I started cooking around the time the trouble began. I was twelve or thirteen, spending most afternoons staggering around muddy Ohio fields smoking terrible weed out of pop cans and tinfoil pipes, the latter likely to cause Alzheimer’s—or so my friends and I cryptically muttered as we goaded one another into larger and larger rips. Later on, different friends and I would freebase coke this way and by that time the jokes wouldn’t come as often.
Concerned as I might be alienating these fellow nascent addicts with my manic laughter and inane stories (mostly lies designed to impress them), I sometimes offered to let the guys punch me. In the arms, in the stomach.
“Hard as you can,” I’d say and tense my muscles in preparation.
I’d read something about Houdini letting folks do this to him, and I figured it might make them appreciate me more. I was a feckless dork to be sure, but I could be theirs to beat, and wouldn’t they like that?
We’d film it all, of course, because that was what our heroes did on TV!
Like many bored young men of our generation, we’d been seduced by Jackass. Naturally, we loved the inventive, disgusting stunts and pranks of Knoxville and Co., but we were even wooed by the opening title card advising us not to try what we were about to see at home. It’s safe to say that at that time in my life I couldn’t imagine worshipping anything without a disclaimer or a parental warning.
And while it was painful to get hit, I was convinced it might help me belong.
Really, what else did I have to offer?
It wasn’t like I could tell the guys about my real passion. How could they understand that I was most comfortable at home in the kitchen, my hands dusty with flour? Or measuring sugar and spices over a mixing bowl?
These were tough boys, or at least they pretended to be. We were all fans of anarchy in easily-consumable forms. Punk bands, ultra-violent anti-establishment movies created by major labels and studios… these signifiers of revolt were tailor-made, it seems clear to me now, for semi-privileged suburban kids like us.
Obviously, the punch-in-the-jaw hyper-masculine ethos of Rancid and Fight Club was not an ethos that had room for elaborate swirls of frosting or chocolate fudge. Indeed, if there were cakes on Jackass, I’m sure someone gleefully blew them up.
In the kitchen, assisting my Mom and Grandma, I found a respite from this landscape of posturing and pain. With a fine array of cooking implements—including a lovely, well-worn stand mixer— I set about learning to create instead of destroy.
I helped make pizza, apple pie, and batches of stunningly beautiful Italian Easter Cookies. The cookies were a family recipe and every spring my female relatives congregated in my Grandma’s kitchen to make them. It felt wonderful to perch before a dining room table full of these edible treasures: each cookie featuring a glamorous pastel-colored egg at its center.
My favorite item to bake, however, was something far more innocuous than the egg cookies. It was the best because it was the first thing I had learned how to make… bran muffins! They were (and are) the most unassuming of baked goods.
Consisting chiefly of raisins, brown sugar, and walnuts, our muffins were deceptively simple to throw together. But like constructing anything of worth, the ritual of making them was the most important thing.
I liked filming the process, taking ownership of the camera my friends had wielded as they took turns slugging me and laughing. It was a delight to train the lens on the mixing bowl as I worked, or to pan it over the trays of muffins ready to go into the oven. In the spirit of my DIY filmmaker heroes, I might play punk music on my CD player and push the headphones right up against the camera’s speaker to create a soundtrack as I filmed. I liked to get so close that the muffin batter was almost touching the camera as a song reached its crescendo. The camera had a Fade Out button that I could hit to bring part one of the video to a close.
Meanwhile, things had begun to escalate with my friends. During a memorable New Year’s Eve party, I pretended to sleep while the guys filmed a mock episode of Steve Irwin’s famous show. The “show,” as I remember it, was mostly audio of adolescent laughter and one guy narrating in an Aussie accent as he hurled things at my pretend-sleeping body. When I think of how I didn’t speak up as this was going on, I wonder if the camera had something to do with it. The construct of a crocodile hunter TV show made the fact that boys my age were dropping, say, dumbbells on my ankles seem less, well, hellish.
As mentioned, we were of the Jackass generation, conditioned to believe that it was thrilling to film yourself engaging with disaster. It was the dawn of a new form of problematic masculinity. The Irwin scene was merely an unfortunate byproduct of our lust for filmic self-destruction. Surely, I thought, Steve-O would have let Knoxville drop things on him while he lay there prone and have the decency to keep his eyes firmly closed while it was going on?
Years later, a therapist would help me work through the psychic pain of these incidents. But before that happened, I only had the refuge of the kitchen. I enjoyed seeing the racks of often comically misshapen muffins on the cooling racks. Or to split one open and watch it steam, to taste the chewy raisins scattered inside.
To say something about how cooking saved me would be disingenuous. In fact, I stopped cooking much as I progressed through middle school into high school and my drug use escalated. The most important thing was to keep myself stoned, but I still liked making movies.
I dimly recall a cannibal film I made that included fake blood inspired by The Evil Dead. You can make the stuff at home if you like—it calls for Karo syrup and red food coloring, mixed until the desired color forms. Shouldn’t take more than a few hearty dark red drops. The only food featured in the movie was carefully diced salami which a friend munched, pretending it was his bloody flesh. Chef’s kiss indeed!
I lost touch with most of my old friends after high school. It didn’t seem reasonable to stay in touch after I moved away. We’d worn ourselves out pursuing anarchy (spoiler alert: you always end up losing to the machine no matter what you do because, from day one, you’ve been buying into its brand). I still heard reports from home now and then. One guy evidently overdosed. Another drowned. These events were gut-wrenching to learn about, but I couldn’t bring myself to go back. I was too numb and had no idea what I’d say to other survivors like me.
I didn’t truly cook again until college when I created a sort of cottage industry of weed-based foodstuffs including some unspeakably delicious cupcakes. Otherwise, I subsisted mostly on Boca burgers and hideous five-dollar pizza.
Once in a while, through the haze, I thought about the muffins I’d long ago made with my Mom. Those muffins felt like pure objects in a sea of self-loathing and rampant indulgence. Perhaps they would bring me back to a state of mind not warped by the toxic elements of my youth and early adulthood.
But what had happened to the recipe? My Mom, it turned out, had borrowed it from a friend and no longer had a copy. I waited while the friend hunted it down. A week or so later, I got a text with a slightly blurred photocopy of it, discovered in the depths of a weathered cookbook.
Like any recipe worth its salt (or brown sugar), this one was a palimpsest. Many of the ingredient measurements had been crossed out and amended by different people, judging by the handwriting. I was excited by the idea of deciphering it.
I tried my best with the measurements, as I tried my best to transcribe them below. I was nervous when the muffins became too gluey and so I added a little more milk. In the end, the muffins—as misshapen as I remembered them from childhood—were delicious.
I ate one right away with a slab of butter smeared across it. I was proud of myself so I had a stiff drink. My drinking had become a new ritual. I convinced myself that if a drink took time to make, I wasn’t an alcoholic, I was an enthusiast! So I sat around, merrily eating muffins and drinking painstakingly-made old fashioneds. It wasn’t a pure experience exactly, but nothing is ever what you dream it might be. Relief comes by degrees. Here I was, eating muffins, slugging down bourbon, feeling alive or something pretty close to it.
These days, I write for a local food magazine. I interview restauranteurs and mixologists and butchers making things like duck fat washed bourbon cocktails and chicken heart terrines. It is thrilling to hear people tell stories of how food inspired them. I still drink, probably more than I should, but the drugs are a thing of the past. I remember those glorious afternoons, gacked out, roaming the fields, with a certain ill-advised fondness. The bruises the punches left have faded now, of course, and I lost the discs containing childhood greatest hits like the Irwin incident. It’s just as well.
I don’t think holding grudges gets people very far. The best thing to do is the go out looking for beauty. Do your best to bring some into the world if you can.
I keep a tattered copy of the muffin recipe in my pocket as I sear cast iron filets or boil a lobster for a lover, as I interview food truck owners about their new braised pork belly and fried Brussels sprouts. This Easter, I’m planning on making Italian cookies with my family again. Calls have been made. Food coloring has been secured. We’re going to make it happen.
Oat Bran Muffins
In one bowl:
2 ¼ cup oat bran
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup chopped walnuts
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
In another bowl:
1 ¼ cup skim milk
2 tsp. safflower oil
2 egg whites
Mix each bowl separately, then mix them together. Line muffin tins. Bake at 425 for 15-17 minutes.