Where Words Fail

What should I bake? Typically this is my first thought when planning for family gatherings, a training at work, or when the stress-o-meter edges into the red zone. When it comes what to bake many factors enter into the decision making process….the time of year, the event, who I am baking for and what I am feeling at the time. Baking is personal, very personal. It centers me, comforts me, immediately transporting me to some of my best memories.

Baking is, in itself, transformative in nature. A creative endeavor. Flour, eggs, butter, leavening. Separate ingredients, none of which are particularly spectacular or unique on their own. Combine them in just the right sequence, in the just right ratios, with an addition of an ingredient or two and the results are spectacularly different. Baking for other people allows me to share the joy baking brings.

Both Grandma Lorenz and Grandma McCaig baked when they knew family was coming over; you could count on each of them baking certain desserts. Grandma McCaig baked a fantastic cakey oatmeal cookie loaded with raisins, chunky chopped dates, and nuts that begged to be dipped in milk and were always better the next day when the cinnamon had a chance to settle in and make its presence known. Grandma Lorenz’s stand-bys were Swedish Farmer cookies or lemon bars. Both grandmothers baked a mean apple pie, each uniquely distinctive. Crust. Spices. Thickener. Fat of one kind or another. Apples. The combination of these ingredients was their signature. That in part, is what I mean when I say baking is personal. Much like one’s personality, a calling card.

What I decide to bake reflects what I am feeling, and often what I want to feel. A layer cake? Spectacular, and sometimes a bit fancy. Macarons? Triumphant, classy. Salted chocolate chip cookies? Bold, sassy. Swedish Farmer cookies? Content. And always, always, joy. When I think of a cookie, a cupcake, a slice of cake or pie I think of it as sharing that joy. A major reason why store-bought desserts hold so little appeal for me is the absence of joy. Who makes them? A machine, churned out in mass, for no one in particular. The other reason? I rarely find a store-bought cookie that can outshine one that is homemade.  Intentional or not, growing up watching my grandmothers bake and share had a lasting impact on me.

My grandma Lorenz’s baking and sharing coincided with her regularly set schedule of visiting friends and family. Some of these included Cousin Anna, who in her later years lived at The Norse Home in Ballard. Great Grandma Mary, Great Uncle Norman and Aunt Della, Great Aunt Betsy and Uncle Carl, Great Uncle Danny and Aunt Shirley, Great Uncle Jens and Aunt Opal–all in Kent. Great Aunt Anna and Uncle Neil in Des Moines. When staying with Grandma for an extended period of time I would accompany her on these visits, and more often than not this also included the delivery of cookies.

The start of our outings routinely began with Grandma going over our itinerary for the day. One of Grandma’s regular visits was to Dorothy, a former high school classmate, both graduated in 1938. The first time I accompanied Grandma to visit Dorothy, Grandma explained that her friend had been quite sad since her husband’s passing. Grandma was worried about her and thought a visit and cookies would help her feel a bit better. Grandma went on to explain that she had grown up with Dorothy.

I don’t recall anything particularly remarkable about the visit with Dorothy that particular day. But what does stand out from that day was our drive back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house after the visit. Having remarked to Grandma that Dorothy didn’t seem to be very sad, Grandma replied that her friend did a good job of covering up her sadness, that she always put on a happy face. Not quite understanding why someone would be sad for what sounded like a long time, Grandma expanded further, “We did a terrible thing to Dorothy and her family. To many families. They lost so much.” Grandma went on to explain that Dorothy’s family, like many other Japanese Americans in the Kent Valley at that time, had been farmers. Grandma further explained that during World War II the United States government decided to imprison those of Japanese descent in internment camps. Dorothy and her family were allowed to take one suitcase each and nothing more. When released from the camp Dorothy’s family farm was gone. Some families had been a bit more lucky, another farming family stepping in to take care of the farm in their absence.

When I asked why the government had placed the Japanese Americans in the camps Grandma explained that it was out of fear.  I thought back to what I had learned thus far in school, by sixth or seventh grade we certainly hadn’t covered this . Knowing that during World War II we were also at war with Germany, I asked whether or not German Americans were put in camps. I couldn’t imagine Grandpa Lorenz or my great aunts or uncles in a camp. Grandma said, “No.” When I asked her why she explained her own reasoning to this question, “People were very afraid after Pearl Harbor. When people walked down the street they were afraid of anyone who looked Japanese. But when you walked down the street you couldn’t tell by looking if someone was German. The government wanted to make people feel safe.”

Grandma said, “Dorothy had every right to be angry and mad at the world, to never forgive what was done to her and her family. But instead Dorothy and her family acted though it had never happened.” After a short pause Grandma added, “I don’t think I couldn’t done that. I always wished there had been something I could’ve done. “

In looking back at Grandma’s high school year book there were about one hundred students in Grandma’s graduating class, one fourth of her classmates were Japanese Americans. From Grandma’s account all of them were sent to interment camps.

1937 Junior Class:  Upper left, Lillian Anderson; mid-right, Dorothy Okimoto

Grandma’s visits and cookie deliveries continued on as long as she was able to drive. I don’t know if Grandma thought about her baking in the same way I think about mine. But having been the recipient of her many cookie-filled tins over the decades I do know that her cookies and baked goods always brought me joy–not merely because they tasted good, but because they spoke of Grandma, the care she took in baking them and then sharing them.

Where words fail cookies speak.

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