, making a big meal to eat with people I love. And, sometimes, when I laugh very hard or hear myself telling a story like it’s a routine, I think how my grandma used to do those things.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (Annie Dillard)
I read the above quote a few years ago, back when I was compiling a 25th anniversary scrapbook for my parents in which people wrote and told of gifts and memories and experiences they’d had with my mom and my dad, and I was reflecting then the way I’ve been reflecting lately, about what are the most meaningful things we do, about what we really want. I’ve been asking myself: How am I spending my days, since that’s how I’m spending my life? And then, is the way I am spending them good?
Of course the easy way to define our days is by our full-time gigs, be it school or work or motherhood or something else that requires most of our time, and I’ve done that before: I’ve sat down to dinner with friends and explained my class load. I’ve called myself a copywriter. I’ve mentally calculated some kind of personal net worth. But the older I get, the more I see those things—while important—are not the only things.
Now when I look at my days, I look instead at harder questions: how am I pursuing things that matter? what am I accomplishing? where’s my passion? whom do I love? how is my life improving someone else’s?
I am convinced and convicted that these are questions we can ask from a cubicle or a kitchen, in our teens or in old age, no matter where we’re working or whom we’re working with. And in my particular case, these are questions that have prompted some pretty major changes.
This month of June has been continual change. From trips out of town to friends taking new jobs to continually decreasing pants sizes, it’s been one thing after another. For many of these things, I guess it’s really been more of a culmination, in which wheels that have been in motion, things have been coming, in these last few weeks finally have. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying. It’s something we’ll talk more about next week (along with a big announcement! stay tuned!).
But meanwhile, let’s talk about another kind of change, a specific one that’s been happening in my kitchen and could happen in yours: buckwheat flour.
Because, thing is, it’s not just June that’s been change for me; it’s 2010, which over the last six months has brought one new realization after another. What started with the removal of refined sugars and flours in a new year’s resolution led to the reading of labels and analyzing of ingredient lists, avoiding things I couldn’t pronounce or recognize in favor of more whole foods like blueberries, eggs, butter, milk, grass-fed meat. I watched Food, Inc. (thanks, Kendra!). I read The Maker’s Diet. I gave up white bread and chose sprouted grains. I started drinking kombucha (Whole Foods, are you listening? please start carrying it again!). Along the way, I also started taking cod liver oil and a probiotic.
The changes all felt pretty natural, like I was just taking care of my body in new ways, and while I have been eating very well and working out only two or three times a week, I’ve lost twelve pounds, without even meaning to. It’s crazy.
And really, the only change that ever felt difficult at all was probably the earliest one: removing white all-purpose flour and white sugar from my baking.