Saturday, December 20, 2014

But who will make the cookies?

I come from a long line of excellent bakers. My mother's cucidati (Sicilian fig cookies) are a hit at every family party. The recipe was passed to her from her grandmother and even though I am sure mom could make the cookies by heart, she pulls out the yellowed index card with my great-grandmother's illegible writing every time. The cookie base is an incredibly basic yet somehow complicated recipe that yields the popular cucidati as well as giuggiulena (rolled in sesame seeds) and plain 'ol "white cookies". Many a Sunday afternoon has been spent rolling the dough into various shapes under my mother's watchful eye. Not too big, not too small, don't play with the dough. (She actually made my nephew cry once.)

It is obvious were my mom got her baking skills and regimented, slightly dictator-like method of instruction. My maternal grandmother made a kick ass meringue that she whipped by hand with a fork and mouth-watering, eat-them-til-you-burst sfingi (basically a small deep fried doughnut covered in powdered sugar). When I was little I would stand by with the shaker full of sugar, meticulously covering each warm sweet sfingi with a generous sprinkling after they came out of the fryer. Which I could never distribute to my grandmother's liking. Ever. Not like it should matter what the sugar looked like. But it did. A lot.

The baking style of my paternal grandmother was a bit different. She was famous for her apple pie (I dream about it every time I sink my teeth into a slice of not-grandma's apple pie) and chocolate chip cookies. Grandma C was much more laid back, letting me eat the perfectly curled apple peels as they fell onto the paper towel and baking up birds' nests out of the leftover dough. (My mother carries on this tradition - yum!) When she passed away I inherited her mixer and fell into hysterical sobs the first Christmas I pulled it out to make cookies.

My point is this: the baking gene should be strong in me. But it isn't. Despite having grandma's mixer and countless attempts, my cookies never really turn out. I'm not saying the results are inedible, they're just not that great. I struggle with the execution - the recipe following, the exact measuring - it's just not in my blood. I'm more an experimental chef who would rather cook to my own beat. That simply does not work when baking. Mom is worried that no one will take over her role as Sicilian cookie maker extraordinaire. Already the high-fat treats of my childhood are long gone (did I mention Grandma L made utterly amazing cannoli? I didn't? Well she did. A-MAZING). My sister doesn't really like to bake, although she is pretty good at making truffles. I think mom is secretly hoping that my brother's wife will carry on the tradition. She is a fantastic chef and loves to celebrate our heritage. But she doesn't like to bake either. Somehow it skipped our generation. None of my cousins seem eager to inherit the yellowed index card and responsibility for making twenty dozen cookies for every holiday, wedding, graduation, and anniversary party.

Sometimes I wish it could be me. Keeping heritage alive is important, and I want my children to be proud Korean-Italian-Americans. But it seems all I've inherited is the fussy controlling behavior of my mother and grandmother. J loves to help me bake, and I try very hard to let it go when he sloshes the batter all over the counter or ends up with more egg on his hand than in the bowl. To not nit-pick if the frosting doesn't look just right because, let's face it, my cookies are not that pretty to begin with.

At least I make a mean sauce.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Looking for the pony

My dad loves to tell this joke:
A pessimist and an optimist both wished for a pony for Christmas. When the big day arrived, the pessimist woke to find a beautiful horse under the tree. Negative person that he was, he immediately began to second guess his wish, worrying about how much work the animal would require, whether he would fall off while riding, and where he would keep his new pet. The optimist, on the other hand, was greeted on Christmas morning with a giant pile of manure. He promptly rolled up the sleeves of his pajama shirt and dove in, digging around while happily proclaiming, "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"

While I don't consider myself a full-on pessimist, I am certainly not an "Always look on the bright side of life" person either. I worry. A lot. And when something good happens, I have to shut up the voice in my head that's questioning when it will all fall apart. It's difficult to stay positive in an industry full of rejection, especially when you look around and see others enjoying success, and you can't help but wonder if it will ever happen to you. But I am buoyed by the support of the writing community, both locally and online. People lift each other up. And not in a "I'm only doing this in hopes that you will lift me up in return" sort of way. They are genuinely supportive. And it is hard not to let that seep into your bones and change your outlook on life.

My part time job involves helping community college students with disabilities. I often work with a small handful of adults in the nursing department, a competitive and cut-throat program that is designed to make sure you can handle the pressure of a demanding career. The group is constantly stressed out. And I know that it would be easy for them to quit, easy for them to say it's simply too difficult. But they don't. They show up every day, pour over their notes, and give every exam their all. They support each other in sweet little ways, like the guy who passes out sticks of gum or the woman who has been planning their celebration dinner after graduation. It inspires me. Just as my fellow writers inspire me.

Yesterday was my second pitmad contest. As I watched friends and strangers re-tweet my pitches from morning till night, my heart filled with joy. It wasn't a successful contest in terms of agent attention, and I'm not gonna lie - the pessimist in me was loud and clear, telling me I would never get my book published, and that I should just quit now because the road ahead is way too long and difficult. But this morning I'm listening to the optimist. Who encourages me to drive forward, insisting that eventually we will find that pony.