What’s for dinner vs. the joy of cooking

The shiny, black Kitchen Aid mixer mocked me with its clean slick lines, its promise of culinary wizardry. It stood, unused, on my kitchen counter for years. Every time I looked at its sturdy curved engineering – cleverly hiding a powerful motor that could mix just about anything – it said to me: you are a phony.

Kitchen Aid Mixer

It didn’t start out like that. I don’t covet kitchen gadgets for covetousness’ sake. When I buy something it’s generally because I need it and intend to use it. But the stand mixer – it was aspirational. Not for economic status – no, I aspired to be the kind of person who could whip up edible masterpieces quickly and efficiently. Whipped cream? No problem. Banana bread? That’s for amateurs. Fresh homemade pastry? Savoury tarts? Easy as, well, you know.

And now that I was older and could afford one, I bought it.

Of course, the mixer stood on my counter, neglected now that I had it. Every time I moved it to clean under and around, its weight surprised me – it seemed to take root. It was a solid reminder of my lack of discipline – of my failure to be adventurous.

The problem is that I have always liked cooking – creating a full meal where your imagination and knowledge of food collide to create something wonderful. Where good friends gather with bottles of wine and time to spare to eat and chat of a Saturday night. But over the years, cooking had become a drudge. The daily “What’s for dinner” question arrives like a weight. Trying to balance nutrition with ease of preparation – and there’s always someone at the table who doesn’t want or like what I’ve made. Those evenings when I’ve planned ahead and everyone’s happy – it’s as if I’ve been handed a gift.

So the Kitchen Aid stood there, reminding me of what used to be. Of what I might be capable of if family and work and all those other commitments that come with life didn’t get in the way. It did come in useful a few times. At Thanksgiving and Christmas the giant whisk attachment whipped up a pint of cream in no time flat to be plopped on store-bought pumpkin pie. I marveled at the speed and ease with which it completed that task – I remember beating cream once with a hand beater; not a lot of fun, although probably good for the biceps.

Over Christmas a bunch of us were sitting back in the rare luxury of a visit, talking about how it “used” to be (as if we knew; as if we’d ever been close enough to a past without Wonder Bread and supermarkets). Or at least how we figure it must have been.

Where baking was part of the daily routine – if you wanted a fresh loaf of bread, you got up in the morning and made it. If you didn’t bake, then you went without. When you made your morning coffee you thought, “Ah, I’ll just put on a loaf of bread.” As if that really happened. And if it did it was likely, I imagine, as much of a drudgery as the daily “What’s for dinner.”

After that I decided that we’d simply fallen out of the habit of cooking and baking. We’d simply lost the will. It’s not that big a deal, I told myself. It doesn’t need to be the planned event I had made it out to be.

So on a holiday day off, I opened the Easy Cooking book – the one with recipes meant for university students. And I made creations I’d never attempted before. I made butter tart squares. The Kitchen Aid beat that butter and sugar together like nobody’s business. I made Nanaimo bars. Who knew the custard filling was so easy? That chocolatey top such a breeze?

Part of the bounty made thanks to the fancy mixer.

Chocolate chip cookies – part of the bounty made thanks to the fancy mixer.

And then, just yesterday I noticed a few of the bananas were overripe. Where my usual inclination would be to bin them, this time I decided to make banana bread. Within 5 minutes, that loaf was in the oven baking.

Apparently, I’m not the only one welcoming a return to this simple type of cooking. Banana bread is on the rise all over the world – where people creatively add local ingredients to create their own variations. Says an article in The Telegraph, “Some use oil for a lighter texture, others favour melted butter for richness. Some include walnuts and raisins, others stick to the purity of banana by itself.”

While I thought that cooking a full savoury meal is where my culinary creativity had a chance to shine, I’ve come to understand that small variations can personalize a dish. That, perhaps, I can use that shiny black mixer to aspire to something else: offering the smell of fresh baking to my family and the gift of fresh bars and breads to my friends.

Not something I thought I aspired to – but a reminder that, as the years have gone by, I’ve gained, not lost.

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