For many years in graduate school I shared a large rambling six-flat, that very typical Chicago residential space that more closely resembles a multi-story bowling alley than a house. But home it was to us, the five or six women who lived there, over the years.
When we set up house, we arranged that we’d eat dinners together. We rotated cooking responsibilities every night, and we shared grocery costs. We shared a common Christian faith, and also a common prayer life. We all seemed to collect friends and often we found unplanned guests at our dinner table. Some would graduate or move on and others would find a place in our home.
Several of us remained in this arrangement for ten years, and those who left stayed connected anyway through letters, e-mails, postcards, photos, and visits. We celebrated each other’s graduations and engagements with parties, and nursed each other through failures and break-ups at Gertie’s ice cream parlor. We helped plan each other’s weddings and traveled as far as Buffalo and Vermont (though we failed to travel as far as Kazakhstan and Albania) to be there for them. But I get ahead of myself. Somehow over the years we became a family, a sisterhood, a nest, a refuge for one another.
For me it was also a school. I gaped in astonishment at the domestic savvy of my roommates back when I first met them. All of them seemed somehow to be privy to mysterious knowledge. They knew how to make soup. They knew how to mop floors. They practiced something called spring cleaning. They had actual opinions, which implied actual knowledge, about cleaning products and homemade cleaning solutions. They could even make bread. These young women struck me as just this side of magical. How had I missed all this, I wondered?
I came to graduate school the year prior fresh from a grilled-cheese-off with my little brother back in Arizona. He boasted of his, I boasted of mine, though it was an entirely empty boast, and soon we found ourselves in the kitchen, setting up a contest—an extremely typical outcome to conversations among us siblings (the contest, not the kitchen). I lost because when I flipped my sandwich in the pan all the grated cheese came flying out and immediately melted in the bottom of the skillet. Here in Chicago it was devastatingly obvious in my new living arrangement that I was missing some knowledge, some arcana, a vast set of skills as distant and unattainable as alchemy.
It was an extended, more comprehensive version of what I went through as a child standing in church. How did everyone know those words they all said together, that prayer “that Jesus taught us to pray”? I had to listen hard, overcome my embarrassment at my ignorance, and somehow make out the words. Here I was in the middle of that moment, standing, looking around in wonderment, except now it wasn’t a moment, it was my entire life, my day to day existence.
So I moved slowly, one recipe at a time, from serving canned soup and grilled cheese sandwiches made with grated cheese for dinner. My roommates were very patient and most encouraging, always cheering me on for each new edible dish. I credit their uniform graciousness and understated skill-sharing for teaching me almost everything I know about kitchens and cooking.
As we cooked and ate together over the years everyone’s styles gradually emerged. Shannon identified herself as a gourmet when I met her and regularly swung for the fence with her dinner ambitions. Marianne routinely cooked exotic fare from foreign lands she studied and visited, Russia and Central Asia. Paula was an effortless cook who could throw together soup and bread totally nonchalantly and without a recipe. Marla, Italian, brought lots of traditional family cooking to us. Julie was from a farm and cooked Midwestern farm staples. Lisa laughed about how her mother brought her and her sister to Dairy Queen for dinner when they were growing up—it was always the Peanut Buster Parfait, presumably because of all that protein. Now she tended a little more to the gourmet end of the spectrum. Anita, also Italian, cherished her ethnic traditions including homemade pasta, and favored complexity.
I myself liked easy, and as the years wore on I settled into Midwestern comfort food and Southwestern cooking. I also liked themes, spent too much time thinking about them, and liked to serve funny food. Everybody in our line of work—slogging through PhD programs at one time or another—needed a laugh now and again.
Sometimes—maybe more than sometimes—the laughs were unintentional.
Such was the case the time I made Irish soda bread.
We all regularly followed the seasons and marked holidays with our dinners. I happened to hit St. Patrick’s Day one year and brought out an Irish stew and soda bread. As was almost always the case, we had a guest—not my guest, some guy somebody knew.
When I was making this soda bread I used a kitchen tool I hope never to see again. It was merely a set of measuring spoons not calibrated in the traditional amounts, but odd, slightly-off ones. The one which looked like a teaspoon, for instance, was actually a teaspoon and a half; to measure out only a teaspoon with this one you needed to use a tiny mark nearly invisible to the naked eye down inside the spoon, well below the top edge. One might already guess, and one would be correct, that I did not see those tiny lines.
So I put in half again as much baking soda as was required for this already soda-intensive bread. Although it emerged from the oven golden and lovely in that ordinary way of bread, its effect when we ate it was quite astonishing. I was horrified to feel it exploding in my mouth just like that old candy Zots which fizzed like an erupting volcano.
Our guest, about whom the only thing I can recall is his chivalry, performed careful surgery on his toxic slice, smiled, and said earnestly, “the raisins are really quite good.” I smiled, laughed, relieved. Truly, we are saved by grace in so many ways.
Irish Soda Bread
My friend Chris Andrews makes a lovely Irish soda bread every year about this time. That's her loaf pictured up there. Her recipe is from one of my favorite cookbooks, the wonderful Fannie Farmer. The best thing about this recipe is that it contains no actual baking soda, so it is impossible to create Zots-flavored soda bread.
2 c white flour
4 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1 T sugar
3 T vegetable shortening
2/3 c milk
1/2 c raisins
1 T caraway seeds
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9 inch round cake pan. Put the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Work in the shortening with a pastry blender or two knives, then quickly stir the milk into the dough. Add the raisins and caraway seeds stirring just enough to distribute them evenly. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead about 20 times. Pat the dough into the pan and bake for 20-30 minutes. Cut into wedges to serve.
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