Baking day

A friend explained to me recently how sales and marketing have changed over the years. In the past, she said, people sold mostly tangible products. Now, they are more likely to market experiences.

Take the example of a cake, she said. In the old days, you made cakes from “scratch,” using butter and eggs, flour and sugar. (Some of you reading this may never have heard of such an astonishing thing, but it’s true.) However, that was time-consuming, so manufacturers came up with the idea of putting most of the ingredients in powdered form in a box. These mixes freed up the women who were doing most of the baking back then to indulge in other experiences.

As time went on, cakes evolved further; you could buy pre-made batters or frozen loaf cakes that you just popped into the oven. And soon grocery stores were offering entire cakes ready to eat, frosting and all. The only downside, of course, is that you pay much more than you would if you made a cake from basic ingredients or a mix.

Still, ready-made cakes, cookies, and so on save time so you can have other, presumably more enjoyable experiences than fussing around with a mixing bowl. It’s those intangibles – recreational experiences, trips, guided tours –  that are marketed today.

What my friend said made sense, but I found my mind wandering off on a tangent. I was thinking back to the days when I myself baked from scratch – at my mother’s side.

My family was not well-to-do. Mother sewed many of our clothes and cooked our meals in addition to working full-time as a teacher. She also baked, and I learned to do the same from watching her.

In those days, people commonly shared recipes or clipped them from newspapers. Many were for desserts. That was back before we realized how bad sugar was for you. (This is not an attempt to say that sugar isn’t bad just because I survived a childhood full of it. If I ate now as I did then, I’d probably be in the hospital.)

At any rate, we baked cakes and cookies and pies, lots of them. My dad, a letter carrier who did his route on foot, had a bountiful appetite despite being a lean man, and he loved desserts. My mother, my sister and I ate our share of the sweet treats as well.

My sister helped with the baking once in a while, but she’s three years younger than I, and often lacked the patience to see those projects through to the end. So it was mainly Mother and I in the kitchen. Nearly every weekend would find us stirring up some new delectable. We tried things with names like “Mrs. Sallee’s Cherry Coconut Bars” or “Easy Three-Layer Cake with Maple Foam Frosting.” As we worked, we talked constantly – about school, books, people, and life in general. We laughed at our culinary failures and crowed over our successes.

Just about every recipe began with the words, “In mixing bowl, cream butter with sugar.” Then came the eggs, then the flour mixture, and finally any flavorings or special ingredients.

Blissfully unaware of the dangers of e. coli in flour and salmonella in eggs, Mother and I consumed large quantities of the raw product. (Pound-cake batter and chocolate-cookie dough were two of my favorites.) Mother’s philosophy was, “If you don’t taste it, how will you know if you made a mistake?” Her theory was given validity when my sister made a batch of cookies with a tablespoon of salt instead of a teaspoon and did NOT taste the dough first.

Mother dispensed many such tips on those Saturday afternoons. One was, “Cakes are delicate, but cookies are forgiving.” (It’s true – it takes a lot to ruin cookies.) She knew that the secret to great fudge is enough salt. She recommended dumping a healthy dose of vanilla extract in everything. She believed in chopping walnuts coarsely rather than grinding them. (“I want to KNOW that I’m eating a walnut!”) She insisted on cooking the apples in a pie beforehand, so you didn’t bite into a crunchy piece of fruit.

We experimented constantly. We made “Eggless, Milkless, Butterless Cake,” a staple from the Great Depression (not bad if you can stand raisins). We made cakes with boiled frosting, buttercream frosting, cream-cheese frosting. We baked Christmas cookies in a hundred shapes, sprinkled with round silver things made of who-knows-what toxic ingredients. I still have our old recipe book; it flops open to the grease-stained page bearing the oatmeal-cookie recipe, one of our favorites.

One day, Mother and I baked pineapple upside-down cake that was so good we gobbled most of it ourselves shortly after pulling it out of the oven. My father was lucky to get a single serving.

Possibly the pinnacle of our achievements was creating doughnuts. We concocted a basic batter, then divided it into different bowls, adding chocolate to one, applesauce and nutmeg to another, buttermilk to another. We fried the doughnuts in a big vat, then dusted some with powdered sugar, rolled others in cinnamon and sugar, and frosted yet others. Then came shredded coconut, sliced almonds, sprinkles or walnuts.

By day’s end, there were more types of doughnut stacked around the kitchen than you could have found in Winchell’s doughnut shop. We were slightly sick from sampling them (but each and every kind was delicious). Both of us as well as the room were covered in flour and powdered sugar, which has a unique knack for adhering to any surface. Every bottle of food coloring and flavoring we possessed was sitting out on the linoleum counter, which was now stained with red dye. We were so tired, we had to leave the mess for the next day.

We never made doughnuts again, but they were sublime.

So when my friend was telling me about how grocery-store cakes free us from baking so we can have other experiences, I wondered what experiences my mother and I should have been having instead. Baking was the treat we looked forward to, the highlight of our week, an artistic endeavor with a delicious reward at the end.

Clearly, it’s good to have the option of buying ready-made food rather than being tied to the daily drudgery of making your own meals. But I find it ironic that one of the hottest culinary products of the modern era is boxes of ingredients for complete dinners delivered to your doorstep. They’re marketed as ways to bring your family together to share the experience of cooking and baking.

It’s a good idea, but one that is hardly new.

There’s a saying that goes, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” A corollary, perhaps, is, “Find a way to love the chores you have to do, and they won’t be chores any longer.”

It’s a lesson I learned from my mother, and if she were here today, we’d still be in the kitchen baking.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.

From Gail Binkly.