Surrendering To Baking

I’ve been doing some baking here, in the middle of the disaster. 

The baking comes on the heels of me beginning to learn how to cook. My childhood was not a food-friendly one; my mother ate a lot of junk food (and was thin as a rail), didn’t cook very much, and what she did cook was low effort stuff. She was a single mom, so that was part of it, but I also think she wasn’t a good eater – she’d hole up in her bedroom with a two liter of Pepsi, packs of Viceroys and a bag of pretzels and that would do it for her. She probably never learned to eat properly either. 

On my Italian side there was a lot of food, all of it rich and starchy, and lots of sweets. None of it healthy, nothing green. My grandmother would make enough food to feed an army, and serve enough pastries and cookies to also give them diabetes. 

For most of my life I didn’t cook. I could boil water, and every now and again I made stabs at learning to cook, but it never stuck. Cooking is more than the act of cooking – it’s the process of buying food, having food, preparing food, cleaning up. I’m lazy, and I want it quickly. Give me delivery, or give me something I can throw in the microwave. There’s a new generation of Lean Cuisine frozen meals where you don’t even have to take the plastic wrapping off – this is the dream. Star Trek’s food replicators have always been the technology I want the most. 

But in the past few months I’ve been picking up cooking. It started with my brother, who was raised the same way I was, and who started cooking with a pressure cooker. He got to the point where he baked himself a whole damn ham for Christmas (he baked a ten pound ham, which is way too much for a single guy living alone, but it was still impressive). And so I began playing around with recipes, and then I was able to get an Instantpot. The Instantpot was a big game changer for me. 

Then came the pandemic. I had been interested in baking, and I had done some cookies in my time (pre-made dough), and this seemed like a great time to really take a leap. It’s not easy in this environment – there’s no yeast to be found in Los Angeles! – but I’ve had some surprising successes.

Baking has been an interesting experience because I am certain I could not have done it before I got sober. I think my attempts at cooking pre-sobriety were doomed to failure for the same reasons I couldn’t have really baked pre-sobriety. And it’s not something exciting like “I would have been too fucked up and drank all the vanilla extract!” No, it was something really simpler, and something more fundamental at the heart of sobriety:

I couldn’t follow directions. 

If you’re a certain kind of person this will make no sense to you. But if you’re my kind of person this is like a thundercrack of truth. I don’t know what it is about people with addiction issues, but many of us have a very hard time following directions. We’re not good at taking orders. We bristle at it. We like to think that we know better, and that we can go our own way and get it done. This, despite all the evidence to the contrary. 

I have this friend who follows directions, and when everything came crashing down for me she was there and she was supportive and she was loving, but she was also sure to let me know that one of the reasons my life fell apart was that I thought the rules were for everyone else but me. She was right, and for a long time that belief had served me – I had forged a path of my own, a career of my own, a life on my own terms – until it no longer did. Until everything collapsed and my lack of rule-following, even in small things like “Maintaining savings,” left me unemployed and without a home. 

One of the first things you have to learn in sobriety is to let go and stop trying to control everything. It’s to realize that your best thinking and decision making had gotten you into some church basement surrounded by addicts and drinking bad coffee. It’s about surrender. 

A few days after everything went down for me, when I hit bottom, my dad came to Los Angeles to be with me/make sure I didn’t kill myself, and he was getting these email newsletters from Ram Dass, the spiritual guru who died late last year. He was taking me to Joshua Tree (my dad, not Ram Dass) and that morning he got an email about the concept of surrendering. This is how the email opened:

Surrendering isn’t about saying, “I think today I’ll surrender.” That’s not what surrender is about.

That’s all just another ego trip.

Surrender is when you get put in an absolutely impossible position, and you see that there is no other way but to surrender.

People come up and they say, “Aren’t you courageous to surrender.” HA! I don’t have a choice!

That was the lesson I needed to learn in that moment. It’s a lesson I need to keep learning – all the good lessons are active, you’re always learning them – and one of the places where that lesson pops up is in baking. 

It seems dumb, but I surrender to the recipe. I don’t make substitutions. I don’t second guess the ingredients or the measurements. I do what the recipe tells me. I bought an oven thermometer so that I could make sure I was hitting the exact right temperature. I set timers so that I keep my baking in the oven for the correct amount of time. 

And I’ll tell you, the magic of baking is a lot like the magic of spirituality for me. I take these ingredients, many of them dry and unappetizing, and I mix them together in the exact way I’m told to mix them, and what happens is an absolute transmogrification. Cooking is cool, but it makes sense – you add things and then it heats up. What you start with often looks a lot like what you end up with. But baking is something else altogether; it’s like alchemy, the transmutation of disparate items into deliciousness. I can’t tell you the joy I get from seeing a dough come together in my mixing bowl, seeing the moment when all of these ingredients transform. It’s exciting! It’s exciting pulling something from the oven and seeing how it has risen, how it has changed, how it has become something totally different. 

I know that as I get better at baking I will begin playing with recipes. These aren’t the Ten Commandments, etched in stone. But before I play around with them I have to master the fundamentals and understand why they’re fundamentals. And when I find that the playing around produces something less appetizing, I will always have the fundamentals to which to return. 

I’ve not been perfect in following the rules in my sobriety – just ask my ex-sponsor, who let me go because of a chronic lateness issue – but that’s okay. The big difference between now and before is that I understand that the rules apply to me, and that when I fuck up and don’t follow the rules I have no one to blame for the fallout but myself. The recipe isn’t at fault when I put too little sugar or too many eggs, it’s me. The oven didn’t ruin the cake, I left it in too long. But also, just because I fucked up this one time doesn’t mean I can’t do better next time. Rather than give up baking I just have to surrender to the idea that this is how much sugar goes in the bowl. And when I do put the right amount of sugar, the right number of eggs, set the oven to the correct temperature, when I do all the things I’m supposed to do, what I end up with is something that makes me happy.