Gluten & Gatsby

Working on sugar cookie houses for our small group Valentine's Day party.

Working on sugar cookie houses for our small group Valentine’s Day party.

‘Tis the night before “school Valentine’s Day”–known by everyone else as Friday, or to the superstitious as Friday the 13th–and I’m baking cookies. Everyone, it seems, needs cookies tomorrow. There are some for my sixth period class, a tiny collection of eight students who managed to hold the best debate on whether Gatsby truly loved Daisy. There will also be cookies for my senior small group girls, these ones individually wrapped and stashed in mailboxes before the school day begins. And finally, there are cookies for my own household, for Timmy and for my sister, Holly and her boyfriend, Chris, who are visiting us for the weekend.

It’s been a week of baking, actually. Sunday saw the creation of seven heart-shaped pizzas and Monday several dozen cookies rectangles for the building of “sugar cookie houses” at our small group Valentine’s Day party. It’s been busy, a week that has consumed several hours and about twenty cups of flour. And I love baking, so I only mind a little.

I say a little because I’m about six weeks into my second attempt at giving up all things gluten. The first attempt was years ago, in Seattle, and I was moderately successful until I moved to Germany, land of salted soft pretzels and Bauernbrot, the crusty farm bread that comes steaming from local bakeries early each morning. I gleefully consumed wheat products for four years without much consequence, resuming my cookie and bread baking habits along the way, until December, when a variety of health problems prompted me to begin another gluten fast.

I love baking, love the experimentation and mystery of it, even love the precision required as compared to the looser standards of ordinary cooking. When I renounced wheat at the beginning of December, I knew that it would be baking bread that I missed the most. Even eating it was second to the rhythmic and meditative habit of creating it from scratch.

Heart-shaped pizza!

Heart-shaped pizza!

The first few trays of chocolate chip cookies come out the oven very nearly perfect. Golden, chewy, with their chocolate chunks molten and just barely holding their shape. I slide them onto the stove, wishing I could have one. With a sigh, I reach for the gluten-free flour and put together a small batch. They look about right, but they’re not the same, even warm and straight from the oven. They’re not perfect.

A few weeks ago, I followed a Pinterest tip regarding gluten-free Nutella braided bread, whose molten, golden whorls of chocolate looked too good to be true. It literally was too good, and my attempt ended with a sigh as I pulled the heavy, dense disaster from the oven. I wanted it to be one way, and it wasn’t.

Beginning the second semester of American Literature with a new group of students, I’m finding myself thinking again of foiled expectations and unfulfilled longing. Though Of Mice and Men is and always will be the saddest book I teach, The Great Gatsby is almost as hopeless in its tragedy. My attempts to bake perfect cookies and bread, more stubborn than stoic, mirror Jay Gatsby’s folly, not Lennie and George’s hapless disaster.

Our sugar cookie castle tower.

Our sugar cookie castle tower.

Though melodramatic to the point of silliness,  one of the greater tragedies of The Great Gatsby is its hero’s inability to form new impressions, to look wide-eyed and open-armed into an unknown future, because of a crippling obsession with the past. A man who wanted nothing less than a perfect repetition of a perfect past, Gatsby could never find a happy future. Nothing, in the end, would be as good as what he’d already experienced. And while I’ll get over the (hopefully temporary) loss of wheat products and their associated mediocre cookies, I have to be cautious about falling into nostalgic holes, not looking ahead for the delight in looking back.

I nibble on the corner of a gluten-free chocolate chip cookie, hot from the oven. It doesn’t taste the same as the others, those cookies I’ve been working on for the last twenty-five years or so. Still, it’s not bad. Honestly, how could anything made mostly of butter and chocolate taste bad? Just different. With another bite, I resolve to look ahead, to new ingredients, new homes, and whatever other newness lies ahead. After all, we’re not made for mastering just one recipe, or sailing just one horizon. There are many lives to be lived.

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