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Nashville Scene Cookie Monster

Getting creamed in the kitchen

By Margaret Renkl

One of the great misconceptions of homemaking is that any fool can follow a recipe. If you can read, the theory goes, you can cook.

This is not so. I can certainly read. I am, in fact, a professional sort of reader, having been awarded degrees by the English departments of two accredited universities. I have plowed my way through both Ulysses and Moby Dick, but I cannot--even given a supposedly foolproof recipe--bake a batch of cookies from scratch.

Smart as she is, Hillary Clinton probably can't do it either, a failure that no doubt accounted for her snotty little statement back in '92: "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies, but instead I chose to fulfill my profession." I recognize this strategy because I've used it myself; when you're no good at something, one way of protecting your own ego is to pretend you believe that particular form of competence to be overrated.

For years I regarded my own failings in the kitchen as evidence of spiritual superiority, in the same way that people who rise early have an inflated view of their own moral virtue. Good cooks, I thought, are dullards who lack truly important outlets for creativity. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, I secretly believed there's more value in writing a poem that no one will ever read than in preparing a satisfying meal for family or friends.

Obviously, this is a stupid opinion--and not just because cooking can be a justifiably all-absorbing act of creative self-expression. Perfectly creative people in other fields somehow find the interest and time to become competent cooks as well as brilliant practitioners of their craft. Writing the Great American Novel by day does not preclude eating well by night, I have discovered, and merely cultivating other interests does not justify being a lousy cook.

This blinding revelation notwithstanding, and despite a more enlightened view of the handiwork of my friends who are whizzes in the kitchen, I nevertheless remain a dreadful cook. I believe in the value of conversation and conviviality at mealtime, and for that reason I manage to get a hot dinner on the table for my family every night, but even the most generous-minded diner at my house would have to concede that subsistence-level fare is the best I can offer. My favorite recipe is any one in which Step 2 consists of "Add flavor packet."

With baking in particular, it's the vocabulary that stymies me. I have never been able to understand the difference between "folding" and "stirring." What is a "pinch," as opposed to a "sprinkle," of cinnamon? My electric mixer does not include a setting for "cream"; when I am instructed to cream the butter, should I assume that beating it will do? On the playground, I remember, creaming someone is tantamount to beating him up; does the same rule follow in the culinary world?

Logic of this sort is useless. The vocabulary of cooks is a secret language like that of the occult or of professional sports. The uninitiated cannot figure it out by context. You learn it at your mother's knee or not at all, and my mother is, if anything, even less enthusiastic about this sort of thing than I am. Like me, she is fond of the meal-in-a-box style of cooking, but when my siblings and I were growing up, such food kits were not as upscale as they are now and required lengthy and constant vigilance. Back then, the cook was supposed to hover over the burner, constantly stirring the mess as it congealed into something resembling food. My mother had an unfortunate way of setting something on the stove and then wandering off to pursue matters of greater fascination to her, not to think of dinner again until black smoke was billowing from the kitchen.

Thankfully, I live in an age dominated by single parents and couples who work long hours. Even the people who like to cook, who are good cooks, have no time to do so. Consequently, the major chains keep on hand a nice supply of edible alternatives to real cooking, catering to the needs of stressed-out shoppers popping in at 5:30 on the way home from picking up their kids at day care. The size of the frozen-food and beer sections at Kroger is evidence of many people's grocery-shopping priorities. Anyway, the seasoning packets in most frozen "meal-starters" is actually about as tasty as what you'd find in a family-style restaurant.

Not so, however, with ready-made baked goods. No matter how much money you're willing to spend, a store-bought cookie tastes about as much like homemade as the stuff in the blue box tastes like real macaroni and cheese. I verified this truth personally during the cookie carnival at my son's preschool. The "cookie carnivore," as my little boy consistently called it, is an evening celebration in which 100 or so wriggling preschoolers stand on bleachers in the church gym and sing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," "Jesus Loves Me," and other church-affiliated preschool perennials to an audience of videocameras, beaming parents, and desperately bored older siblings.

When the singing is over at the cookie carnival, the children spring from the bleachers to race toward tables overflowing with home-baked cookies prepared by their mothers. Several weeks before the event, every mother is supposed to send a copy of her child's favorite cookie recipe, to be included in a photocopied cookbook. Then, on the day of the carnival itself, she is expected to deliver several dozen of those cookies to share. Ever the optimist, I sent in my friend Sally's recipe for oatmeal-raisin cookies, truly my child's favorite, even though he had never eaten them at our house. By the time of the carnival, I figured, I could surely master one little cookie recipe.

I could not. I genuinely tried, but several dozen misspent eggs later, I drove to Kroger and bought the most expensive, homemade-looking oatmeal-raisin cookies I could find in the bakery; then I delivered them to my child's school. Skulking into the gym, where the tables were already heaped with sweet bars and brownies, golden chunks of butterscotch, and oily kernels of nuts, I discerned immediately that I would fool no one with my dry, crumbly, pitiful imitations of the real thing. I might as well have saved 20 bucks and settled for Oreos.

Flipping sadly through the recipe book later that night, though, I made a real discovery. That orgy of fat grams in the church gym wasn't all homemade. Like me, some other people had cheated. More than one mother had included a recipe that consisted of instructions like, "Drive to Hill's and buy a roll of Pillsbury Slice-and-Bake cookies; follow directions printed on the label."

Producing a homemade cookie, it turns out, is not as easy as Hillary Clinton pretends to think. It might, in fact, be the ultimate test of a person's powers of interpretation, of a person's problem-solving skills. Who knows, if the first lady directs her formidable intelligence toward mastering the intricacies of cookie-baking, she might in the future have an easier time with smaller matters like health-care reform.

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