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.

Advent: Remaking & Imagination

This dinner is not great.

Though I like to think of myself as a decent cook, the reality is that ingredients are capricious, and I’m even more capricious about following recipes. Sometimes I do, measuring with almost-precision and using almost all of the right ingredients. On occasion, when I’m learning to do something new, I glance and a few recipes and then create some kind of amalgam of my own. Most often, I put ingredients out in a pile, and create dinner. It usually works. Tonight, it didn’t.

Tonight, we’re eating tortellini that is only partially cooked. The noodle part is plenty tender, yielding easily to uncover tough, chewy and unpleasant bits of undercooked cheese. Not even to the al dente stage–the defense of all undercookers of pasta–this is just terrible. Coating these half-jerky, half-pasta morsels is something like pesto. But really it’s more like garlic and almonds (because who wants to pay €8 for a bag of pine nuts?), with some basil added for greenness’s sake. It’s just really dry and chewy, this meal. Timmy and I eat it dutifully (with no complaints from him, to his credit, though plenty from me) and then realize that there are at least three servings more of this feast. So, great news.

I was recently talking with a colleague who lamented that she’d added too much rosemary to her stew, causing it to taste more like pine than anything else.

“And I can’t just throw it out,” she sighed. “There’s beef in that stew!”

We don’t necessarily get lots of beef here in Germany, so this is perhaps a more weighty statement in this community than it would be back home, but the sentiment stands. We don’t want to throw something away if it was valuable. A poorly-executed paper snowflake can go in the fire or recycling, but not a whole dinner. I don’t want to give up on something with ingredients so valuable.

Though not a great culinary experience, this tortellini failure is a fantastic metaphor. (Victory! Dinner: Bad. Metaphor: Priceless) I had a professor in college–in a seminar class on Milton’s Paradise Lost–who referred to the Fall as mankind’s “failure of imagination.” Specifically in Adam’s case, it was an inability to imagine his life–let alone the new-created world–without Eve eternally in it. (Yes, I used to have a class in which we would talk about a single epic poem, three times a week, for an entire quarter. College is magic, people.)  If the Fall is our failure of imagination, then I believe that this season, the advent of our Savior into the world, is the victory of imagination from our Creator. Rather than throw the freshly-made, horribly-awry creation away, He fixed it.

Of course the metaphor is flawed, like my dinner. Creation didn’t go wrong because of the creator, like my tortellini disaster, but the rebellion of the created themselves. (A closer analogy, perhaps, would be those days when an entire colony of yeast enacts a coup and refuses to rise, for no good reason at all.) Still, when my temptation is to give up and start over, God never went that way. The story Scripture offers, the story that comes to its climactic height with the resurrection, is one of remaking, recreating. The season of Advent reminds me that–like the beef in my friend’s stew or the tortellini that I would later toss into the oven with some extra water–we are valuable, precious, not to be thrown away or “started over.” And that, as we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christ’s birth, is incredibly good news.

On Patience: Teaching, Risotto & Two Dots

It’s nearly the end of summer, and I’m making risotto. The setup requires half a dozen steps, but after a while it’s just pouring white wine and broth onto rice, stirring for a while, and thinking while the liquid soaks into the tender monochrome pearls. So I’m thinking, not as distracted as I’d usually be by my excellent ingredients, the crisp apples and smoky bacon waiting to jump into the action. I’m thinking about patience, slowness. And, to my equal embarrassment and amusement, I’m thinking about a computer game, Two Dots, that I played for a while this summer, until I finished the last level this afternoon.

“What do you do all summer?”

Since it’s been ages since I’ve been out in the grown-up world where people work all four seasons, I seldom hear this question delivered with the tones of accusation or scorn that get teachers so riled up that they have to create BuzzFeed lists or Pinterest memes justifying their summer vacations. I read these lists all the time, though, posted by my colleagues, little missives that remind everyone that we, the teachers, spend our summers planning for the year, catching up on professional development, or even getting jobs to supplement our incomes. To which I respond: Yes, but…

…it’s still summer. At least for me, for now, summer looks a lot like it always has.

I tend to divide summers into Nothing and Something. This has little to do with how exciting a summer was–it was a Nothing summer in which I climbed Mt. Rainier, and a Something summer in which I worked as a filing clerk in an insurance agency–but rather how easy it is to describe the summer. The quicker the reply, the more something that summer. The Nothing summers are often long and slow, with brief intervals of intense busyness. By this definition, this was a Nothing summer, in which I vacillated between my empty German village and the fullness of Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Spangdahlem Air Base.

So what did I do? I traveled a bit. When I wasn’t traveling, I did other things. If I were feeling defensive, I could tell about the online class I took, or the orientation program I planned for the new faculty at BFA. I could list the motley titles that accompanied me on approximately 24 hours of train-riding over the last month. I could show Instagram photos of recipes tried. All good things, ingredients to a full summer.

But I also played this computer game. As in, I played the whole game. I have never done this before, and chances are slim that I’ll do it again. I’m not a teenager; I didn’t play for hours a day. I did pick it up between chapters and emails, waiting for pizza dough to rise or the train to arrive. I read some reviews of this game, since I’m the sort who loves reviews, and discovered two distinct camps. There were those who found the game–which is a series of puzzles, divided into levels–“impossible” or its more spiteful counterpart “purely based on luck.” These reviews always garnered a calm response from the other camp: “It’s not impossible. You just have to be patient. Keep trying.”

Teaching can be like that. A series of challenges, some so seemingly insurmountable that we’re tempted to call them impossible, or ascribe success to “pure luck” rather than learned skill. I’ve always been thankful to have mentors and peers who remind me that teaching, like any other skill, requires practice and patience. From both students and teacher, to learn we must risk failing in pursuit of growth, and a space where that kind of risk is safe must be a place of grace, of patience. It’s the grace that God gives to us as we learn, and the grace we’re asked to extend back to ourselves and on to our students.

This isn’t how I always think of patience, the capacity to keep at something for a good while, willing to fail a bit in pursuit of success. But there is a sort of expectancy there, knowing that if I remain present, continuing to “show up” through the challenges of life, God can make something wonderful. Like an essay that makes sense, or a classroom in which learning and community mellow into something beautiful. Like this risotto, done to creamy perfection only if I stick with it, paying attention and stirring the afternoon away.

Marble Cake and Maugenhard

Maug boys on Thanksgiving.

Maug boys on Thanksgiving.

“Well, you should probably just make a dessert. Any kind of dessert, for Sunday night,” the Maugenhard RA tells me after a supper of spaghetti, during which we watched snow fall outside on the not-yet-green hills of the Black Forest. Spring is delayed this year, after what’s been called “the darkest winter in 43 years.”

I shudder to imagine winter 1970 in Germany.

I’ve come to Maugenhard Dorm this evening after already working in some capacity with students for the last nine hours, hours filled with classes, meetings, observations, bus rides and track practice. It’s the end of a long day, at the end of a long week, at the hoped-for end of a long winter. Spring break is only a few days away, and though we can see past the hurdles of papers to write and grade, tests to pass and mark, lessons to plan and absorb, we still have to jump the hurdles. We’re weary these days–teachers, staff and students–ready to rest before returning to the busyness of spring at BFA.

The boys clear the table and start the dishes, and I pull out a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, its red- and white-checked cover familiar to me from childhood. What to make? I flip around aimlessly, and finally settle on yellow cake, my perennial favorite and most-missed cake mix now that I live in Germany. Yellow cake with chocolate frosting. It will be easy.

Following a recipe doesn’t take much mental energy for me, which is helpful tonight, because I’m not left alone to do this work. Every few minutes, a different student arrives in the kitchen to ask a question about the term paper that’s due tomorrow in Honors American Literature class. Meanwhile, the RA and her fiance are preparing tomorrow’s lunch across the kitchen, sharing tips on gift registry. Twenty minutes into this project, I’m switching between four or five different conversation strands at once.

Add dry ingredients together… Um… yes, I’d say Vonnegut counts as a postmodernist. A huge one… Bed, Bath & Beyond is the worst in the world! … 5, no 5 and a half cups of milk. Alternate with dry mixture… What kind of “fiery poem” did Frost send his girlfriend? … No, you have to personify Bordeaux. Like, make it into a character. If Bordeaux were a person, who would she be? … My favorite place to buy wedding gifts is Crate & Barrel. Beat on high for 2 minutes.

It’s how my week has gone, many disconnected shards of work and conversation making up each busy day. More often than not, I’ve felt like a basket of rubble at the end of them. I’ve been impatient and inattentive, anxious and short-sighted. As so often happens, I’ve lost perspective in weariness.

I finish with the cake batter, and the bin of cocoa powder in the pantry gives me an idea. I scoop a few ladles of batter into another bowl, and toss the cocoa liberally on top. As I stir it up, RA comes over.

“Ooh, what are you doing?”

“Marble cake.”

For a moment, the dorm disappears into a memory, and I’m about six, standing on a chair next to my mom as she mixes up two colors of batter, asking the same question. What are we doing? This is different!

RA watches, awed like six-year-old me, as I dollop the brown batter on top of the yellow, then draw a knife through it in serpentine lines, first vertically then horizontally. The batters swirl but don’t blend, and the ordinary cake is suddenly special.

“We’re eating this tonight!” RA cries, setting out milk and glasses in preparation for the marvelous cake. “Make some frosting, but don’t put it on. This cake looks too cool to cover it up.”

With some satisfaction I slide it into the oven, then go to the living room, where my hardworking students are finishing their assignments.

I’ve spent almost all day with some of them–in class, track and now home–and still it doesn’t get old, listening to them tell stories about authors and compose poems aloud. I proofread a paper and offer some advice to the poet, but mostly I just listen.

How different this is from school as I knew it in Seattle, where we lived in separate worlds from our teachers. They never got to see just how much we cared about what we were learning, and we never really understood the depth of their care for us. Here, both cares are out in the open, as I listen to my students tell one another stories about authors–Frost, Safran Foer and Vonnegut–while I bake a cake for them to eat later.

Living in community like this is sometimes intimidating, realizing that every decision is public, every relationship on display. Still, it’s refreshing to live and work in a place without pretension, where we can see one another in all seasons, from vibrant to weary, and appreciate the God-given uniqueness that makes up a brilliant whole.

And I’m back to the shards, a zillion topics and trains of thought that have brought me to the end of this week. Yes, to me it can seem like a basket of rubble, but if I’ll only let them go, in the hands of my Creator they can form something marvelous, a stained-glass window of broken pieces.

The marble cake comes out of the oven after a while, and for a few minutes the boys abandon their papers and poems to gather around the warm, two-toned deliciousness. We slather it in chocolate frosting and stand around the counter, all of us glad for a break.

“Ms. D made you this cake,” RA tells them. “Just because she loves you.”

I laugh, and they laugh, too, but it’s true. No matter how tired we are in these days before break, I love these kids immensely. And marble cake, that’s real love.

Ingredients

It has been snowing all day by the time I make it home this Wednesday afternoon.  I had romantic notions of going running in the snow, all the way up the hill to “see the view,” but gave them up on the walk home from school when I noticed that:

  1. I couldn’t walk more than five steps without slipping in the three inches of new snow, piled on top of the inch of ice still unmelted by last week’s snow.
  2. There was no view to speak of, the hills obscured by the whiteness.

That tough decision made, I return home to read poems about snow (magnificent ones by William Cullen Bryant and Emily Dickinson) and make pizza.

I’m neither an overly proficient nor terribly creative cook.  Most often, what I cook is dictated by what I really want to eat.  I suppose I could buy pizza, but since I can make passably good pizza myself I generally do so.  That’s how I find myself rolling out dough and tearing up our wilted basil plant at 5:00 PM this afternoon.

It’s easier than teaching, I said to my roommate earlier, when she asked if making pizza would be too much work for an already busy evening.  I hadn’t meant it to sound tragic or tired, just to comment, as I have before, that ingredients tend to behave more predictably than people.  A pizza can work or fall apart, but I understand that in either case it had nothing to do with the will of the ingredients.  I don’t take it personally when the pizza doesn’t work out.

People are different.  Trickier.

I wait for the pizza to bake, as the kitchen fills with steamy smells of garlic and tomato, and think about what it means to create.  How comparatively easy it is to make something with soulless ingredients, their fates entirely in my hands.  The only living variable in this pizza, the yeast, is the one likeliest to cause problems, but even those multitudes are manageable.  Yeast cultures are way smaller than I am, and they can be bribed with white sugar.  I made this pizza; it does as I ask.

How different is God’s creation.  Especially this season, as we celebrate the coming of Christ to earth, I am intensely aware of the risk God assumed in offering us the freedom to live choose life with Him, or not.  How keenly God must have felt it, sending God’s only Son to humankind, ultimately to die for their wrong choice.  I think I’m being creative and daring by making a pizza; imagine telling the cheese that it could melt if it felt like it, and the wheat flour could choose to stretch into dough or could remain as grainy as sand if that felt more natural.

It’s with gratitude that I realize I’m more than an ingredient.  That, made in His image, I have the potential of loving and serving the Lord in return.  That God loved us enough to keep trying to bring us back.

Gluten Free Waffles (and what they tell me about the future)

I only want a tuna melt.

When I moved out of the dorms and had to learn to cook not just once in a while, for amusement, but every single night, tuna melts were one of my first regular meals. They’re delicious, tuna melts, a magical marriage of mayonnaise and meltiness, all bound together with fish.  I also add pineapple, which is apparently a controversial move.   Two years ago, I introduced tuna melts to the Austrian women on whose farm I was staying for the summer.  They liked it so much, pineapple and all, that they asked me to write down the recipe (in German!) before I left.

On this busy Monday I chose running over grocery shopping, and now I’m in a hurry and low on supper options.  Not true, I remind myself, staring into a cupboard stuffed with canned goods.  The lurking tomato soup that I don’t love, several types of pasta I can’t eat, and a fortress of canned tuna.

What I don’t have is bread.

I haven’t had bread since last fall, actually, when I gave up eating wheat products and it dramatically improved my health and well-being.  This has plenty of dour implications for the future, since two months from today I’ll be moving to a continent fed by bread and pasta, but now it’s just annoying.

The trouble with bread is that, beside tasting good, it’s just the thing we put stuff on.  Good or not, it’s a vehicle for taste, for the melting tuna that I desire.  What’s for breakfast?  French Toast.  What’s for lunch?  A sandwich.  How should I eat this butter?  On bread, of course.

Frustrated, I give up on the tuna and open the freezer to assess my other options.  And it’s then that I remember the waffles.  They are sweet and breakfasty, appropriately holey, and contain not a grain of wheat.  Within a few minutes, I’m happily settling in to a melted mountain atop a waffle foundation.

Maybe it’s a stretch to imagine that gluten-free waffles are divinely inspired, but as I ate the delicious meal, it felt like a collaboration between God and Trader Joe’s to make this evening better.  I’d never have thought to put tuna on a waffle, but it’s fine.  Better than fine.

And I’m thinking about how often gifts from God are like that.  Not necessarily what I asked for, but something I’d never have considered if it hadn’t jumped in front of me.  It’s encouraging, in this odd time of busy planning and uncertainty, to remember that the path ahead may take me to unexpected places, but that God is there, knowing what I need.  Whether it is financial provision to teach at Black Forest Academy or energy to be fully present during my last months in Seattle, I am confident that the Lord who’s brought me through so many places will continue to provide.

And that occasionally, perhaps, because God knows me, that might amount to a tuna melt on a gluten-free waffle.