The story goes like this: for the first Christmas after they were married, my father gave my mother a Cookie Monster cookie jar. My father’s mother gave my mother lingerie. She wanted grandchildren.
My blond sprite of a niece meets me at her front door: “Kinny, did you bring cookies?” It is a valid question—last time, I’d brought snickerdoodle dough. Today is Pi Day. “Even better,” I say. “I brought Agnes.” My three-year-old nephew Henry simply bounces next to her, beside himself with excitement. Cora, six years old, grins. She knows what my beloved orange Le Creuset skillet means—wonderful, delicious things.
If hope is a thing with feathers, then delight stands in the sunshine blowing bubbles. Delight is visceral, the energy of love. It’s nerves in the stomach, it’s pride expanding the ribcage. This is where laughter comes from. Is it any wonder, then, that the joy of baking feeds us in this way? The pie crust, the cookie dough, the sweetness of them is more than the sum of their ingredients. It is not the food of everyday life. Baking with these beloved children is the moment of delight where the sun through the kitchen window catches the raw sugar on the cookies, splintering the light across our faces.
It is my favorite week of the year, the Holy Week of the Kitchen. 3.14 is Pi Day, which usually results in hijinks from the math department getting a delivery from Bakers Square. 3.15 is the Ides of March and so dinner will be Italian, cacio e pepe this year, I think—served on a table without knives. March 16th is St. Urho’s Day, the feast day of the fictional Finnish saint who drove the grasshoppers from Finland, loudly feted in the small Finn-populated town of Menahga, twenty miles from my home town. I was well into adulthood before I learned St. Urho was not real, but I will make a Finnish pancake, similar to a Dutch baby, anyway. Holy Week concludes with St. Patrick’s Day, full of vegetarian colcannon, soda bread, and other Irish delights.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer six months ago, we put together the syllables of embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma as if they were individual ingredients. We could not register this new language, the language of cancer, the language of a cancer that is only found in children. We would hear terms like cocktail, infusion, port, and we would think of the satisfaction of food, not the intentional poisoning of a human being. Food became less about delight and joy and more about the basic needs for sustenance, about returning to our most potent needs at any given moment, and cooking with my small niece and nephew was suddenly much more important.
Cora and Henry pull their chairs to the counter, already in their aprons. We will use my cast iron skillet named Agnes to make an apple galette for their parents to celebrate Pi Day, a moment that also marks the halfway point of my mother’s chemotherapy. My grandmother was an incredible pie baker, but I don’t have the energy for a two-crusted pie today. I ask Cora if she remembers how to measure flour and there’s pride in my belly when she says yes, remembers to tap the flour on the back of the cup with the back of the knife to settle it, then level it off. Okay, I say, I need two cups of flour, and I leave her to it. Cora is tall for her age, slender, blonde, and sarcastic. Henry is tiny for being three, due to growth hormone deficiencies and allergies to dairy and eggs, and he wears blue plastic glasses that transition to dark in the sun. When we made snickerdoodle cookies last week, he was delighted to have his own bowl of cinnamon sugar to roll his cookies in. His enthusiasm outstrips his fine motor skills and the black Lab, Marley, licks the floor clean. I like to think she can taste the joy.
Perhaps it is serendipitous that I combat stress in the kitchen. Primarily, I bake, the calming movement of creaming butter and sugar into cookies or cakes or muffins. There is something incredibly comforting about baking with this skillet, Le Creuset found on a thrift store shelf for $7.99, and in these days of little sunlight and chemotherapy, I need that: maybe it’s the heft of the pan, maybe it’s the bright orange of the enamel, maybe it’s the slick black of the cast iron seasoning, maybe it’s the personality we have invented for an inanimate object. The trick to baking with Agnes is to cut the recipe by a third: most recipes written for cake pans would work in a 10” skillet, but she is 8”.
My grandmother would say she never made a pie until she married, though her mother baked five or six pies every day to feed the threshers during harvest during the Depression. For my great-grandmother, pie baking was a chore. For my grandmother, it was an act of love, something she did by heart, to know that thing well enough that it became part of our emotional systems, not simply the practical. We say we know things by heart, we know things in our bones—we never know things by brain. I do not know why that is, beyond since-discarded medical notions of the body and medicine. I do not want to hear my mother’s doctor say he knows in his bones that she has this type of cancer and that the type of treatment she should have, he knows that by heart. This idea of Pi Day, this is something my grandmother would have known by heart and by hand, the repetition of rolling pins so automatic that she would know everything she needed to know about that crust simply by the press of her finger. The knowledge in the body is something we often take for granted, the historical memory of it, the way my mother compares the bone pain of her Neulasta treatment to the pain of three natural childbirths decades ago.
I ask Cora what happens when you mix oil and water? For her fifth birthday last year, she got a science kit, full of experiments, most of which involved vegetable oil, so she knows that oil and water won’t mix. When I tell her butter is fat and it won’t mix with the water we’ll add later, this is something she understands. I’ll save the why we treat sugar as a wet ingredient for later. I teach Cora, not only because it’s fun, but also because I want her to grow up with these memories of cooking with Aunt Kinny just being something we do. I bake with my niece and nephew against the hope that these are the memories that will linger in these hard months, not the smoothness of my mother’s bald head, my mother settled on the couch while the rest of the family bustles and plays. I want to be met at the door to my niece’s house with what are we going to cook today? I don’t want these kids to be afraid to cook, not to be ashamed of it, to take pride and joy and delight in the work of cutting straight down into the butter with the pastry cutter, down, scoop up from the sides—do not stir.
I cut the Pink Lady apples into slices and teach them why we put them in water with a little orange juice. I cut an extra apple, because I’m pretending not to notice that Henry and Cora snitch an apple out of the bowl for every three I put in. My sisters and I did the same thing once upon a time. The goal of a galette is to be less perfect than the pies my grandmother made. Even though my skillet doesn’t need it, I butter the pan anyway, then roll up the pie crust on the rolling pin and drop it onto the pan. Cora and Henry help me arrange the apples on top of the crust in a pattern that makes sense to us, and then we fold the ragged edges of the crust over the apples as far as it’ll go. The point of a galette is to be rustic, to pretend that the “mistakes” are not mistakes at all. This is a forgiving recipe, one that I need right now, the need to bake something that doesn’t need to be perfect, to bask in the joy of this moment, of cooking with these kids, in this space of time that is simply wonderful, not filled with fear for my mother and the future.
We slide Agnes into the oven, close the door, and turn on the oven light. We crouch in front of the window, much the same way I remember doing the same in front of my grandmother’s avocado oven when I was Henry’s age. The galette for Pi Day is a surprise for their parents when they come home, a moment of sweet delight to distract from the bitterness of this cancer journey, the incredible joy of watching those beautiful children proudly carrying plates to the table—look what I made!—and the moment around the table when everything is just right.
Karen Babine is the author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction, finalist for the Midwest Book Award and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Slag Glass City, Quarter After Eight, Sweet, North American Review, Passages North, Terrain.org and others. She lives and writes in Minneapolis.