Patience is not the ability to wait, but how you act while you’re waiting.
Mark and I agreed, finally, that a loaf of home-baked bread would be a good thing for him to bring to an office-type holiday potluck. The hosts took care of meats and cheeses. Usually, Mark said, several people brought crock-pot meatballs, and others brought steaming pots of cheesy potatoes. Someone had signed up to bring a veggie pizza, another person was bringing a big tossed salad, and someone else was bringing a hot dip and chips. There was always, he sighed, such wonderful food, and so much of it.
So we decided that an apple streusel loaf would be a good thing, with a little tub of whipped-up butter; if there was leftover bread, Mark could take it back to his office for the next day’s breakfast.
The potluck was on Monday, so I set Saturday, which felt like the first full day of Christmas break, aside for baking. We got up and had a leisurely breakfast; we did the dishes and neatened up the house. Then the boyos loaded recycling baskets and bins into Mark’s car and headed off for haircuts and a tour of the Re-Store and maybe Home Depot, a visit to the recycling trailer, and the five-buck lunch at DQ.
I polished off my email and got ready to start baking.
The apple streusel bread is what I’d call a picky recipe. First, I took the butter out to soften. I peeled and cored apples; I chopped them fine and tossed them, with a couple of tablespoons of flour, into a bowl. I measured out pecans and chopped those, too. They needed to be divided: two-thirds go in the bread itself. The rest goes into the topping.
I measured out milk and added lemon juice to sour it.
I got more measuring cups and scooped out flour and sugars; I gently nudged two eggs up against the meat slicer, far from the counter’s edge. I plucked spices from their cabinet. Finally, everything was lined up neatly, just like on a cooking show, and the milk had curdled and the apple had synthesized with its flour, and it was time to cook.
It took five or six minutes to cream the butter and sugar. I cracked the eggs and beat them in. When that was fluffy, I started adding, alternately, the flour mixture and the curdled milk (How many alternations? I always wonder. The recipes never say, so I fall back on three, which seems like the perfect number; two would be abrupt. Four would have me adding pretty small amounts. But a little doubt always worms. Would the end result be better batter if I did alternate four times?)
When the batter was well mixed, I stirred in apple chunks and chopped pecans and spread it in the greased loaf pan.
Then I melted more butter (a nice, light treat, this is NOT) and mixed in cinnamon and brown sugar and more nuts and made a streusel to sprinkle over the top.
And at last, it was ready for the oven, where it would bake, long and slow, for at least 50 minutes.
While it was baking, I took my book to the chair. The fire was snapping.
I was happy to read and wait.
In 45 minutes, I started testing the bread, every five minutes or so, with a toothpick. It took a long time for the little wooden pick to emerge batter free. When the bread was finally done, I took it out and let it rest for five minutes on the cooling rack.
There was a time when I could not have waited those five minutes, when I would have had to pull that bread from the loaf pan and make sure all was unburned, perfectly formed, well baked. I have learned a little restraint over the years, and I have learned that manipulating freshly baked bread can be to manhandle and deform it.
So I listened to the recipe’s voice, and I waited the requisite time.
There was a time, too, when—if the bread hadn’t been baked as a dish to pass in the first place—I would have grabbed a hefty cleaver and whacked off a big, hot slice, unable to wait to taste it. This recipe cautions me not to do that. This recipe says to wrap the cooled loaf and let it rest a day before slicing.
This recipe wants me to be patient.
We have our traditional Christmas recipes…Italian chocolate balls (the kind with cloves and cinnamon and chocolatey glaze; I use a healthier recipe than the one that calls for a tub of pure lard, even though the flavor’s probably not quite on the mark); shortbread cut-outs; Grandma Kirst’s famous fudge. And every year we try something new to see if that unknown, cutting-edge recipe might become a keeper, too.
This fall, I kept seeing recipes for a Twix-like cookie; I downloaded one from Pinterest and showed it to the boyos. There’s a shortbread crust that we’d cut into rounds. That’s topped with melted caramel, and THAT is topped with melted chocolate.
Maybe, said Mark, we could make the shortbread in bars rather than circles…
I stocked up on the necessary ingredients, and Saturday, after the bread was cooling, I began.
If I thought the bread begged my patience, I wasn’t quite prepared for the patience needed for the Twix bar cookies. I started them early in the afternoon, softening butter once again.
When the butter was ready to play nicely with the flour and confectioner’s sugar, I put them all into the Mixmaster bowl and blended them together. I pulled the mat from the drawer, floured it, and clumped out half the shortbread dough on top. I rolled it out, and sliced it into rows, and then cut across, making approximately Twix-sized pieces. Some of the pieces, of course, were ragged and edgy.
I used the long metal flipper and arranged the cookies on a baking sheet while the oven was heating.
Then: roll out the rest of the dough and repeat.
While the cookies baked, I washed up dishes and pulled out big flat platters. As the sheets came out of the oven with their golden-brown cargo, I relayed the baked cookies to the trays.
Boyos wandered out to the kitchen, drawn by the buttery, bakery smells. I limited them to the ragged edgy pieces. They did not complain.
Let the cookies cool completely, the recipe says, and so I reluctantly found some housework to do while I waited.
Later, James and I drizzled caramel, melted slowly over a medium flame, onto the bars. And then we waited yet again for that oozey caramel to set, and then, finally, we could pour melted milk chocolate over the top.
I finished the last step of those constructed cookies at about ten on Saturday night, and then (although some people would ignore this injunction), I had to let them sit overnight so they’d be ready to eat. (DO NOT, the recipe tells me, put these cookies in the fridge. The chocolate will discolor.)
I washed up the chocolatey bowl and spoon and spreading knife, looking longingly at the cookies, but pulled patience into play. I grabbed my book and headed to bed.
Patience. Images of saintly, glowing faces, touched by beams of golden ethereal light, waiting. Those saintly folk–well, their waiting is not ragged or fragmented by furious longing. It’s serene and uncluttered, a long, slow, melting process. They do not become agitated or frustrated. They’re patient.
Their patience and my patience are very, very different.
“Do you really DO that?” I remember an old friend asking. I was reading a recipe that said I should chill the dough before baking the cookies. I might have been 25, and NO, I did not do that.
I added a little flour if the dough was too sticky, and I baked those cookies, right then.
But later, when years had passed, I discovered there was recompense in following the directions. The cookies, once made, had a better texture if chilled instead of flour-added.
And during the waiting period, I got all the mixing clean-up done. The work area, for the actual scooping and baking portion of the exercise, sparkled like a cooking show kitchen.
The act of baking wasn’t a fast endurance test; it was a progressive event, with breaks and books and visits thrown in between.
That kind of patience, I can cook with.
There are other things to cook, though, that cannot be broken into segments to be parceled out.
I have a friend, for instance, who cannot make fudge or candy—the kind where the recipe says to bring the mixture to a hard boil, and then boil for five minutes exactly, or boil until the sweet syrupy concoction reaches the hard ball stage or until it reaches a certain number of degrees Fahrenheit. My friend just cannot wait. She will turn up the heat and boil the sticky mess FASTER; she will bring a glass of cold water to the stove, drizzle syrup into it, and convince herself that the result, a soft, dissolving mush, is in reality a hard ball.
And then she’ll pour the bubbling mess into a buttered pan where it will never, ever set. (It will become, though, a delicious ice cream topping.)
And she’ll bemoan the fact. “I did exactly what the recipe said!” she’ll wail, although, no, of course, she did not.
I can hear one of my elders’ voices, smug and starched and wafering up from a stern childhood memory: You left out the most important ingredient. You left out PATIENCE.
Why does it seem so many people are in a fiery hurry to just get finished? I wonder if there’s some atavistic urging in us, sense memories from our long-ago pasts, that push against patient waiting.
I ponder, for instance, two theories I read about how dogs and humans came to be domestically intertwined. The first theory,–the one we humans like best, I think,–says that dogs began to follow tribes of man in prehistory, and that, when man left the remnants of a meaty dinner, dogs would swarm in and gnaw on the leftover meat and bones. And then they’d fight to protect their benefactors.
The other theory is just the opposite…that hungry little knots of people followed herds of dogs and grabbed up the leftovers from the DOGS’ feast. I have a shivering little picture of this, of fragile, vulnerable, pock-fleshed humans creeping out to the bone pile while the dogs snored. I see those people pinching away bones that had shreds of meat left clinging. But other carnivores may have followed that dog pack, too, so those starving people were always glancing behind, ready to scarper.
“Hurry up! Hurry UP!” I imagine them thinking. “Let’s get out of here before the big cats come back…”
An argument, for sure, for getting in there, taking care of business, and disappearing. Who CARED that the cooking process wasn’t started, much less finished? Eat and run, baby; eat and run.
If that kind of experience was true for our ancestors, it wouldn’t make for much hard-wired patience.
I had a friend once who lived in trying straits. Everything that adds up to balance in a life—love and family, job and material well-being, spirit and hope and bodily health, all those things of hers—had tatters and rends in them. She could not cut a break, could not reach a place where she could say, “Well, at least I have a warm place to stay,” because that was the week the landlord let her know the kids were moving back to town, and, so sorry, but could she be out by February?
And this dear friend would pray for patience.
And more awful things would happen, stretching the boundaries of her already taut-enough-to-snap endurance to its very, very edges.
Finally, she went to a trusted spiritual advisor and said, What the hell?
And he had her explain what she was doing and what kinds of things were happening, and when he understood the whole situation, he said to her, “Well this is easy. Stop praying for patience.”
My friend told me she sputtered and ranted. She NEEDED to learn patience she said, because all these trying things kept happening.
And her advisor begged to differ. She needed to stop asking to learn because otherwise, she’d keep getting sent opportunities for the learning to take place.
Oh, she said.
She started praying for wisdom instead, and the patience-threatening events slowed down to a manageable trickle.
And she never, she admitted freely, acquired that golden, saintly, waiting glow. She endured the things that bid her be patient; she smoked and cussed and sometimes poured herself a big glass of scotch, forget the rocks. She complained, but she got through.
My kind of patience, I’m afraid, is a lot like THAT kind, with a little more whining thrown in.
It’s good to have the value of the virtue demonstrated in sweetly tangible ways…in the delicious course of a recipe, for instance. If only I can truly embrace the metaphor: clamp my mouth shut when I’m anxious to finish someone’s sentence; take my time when a scattered driver changes his mind about turning and forges on ahead, upsetting my personal driving plans (I often wonder what’s on that person’s mind. He might just NOT be an eejit; he might have just gotten bad news, for instance, and wouldn’t I feel terrible if I added to that with a thoughtless gesture?); ignore the cranky shopper who shoves ahead of me triumphantly at the check-out. LISTEN, really listen, when someone is talking.
Let’s hope that, in human interactions, too, I have learned a little restraint over the years, learned that manipulating words and responses too quickly in relationship can be to manhandle and deform them.
But you know, I don’t always remember my own injunctions. And sometimes, I have to be patient with MYSELF.
It is a season, this Advent time, this Christmastide, with lessons in patience built in. Remember the sleepless nights of sugar plum childhood? Remember the sleepless nights of founding the feast? Remember the sleepless nights of loss and yearning?
All of them, all of those hard-to-make-it-through scenarios, are magnified in the anticipation of a special holiday.
So I bake. And I chill the dough and wait for the loaf to cool and remember that three people don’t need twelve dozen cookies; I don’t need to turn the kitchen into a frantic, frenetic, flour-dappled Keebler tree.
And, I hope that, even at this advanced age, I learn; I hope that, even if the golden light sluicing down reveals my knotted eyebrows and a grimace, I am acquiring patience, one cookie, one Christmas, and one circumstance, at a time.