One morning at 9 a.m., like I was going to work, I put on the one pair of Birkenstocks I own — hideous things, but, even I will admit, good to wear when you’re going to be on your feet a lot — and entered the kitchen with what we could politely call resignation.
I was anticipating a Saturday during which I was to provide baked goods for three separate events. There were two school fairs — the nursery school from which my daughter graduated four years ago and her current elementary school — and then in the evening there was a piano recital to which I would need to bring a treat. I had planned my week out thinking I only had to bake for two events; it was late Monday night when I remembered the piano recital that we’d be participating in Saturday afternoon, a few hours after all the Spring Fairs. I had an uncharitable moment of “fuck this shit,” but decided that surely it wouldn’t kill me to bake two extra dozen cookies. And there was also Mother’s Day coming up and I knew I wanted to bring a treat to my mom when we went to visit her.
That morning I knocked out three dozen triple coconut cookies, some of which I reserved for home consumption.
That afternoon I started a big batch of chocolate bread dough, something I hadn’t made in a good long while. It rose overnight and the next day I baked three small loaves. One, at my daughter’s insistence, we kept; one went to my mother; one was for sale at the nursery school fair.
The next day I faced the Kitchen-Aid and said, “We are going to DO THIS” and made I think 124 little cookies — two flavors, chocolate and vanilla — to be turned into sandwich cookies. One cooky broke, so I had 123 cookies to work with, which meant I really had 122 cookies to work with, which meant I’d have 61 sandwich cookies to divide up between events.
I still had to figure out the fillings for the sandwich cookies, but I figured, “Child’s play!” Frostings and fillings are, so long as you’re not too picky, the kind of thing you can just make up as you go along. (My husband finds this attitude appalling, but I don’t give a shit what he thinks.) I also needed to blend up the special vanilla butter that goes with the chocolate bread. But again, child’s play.
The thing I felt bad about, in all of this, was the Kitchen-Aid mixer, which was feeling put-upon this morning. I’d never regarded the Kitchen-Aid as a thing with feelings, but this week of cooking and baking was definitely taking a toll on the machine, which we got in the fall of 2002. It’s unhappiness with me was audible, and I’m not speaking metaphorically here. These cooky doughs I was making are sturdy doughs; it takes a lot of power to make these things. I cannot imagine trying to make them if I was mixing the dough by hand — in fact, there’s simply no way I would do it. The poor Kitchen-Aid was groaning and wheezing by the time I had finished the second dough. I thought, “This Kitchen-Aid needs some therapy.” It might in fact need new screws or something — hell if I know — but I was suddenly imagining a stand mixer lying down on a shrink’s couch, like in a New Yorker cartoon. “All this cooky dough,” it sighs. “Can’t this lady ever give me a break? I mean, it’s freaking EVERY DAY she’s baking.”
“You’re not exaggerating? Every day?” the therapist asks gently. “That does seem like a lot.”
“She was at it like crazy a couple weeks ago — then things calmed down a little, it was okay,” the Kitchen-Aid says. “Maybe a couple times a week I’d have to do something for a couple of minutes. But this was ALL MORNING.”
By 3 p.m. on Wednesday the counter was cleaned up, and all the baked goods are put away. I assembled the sandwich cookies on Friday and on Saturday morning I trotted around the neighborhood delivering tinfoil-lined boxes of cookies to schools. I have no idea if everything sold; all I know is, I had fulfilled my obligations, and without disaster.
My husband, when I express exhaustion during and after marathons like this, always says to me, “No one’s forcing you to bake all this stuff. No one’s making you do this. You volunteer to do it.” And he’s right. But the fact of the matter is, if I don’t do it, who’s going to? There are not a lot of parents that are willing and able to engage in this kind of lunacy, and this is the kind of lunacy that makes our community what it is — or what it’s supposed to be, anyhow. It’s supposed to be a place where schools have spring fairs and the entire neighborhood shows up to have fun. Kids who graduated eight years ago come back to play — at both the nursery school and the elementary school fairs. The parents come. Grandparents come. These aren’t little birthday parties: these are major neighborhood events. People truck in from all over town, and even the suburbs, to go to the nursery school fair, because part of the event is a massive tag sale that’s known for being one of the best ways to get second-hand baby and kid gear. People line up to get in, no early-birds. Current nursery school parents volunteer to get coffee donated by the best local cafe (Willoughby’s, which does all its own roasting and is just generally awesome), and people cruise the housewares and clothes and strollers and shop while they eat elaborate homemade baked goods and drink coffee. One year, I remember, some lucky housebitch bought a white Kitchen-Aid mixer that someone had donated — why would someone ditch a Kitchen-Aid like that? — for $25.
This year the mama in charge of coffee made a vast quantity of cold-brewed iced coffee in addition to the regular hot stuff and the few dozen homemade cupcakes she’d made for the event. It takes time and advance thought to produce cold-brewed iced coffee to serve 200, but she did it. And she did it in the middle of getting her house ready to sell and packing up her own things so she can relocate her family, and while working a job involving weird schedule hours and demanding clients. (I stand in awe of her all the time; my suspicion is that she’s not big on sleep. Must be all the cold-brewed coffee keeping her going.)
There are some people who take on these challenges no matter what — and their labor tends to go quite unacknowledged, because they’re not getting paid for it. But it’s work. What’s more, it’s hard work: it’s hard to pull off a real humdinger of a spring fair, and it’s the behind-the-scenes invisible work that is, whether or not people realize it, makes a neighborhood a neighborhood, a community a community. I’m one of the people who has time for this crap; so I help with these things however I can. I will gladly help set up tables, I will bake, I will let people use my tablecloths to cover the crappy institutional folding tables so that things look nice.
I don’t do this kind of thing every week. If I did it every week, it would be a sign of lunacy (and we’d be bankrupt; we cannot afford to have me bake on this scale, uncompensated, every week; eggs and butter are, in fact, pricey, especially when used at this scale). But for annual events like the nursery school and elementary school spring fairs, you have to have cookies and cupcakes and muffins and things; you have to have pretty cakes and tarts for the families to buy to give to the mamas on Mother’s Day, the day after the fair.
After we visited my mother on Mother’s Day this year, we drove to a Penzey’s Spices shop in West Hartford, where I spent a crazed fifteen minutes — we arrived shortly before closing time — picking out jars and bags of spices. It was only after I sat down to write this that I realized I had used my Mother’s Day treat to acquire things I would use, at least in part, to make other peoples’ Mother’s Day treats next year. I hope the Kitchen-Aid makes it to next spring.