Of late, I’ve found that the best way to describe my working life is that I’m cobbling it together. I write and edit as a freelancer for a handful of nonprofits, assist a brilliant food-blogger-and-photographer-turned-friend once a week as she works on her first cookbook, have scored some food-related writing projects, bake several mornings a week at my neighborhood cafe and work an occasional shift there as a barista.
I must say first that I’m really grateful for all of these things; I never want to take them for granted. And I also know I’m not alone. Particularly in this economy, and certainly within the blogging community, there are a lot of people cobbling it together. I’m in pretty great company.
But this is challenging. I swear to you, notwithstanding the prettiness of my curated Instagram feed, my situation is not glamorous—though of course, I imagine yours isn’t either, despite what I might think. Some days are lovely, it’s true: I am assigned work that I’m good at, and my contribution feels meaningful and worthwhile. I bake something delicious at the cafe and get to watch someone enjoy it. But on other days, I panic about my career and my trajectory and my future, and I wonder about the desk job I left behind. Or all of my unrelated responsibilities present their demands at the same time, or I just can’t stop the whole intermingled mess of them from swirling around unceasingly in my head, and I feel like a crazy person.
It was on one of those crazy-person days several weeks ago that I arrived at the last essay in Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. It is the one that carries the name of the book, and it was my favorite, which is saying something, because I loved them all. The reader asked Cheryl, then the anonymous advice columnist for The Rumpus, what guidance she wishes she could offer to her twenty-something self. Along with a lot of other brilliant and lovely things that I needed to hear, Cheryl wrote this:
Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. …
The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours spent writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.
A life, not a career. This, my becoming. The disparate pieces matter, as it happens, every last one of them. And I need to buck up and plunge forward and calm down.
I can certainly say that without the experiences of the last months, I wouldn’t feel the freedom to develop my own recipes for baked goods. I’ve always felt able to improvise at dinnertime, and I tweaked cakes and breads like mad, but I was afraid to start with a blank sheet of paper to create. Until now.
And baking provides an excellent analogy for the lessons I’ve articulated above: Like a myriad of miscellaneous experiences and jobs and projects and pursuits, seemingly unrelated ingredients come together into a slop of batter in a bowl and enter the oven to emerge sweet and crumbling and lovely, full of jammy strawberries, complete and delicious and so much better for the process—the process of becoming—that came before.
Cut the strawberries into small pieces so that they are well distributed throughout the bread and provide plenty of wonderfully jammy pockets to stumble upon while eating. Along with the bread’s crumbly texture and crisp top, those jammy pockets were a high priority in developing this recipe. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
Makes: 1 loaf, about 10 slices
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus extra for the pan
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup white whole wheat flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
3/4 cup natural cane sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
A few gratings fresh nutmeg, or to taste
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 heaped cup sliced strawberries (cut into fourths or eighths, depending on the size of the berries), plus a few for decorating
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-5-inch tin, and line it with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours and cornmeal. Add the cane sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg, and whisk again to combine.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the melted butter, eggs, buttermilk and vanilla.
Add the wet mixture to the dry, and with a spatula, stir just until combined. Add the strawberries, mixing gently to incorporate.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Decorate with a few slices of strawberries, and sprinkle evenly with the turbinado sugar.
Bake for about 1 hour, until the loaf is golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool the bread in the pan on a wire rack for about 5 minutes before removing it to continue cooling. This loaf is best once cooled.